In the popular imagination “Chinese Culture” is something which emcompasses those different things which are unique to China. Chinese cultural things on display at tourist sites will likely include things like silk brocade, cloisonné, jade carvings, paper cuts, calligraphy and teapots. As a Nanjing taxi driver described to me last week there are also telling habits that can be used to distinguish Chinese from others: “Americans drink coffee and Chinese drink tea.”
Of course, simple reflection on many of these stereotypical differences commonly assumed to be distinctive to China immediately demonstrate their shallowness. While silk brocade and other “Chinese items” might have been unique a century or two ago, the logistics of globalization now deliver them to consumers in any part of the world. Likewise, consumption habits that might be considered uniquely Chinese also have lost much of their value. All it takes is a quick visit to a Starbucks or any other of the many private coffee shops here in Nanjing to realize that Chinese love drinking coffee. OK, so maybe there are more tea drinkers and jade buddhas in China that there are in Boise, but that surely isn’t a difference that one can hang the hat of civilizational culture on.
I confess that I lose patience with folks who point to tea and papercuts and jade and red lanterns and dragon boats as if they are somehow imbued with a deep essence of Chineseness. After all, back in Saint Paul we have a dragon boat festival, a colleague’s spouse makes beautiful paper cuts and all kinds of Chinese trinkets can be purchased at Pier One or Cost Plus World Market. These things are hardly differences that make a difference when you can pick them up anywhere.
Of course there are differences—important ones that are worth learning about—but it takes a lot of effort to get past the trinkets and baubles and trappings, the uncritical assumptions of supposed difference, and the dead-end discussions of Americanization or Westernization. What are the differences that are actually different? What are the things that might actually signal a different way of life, of valuing the world and living in it?
Let me suggest the humble window washer that I saw outside my window yesterday may be a much more significant index of Chinese culture than all the tea in…well…bear with me.
So yesterday while trying to enjoy an overcast day indoors I glanced outside to see a man in a blazer and leather dress shoes cleaning windows on the building across the street. He was out on a two-foot wide ledge, five stories up in the air without a safety harness.
At first I it didn’t really register to me that he was actually
on the ledge
with a squeegee
and a pail,
but when it did I gasped and stared. I then reached for my camera and proceeded to watch him for a short time as he inched across the face of the building. I thought of
the slippery leather soles on his shoes,
the slippery stone,
the wind blowing a nearby flag,
and a slip that would bring certain death.
Then, I thought about culture.
I realized that what I was witnessing was truly a difference—a difference more profound than any of the mystifications, orientalizations or distractions of Chinese culture as commonly deployed.
This thing that I was observing would never occur back home. The man on the ledge could only happen in China. His clothing and occupation marked him as a working-class Chinese man, no doubt one of the millions and millions who pack factories, build products, construct buildings and provide the labor for the Chinese economy at its most fundamental level. The fact that he was five stories up washing windows without a rope speaks to a kind of risk taking in the absence of legal protections. It speaks of work that is so menial that risk to an individual’s life is of secondary importance. Or, perhaps it speaks of an individual’s daringness in the face of these things.
As I watched him wash I wondered about the differences that are really different. I was looking at one and could feel it because I eventually had to look away out of fear that I would see a man actually die. Did he just think nothing of it? Was he afraid? Was this a single occurrence or a regular part of his job. I had so many questions, but I won’t ever really know the answers because I had no way to talk with him.
Certainly yelling to him from across the street could have provided a fatal distraction.