Tag // xi’an

Understanding China: Individuality VS. Unity in Chinese Culture

Chinese culture is so completely different from Western culture

We’ve have traveled China for two months. The first couple of weeks were, although great fun, quite difficult and different. Chinese culture and people are so completely different from what we know that it seems impossible to ever fully understand what’s going on. Traveling in China leaves you feeling bipolar. One minute you absolutely love it, the next you hate it and want to see the whole country burn. I’m still not sure if I liked China or not.

When we were in Xi’an I picked up a copy of Xianease where Jennifer Yip wrote this article. Reading this made me understand a little more about the Chinese culture and why they do like they do. Jennifer wrote some more articles about understanding China and Chinese culture. You can find them on the Xianease website, just look for ‘Perspective’. We’ve got her permission to post it here.

Perspective: Individuality VS unity

Over the summer, several things happened. Most importantly, the Olympics were held for 16 days. Of course, everyone had Olympic fever during that period.
I taught summer intensive classes over the long break. In the teacher’s lounge at the language training school where I worked, the Chinese teachers there would often discuss the Olympic competitions from the night before. One teacher expressed how she thought the Chinese athletes took the competitions a lot more seriously, were a lot more anxious about the Olympics compared to their counterparts, and gave themselves more pressure to succeed and to win medals. Another teacher said her husband cried when he watched Chinese sprinter, Liu Xiang, fall over a hurdle and suffered an injury. When I heard that, I thought, “Cry? Isn’t that a bit extreme, even for watching the Olympics?”

I did not understand nor could I relate to the Chinese people’s emotional reaction to the athletes at the time. So I asked the resident expert in my household, my husband, about the mentality of the Chinese as related to this topic. He explained, “You know with the Chinese people, we always think and operate as a unit, not as an individual like westerners. For example, when Chinese people identify themselves, they always tell you their surname first, then given name. This is to explain which family they belong to, i.e., which group they are part of. Whereas, when you introduce yourself to someone, you always say, “Hello, I’m Jennifer Yip.” You say it that way because you are Western. That is based on individualism. You always tell the others exactly who you are, based on your given name first, not your family name.

If we look at the way the Chinese write addresses, we can also see how they view themselves as a unit. For example, when you mail something at the post office here, the address that you write in Chinese, for the sender’s and recipient’s addresses, always starts with the country first (e.g. China, province, city, street name, number of street). This method of writing an address is indicative of Chinese culture, i.e., you identify which country you are from first, not which street you live on first. Again, this is based on the mentality of belonging to a group. For westerners, it is the complete opposite. You list the number and street name first in the address.”

Now based on the perspective of belonging to a unit or a group, I can understand the Chinese people’s emotional reaction to their countrymen and women’s Olympic performances and why the Chinese athletes gave themselves more pressure to win. For them, it is like putting the weight of the entire country on their shoulders.

As a foreign teacher at the university where I work, I’ve noticed the prominent theme of belonging to a unit or operating as a group from my students as well. When the students talk about their plans after graduation, they always speak in the same fashion. They always include something about “When I enter society…” For the young adults at the university, they already know their role, i.e., they will become a part of the massive society in China. Many of them will obey their parents’ wishes and do what their parents ask them to do, even if it means sacrificing their own dreams and not being truly happy.

Even a few of my students said to me last semester, “Individualism would not work in Chinese society. There would be too many conflicts, too many people in one group who want different things.” Decisions are made based on the consensus of a unit here, such as your parents and/or grandparents, your team members, etc.

Even in the summer intensive classes that I taught in, conforming to a group or to group standards was prominent in the way the kids (between the ages of 8 to 16) played team games. For example, when we played jenga, a team member rarely pulled out a piece just based on his or her own decision. The student always waited for the advice of his or her team mates and listened to them carefully before making a move. The students were reluctant to act on their own. Whereas, if I were playing jenga with my friends, we’d pull out a piece any way that we’d like without caring much of what our team members say or advise us to do. That’s because for westerners we are accustomed to making decisions based on individual thinking, not conforming to please the entire group.

Taking the entire group into consideration is admirable. Or does it not mean you are not able to think for yourself? Acting on something just based on your own wishes may be selfish. Or is it? These are some of the differences between individuality vs. unity.

The Best Place to Eat in China: Xi’an Muslim Quarter

xian muslim quarter

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I should make a statement here about how much I love food, but it seems a bit inane since everybody loves food. I’ve never met anyone that said to me: ‘You know what Nick, I really hate food, I hate eating, I’d rather sew my mouth shut and never eat again’. So I’m not going to tell you how much I like food, and I’m not going to tell you that if you love food as much as me, you should go to Xi’an.

The Muslim Quarter

Most people go to Xi’an as a transport hub to visit the Terracotta Army, but Xi’an has so much to offer.

The Muslim Quarter is home to the majority of Chinese Muslims living in China today. It’s full of tiny alleyways, mosques, markets and street vendors. There are so many impressive sights, sounds, smells and flavors in the Muslim Quarter, we spent days and days there to take it all in, but the food was the thing that made us come back every day.

The markets of the Muslim Quarter

The main market most tourists stumble over when they first enter the Muslim Quarter behind Xi’an’s Drum Tower. You can buy everything the Muslim Quarter has to offer right there on the first street, but what would be the fun in that. We love to explore and that’s what we did.

The main market is huge, spanning over dozens of streets. The food you can have there is so amazing, we’re still dreaming about it. One of our favorites was fried tortilla-like pancakes, stuffed with veggies, meat or mushroom. So good, I can’t even describe it to you. I can show you some pictures though.

We arrived in Xi’an during Golden Week, which we have talked about in length before. Traveling during Golden Week is hellish, and it was very busy in Xi’an that week. I’m not sure if that was necessarily a bad thing though. It did help the vendors get rid of their wares, and thus made sure you always got fresh food. It never had a chance to lay there for more than a few minutes, which made all the great food even better.

One of the things that still visits our sweetest dreams is an amazing kind of candy/pastry they sold. I contacted an expat blogger from Xi’an to find out what it’s called and loosely translated the Chinese call it ‘Walnut Flaky Food’ (核桃酥) or ‘Peanut Flaky Food’ (花生酥). It was amazing. I was speechless for over a minute the first time I tried it, and I’ve eaten a lot of the stuff after that first time. I never grew tired of it. It’s best described as a kind of puff pastry, but instead of dough, built up out of layers of crispy caramelized sugar, laced with nuts. We tried to send a box home for my dad’s birthday, as I was sure he’d love it as much as I did, but sadly the Chinese Post wouldn’t let us send food. I have grand plans involving containers full of the stuff shipped home.

We were also amazed by the amount of dried fruit, walnuts, dates, jujubes and other stuff. It all looked and tasted amazing. The beautiful look of all the dried fruits added so much to the experience. The sheer amount of quail eggs being sold is incredible. Those things are a luxury item in the Netherlands, so it was very surprising to see them in such abundance at a Chinese street market. They sold the quail eggs fried, five on a stick, with a peanut sauce. Delicious!

Have you visited Xi’an? How did you like the food?


Amazing food at the Muslim quarter in Xian

The amazing food at the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an is unlike any other. The Street food in Xi’an is the best food we’ve had so far! One of Xi’an’s nicest neighborhoods is the Muslim Quarter. The food in this part of town is a surprising mix of Chinese and Arabic influences. The melting pot of cultures and the rich history of the Muslim Quarter create an extraordinary atmosphere.

Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, it has been the capital at some point and it was the eastern starting point of the Silk Road. It was absolutely our favorite place in Xi’an. We have explored all of its streets and we became regulars at some stalls. Will we find something like this again? We wonder and hope.