Reflections on China: the future is . . . today

Image by 俊玮 戴 @ Flickr

I’ve been living in China for just over a month and teaching for three weeks. It feels longer, in both the good and bad way. I wouldn’t use ‘shock,’ but ‘culture jolt’ is still an everyday occurrence. It’s not so much learning something new, as it is coming to terms with it. Understanding and Acceptance are peaks apart, and crossing that valley a journey.

Accepting the local attitude about The Future and planning has been difficult. There’s a relaxed, almost devil-may-care opinion about these things. People prefer making decisions at the drop of a hat, without thought to how it may affect others.

Some things are trivial, like being invited to dinner or lunch with your coworker’s family. The most notice I’ve ever been given has been 12 hours. At the least, an hour. And I say trivial, but I speak for myself. Depending on who invites you, and their professional and personal relationship to you, there’s a chance you can offend them, despite declining an invitation given an hour prior with an, “I’m sorry, I already had plans for this afternoon that I made, like, a week ago.”

Other things carry more weight. Like having your daily class schedule changed and being informed the morning of or, sometimes, when you arrive at class. I’ve been lucky in that my classes have only ever been removed or rescheduled for a later time. I’ve never had a class dropped on me out of the blue. But that doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

It has been frustrating at times. But I’m happy for this alien experience. In some ways – if I tilt my head and look at it – I think it’s healthy: if the Chinese aren’t thinking about the future, could it be because they’re living in the present? Is this reflected in how, if and when something does ‘go wrong,’ they brush it aside rather than panicking? Do they believe there’re more important things to think about than planning dinner parties or changing work schedules ahead of time?

Back home, everything is about efficiency and deadlines, about planning and organizing. People know what they’re doing weeks, even months, from today, because it’s all jotted down in calendars and planners. Our wellbeing and accomplishments are tied to our carefully laid out plans. But oh, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, oft go awry.”

Having butt heads with this attitude, I feel like my own is changing about what to expect of the future. I’m more open to change, for better or worse, so it doesn’t surprise me (as much) if it comes. I’m rolling with the punches, so to say. And life throws punches at us all the time, wherever we are. The Chinese seem better equipped to handle it.

It’s good to think about the future. It’s good to make plans. Sometimes though, we’re so caught up in where we want to be tomorrow, we forget to appreciate where we are today.

Cheers China.

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