Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Individuality" and the Chinese Lifestyle

When everyone has essentially the same lifestyle, everyone adheres to essentially the same value system. Perseverance, focus, consistency, and cool temper are the traits most prized by the Chinese as well as the traits most necessary to succeed in a standardized education system or a six-day-per-week job.

College admissions essays typically challenge students to reveal their values, and nearly all Chinese students choose these four same words to describe themselves at their best (an exception is the word "passion," which is usually meant in the sense of "the passion to keep working"). The reasons they give are the same, as well: these are the traits that enable a student to succeed on standardized tests, to remain in the education system, and to earn a job that will permit them to continue surviving. If they're lucky, theses traits might even earn them a ticket out of the country.

Among the workforce, vacation is comparatively rare and living is comparatively inconvenient, conspiring to make personal hobbies difficult to pursue even when income allows. A typical Chinese may spend six days a week working, two hours a day on public transport, and the seventh day doing housework. After deducting personal time spent taking meals with family, there is very little time left to be an "individual"-- to become an expert on an obscure topic, to develop a unique skill, or to produce a creative work. Cultivating individuality takes time; particularly time alone or with a purpose-driven community, but this time simply doesn't exist for most Chinese.

Whether aversion to individualism and preference for the current order preceded or caused the current state of affairs is debatable, but at any rate, a typical Chinese couldn't find the time to be an "individual" even if they wanted to.

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