Those of us who work for Fortune 500 companies all have had to sit through a number of diversity meetings. These are usually run by HR and are designed to help all of us understand that having people with diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking are beneficial to teams. But being in China has helped me to really think through what the concept of diversity is and understand the differences between China and the US.
Both China and Japan are rather homogeneous societies. I remember reading a statistic that showed that over 97% of people in Japan are Japanese. Both of those countries even have words for non-native people. Gaijin - Japanese and Laowai - Chinese. Now both of these technically mean "foreigner", but they can also have a certain negative connotation to them as well. We use the word foreigner in the US, but it is always considered rude to use that to describe someone. I am sure that there are probably more negative words used in China, but I am ignorant of them, thus far.
As an icebreaker in meetings, I always say that I am not from China. It is somewhat funny because it is so obvious. But, you could not use that in the States. My Spanish friend, Carlos, used to do the same thing - in his Spanish accent, he'd say he was from Kentucky, but the joke never really worked well. Somebody who “looks Chinese” could very easily have been born in America. My boss told me a story of when she was in NYC and she was asked for ID at a bar; it stunned her. I told her that the bartender didn’t know that she was not a native because there are so many people in the US who come from different ethnic backgrounds.
I think that is one thing that makes America really great. We have many people from all corners of the world who are “American.” If you think about why people immigrate, it is generally for economic opportunities. That is why so many people from developing countries come to the West. They are trying to make their lives better through more economic opportunities. And now, you are seeing the reverse with Westerners moving to China.
However, it is one thing to move and quite another to assimilate. My old boss in the States is British and related to me that one of the challenges in Europe, specifically England, is that people immigrate, but yet they don’t assimilate. I don’t know if this is by choice or if the society doesn’t allow them, but generally in Europe, foreign born people will stay in their own enclaves. It reminds me of the ex-pat bubble I live in. I have found that when I can get out of that bubble, my life and my experiences are much richer and more enjoyable. Yes, they are uncomfortable because they are different, but that is part of the experience.
The same boss compared this to Canada where they have done a wonderful job of assimilating people born in foreign countries. You generally don’t hear someone in Canada say that they are a Pakistani Canadian. These folks will say that they are Canadian but they were born in Pakistan.
I miss the melting pot that is the United States. Robert Heinlen wrote an interesting book in the 70’s called Stranger in a Strange Land. Though it was science fiction, I always liked that title. I have grown to appreciate that in countries like the US and Canada, you can become native. If you master the language and the culture, people will begin to welcome you as one of them.
But, I will never be able to do that in China. No matter how well I can speak Chinese, I will always be a laowai.
Ok - fun observation. China uses the 24-hour clock. For my American friends, that means that 1 pm is really 13:00. I never really thought about this until at a restaurant today (another nasty experience with jellyfish and a fish with the head still on it), the old clock in the corner chimed 13 times. I wonder if clock makers have to make modifications for US clocks or if they chime 13 times but I never really noticed it.