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a cultural map of the world
singapore sunset
amw
On one of my wiki jaunts of the last week i stumbled upon a fascinating chart called the Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world. It plots several countries against two axes based on their residents' responses to a survey exploring cultural values. The wiki page is worth a read, but the short description is that the axes are survival/self-expression (left/right) and secular-rational/traditional (up/down).

One fun thing to do is follow countries along their parallel to see which countries they match in one aspect but not the other. If you are an international relations nerd like me, it seems to shed light on the reason why some very different countries get along: by keeping their dialog along the parallel.

Yesterday at lunch the noodle place was empty.

This weekend it's 中秋节 - Mid-Autumn Festival, aka Mooncake Day. Last year it coincided with the National Day golden week, so Shenzhen completely cleared out. This year it's an orphan, but even still it feels like a good bunch of people are taking the opportunity to head out of town.

So, the noodle place was empty and i ended up having a chat with one of the women who works there. I choose to eat at mom'n'pop joints because i like it when my money goes direct to the 老板 (boss), but it also means i see the same people every day and build up a relationship. This day the worker sat down with me and asked me when i was going "home".

That's a very common topic in China. Where are you from, and when are you going back there? We all know my struggles with answering both of those questions, because i am not "from" anywhere in particular and i have spent my whole life not really knowing where i am going to go next. But instead of my vague answer shutting down the conversation like it usually does, we started talking about visas.

I explained that the visa i am on is a working visa that is renewed yearly, and it's not unusual for people in my situation to live and work in China for several years. I'm not on some kind of gap year where i zip through to teach English for a semester and then head off to the next country on my list. I also explained that if i switch jobs i would need to reapply, so the visa encourages me to stick to one job in ways that a green card would not. (Side note: 绿卡 or "green card" is used in Chinese as a generic term for permanent residence.)

We talked about how much the visa cost and how long i had to wait to get it arranged. I moaned about all the paperwork, which is something every person in China can commiserate over. She asked me if other countries were the same, and she was surprised to hear that yes, they are. I think she assumed moving elsewhere might be less complicated but more expensive. Actually all over the world it's not so much the fees as the bureaucracy that will wear you down. Immigration is universally a giant fucking ass-pain.

Her questioning was angling toward how difficult it would be for someone like her to make their way overseas. I think if your only background is working in a restaurant, that avenue is pretty much closed. There are laborers in Asia and Africa working Chinese-run construction projects and providing support services, but i think if you want to migrate to North America or Europe you need to be rich. Theoretically skill-based immigration policy emphasizes education over money, but since a decent education costs money in the first place, the reality is that skill-based migrants will already be comfortably in the upper/middle class.

Her colleague and 老板 was more direct. She asked me why i would bother going through all the 麻烦 (hassle) of coming to work in China when the same job in Canada would most assuredly earn me more money. She is right. Even though the cost of living in Canada is much higher, i could probably build a sizable nest egg much faster than here. But - i explained - i would not enjoy my life as much. To me the experience is worth more than the money. She told me she had a completely different view: she would take a job anywhere if it offered more money.

I suspect that's a common view held by people living in poverty. "Any place is better, starting from zero got nothing to lose..." It's nice to have a roof that doesn't leak and a gas stove to cook on and shoes with soles and the freedom to get out of the city over a long weekend. But once you have your shelter and food and clothing and a modest entertainment budget? Well, to me it doesn't get much better whether your remaining surplus is $20 or $2000. To me, the only point of difference comes after you quit: a larger surplus allows you to live free of work for a bit longer. But very few people i meet - poor or not - care about sabbaticals. They don't want more surplus so they can NOT work, they want more surplus so they can buy nicer stuff while living essentially the same lifestyle they did when they were earning less. That seems like such a waste to me.

Trying to explain the nuance of this is beyond my level of lunch-break Chinese so i just said that 经验 (lived experience) was more important to me than 有钱 (wealth). But maybe i should have said that it was more important to me than 财产 (property), because most people with my salary are considered 有钱 by default, whereas amassing 财产 is a conscious lifestyle choice. I did say that i wish i could retire early, not like my parents who are only just now thinking about it. She said that 60 seemed like the right age to retire, rich or not.

I figure if i am going to have to work till i am 60 anyways, i might as well do it around the world.

One of the reasons i enjoy living in different countries is because i like trying to understand people on a societal level. I am not a fan of making generalizations about ethnicity because pretty much everyone in the world shares the same fundamental human characteristics, but societies do tend to develop a shared culture. It fascinates me how small differences in the value system of individuals can ripple out to create a sense of group identity and influence that group's place in the world.

That's why this Inglehart–Welzel map is so interesting to me.

Looking at the countries i have lived in, a lot of them are in the top-right - proudly secular and strongly supportive of self-expression. I think it's no accident that in those countries i felt like i could really flourish. They don't emphasize God, family or country. You can just do you, whatever that is.

The other cluster i have spent a lot of time in is the British diaspora, which still values self-expression but is substantially more traditional. I never really considered it before, but the underlying religiosity is something i found quite oppressive in the colonies.

America is the worst culprit for me. It's perhaps not so apparent when you live there, but when you leave and come back the sheer number of churches and other po-faced religious encroachments onto the public space is a bit disconcerting. I remember my German colleagues being shocked at how openly religious people were compared to back home. Those traditional values then bubble up to the national stage, where politicians face organized resistance to sex education, reproductive rights and scientific research - stuff that in countries closer to the top of the map is a non-issue.

China is the first country i have spent a significant amount of time in that is on the left-hand side of the map. They call that hemisphere survival-oriented. That explains the exchange i had with the 老板 at the noodle place - i said that i valued life experience over money, but perhaps what she was hearing was that i value life experience over security. Which is also true. I'd rather die penniless and free than build a miserly castle. To me it seems that if too many people in society place their personal survival (and in particular their financial security) über alles, it will inevitably lead to a society hobbled by fraud and corruption. Which China is.

I wonder if the graph also helps to illuminate why in China it's not considered especially controversial to be clamping down hard on Muslims. Recent news has also featured the busts of several underground Christian churches and the exposure of a major Buddhist leader as a sexual predator, all to the surprise and alarm of largely no-one. In countries that strongly value self-expression, freedom of religion is considered as important as any other personal freedom. In countries that are very traditional, attacking religion is prima facie not okay. But in countries that value survival over self-expression and rationality over tradition, suppressing movements that are backward, fraudulent and occasionally abusive does not feel like such an outrage.

I am definitely finding the older i get, the less patience i have for tradition. I get that religion and other superstitions provide great comfort to some people and i wouldn't want to deprive them of that, but i resent when those traditions get in the way of building a modern society. In this sense, i am right in line with the CPC. I would rather live in a country where religious people are forced to keep their beliefs out of the public space than live in a country where secular people are forced to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion.

Although it's also possible that just being here has led my core values to drift in ways that if i wasn't under the velvet jackboot they wouldn't have. Certainly i am under no illusion that i am immune to propaganda. I trust i will never become a CPC bootlicker (i have a whole rant about laowai bootlickers i should unleash some time), but i do wonder how malleable my values are.

I dunno. This is all just another reason why i think it's interesting to be here. It's a gonzo approach to understanding the world, i guess. Just go out there and live it for a while. That's one area where it does seem i am different to many of my fellow Shenzheners: i'm just here to see what i can see. That's enough for me.

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Earning enough NOT to work. Yes, I can see your point but family obligations tend to take away that option regardless of income. A high earner with a family may like the idea of a sabbatical but they are more likely to be committed also to a high expenditure on house and family, and to staying in a particular (expensive) locality. A single person, even a fairly low earner (such as a nurse) can stop and start with ease, as long as they remain in demand. I suppose that family also factors in to the 'survival' oriented mindset. It's not necessarily making money for oneself but much greater obligation to make it to help extended family too. As my Filipino colleagues have pointed out to me, if your relative is in intensive care in their country and they can't pay the bill, the hospital will turn off the ventilator and let them die. 'Lived experience' takes a back seat under those emotional pressures.

This is a good point - wanting to protect your kids is a fairly universal human drive. People with dependents cannot afford to be blasé as someone like me when it comes to weighing up survival vs self-expression. But I also think the traditional vs secular-rational axis comes into play here, because it is more of a traditional value to emphasize family in the first place. Perhaps people who are less traditional care less about the fates of their family members? Or perhaps people who are more traditional less frequently choose to live child-free?

I have had this discussion with my mother (Dutch) who holds notably different values from my father (British colonial): my mother expected us to move out after high school and go live our own lives, whereas my father still laments that my sister and i do not care about extended family the way he does. Similarly, in societies where family is not considered as important, someone like me might be considered a free spirit, whereas in more conservative societies i may be seen as a spinster or even a bad influence.

I guess the main thing is that the map doesn't try to show absolutes so much as degrees. From the World Values Survey website:

"Hundreds of millions of people visit the same websites, watch the same TV channels and laugh at the same jokes. These examples have contributed to the belief that globalization brings converging values, or a McDonaldization of the world. In fact, analysis of data from the World Values Survey demonstrate that mass values have not been converging over the past three decades. Norms concerning marriage, family, gender and sexual orientation show dramatic changes but virtually all advanced industrial societies have been moving in the same direction, at roughly similar speeds."

So it's less about saying one country has a specific monolithic view on family, or religion, or money, or whatever... and more about showing that values tend to consistently differ from one country to another in statistically interesting ways.

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