At the crossroads of cultures

Deconstructing my journey to the East

Singapore from the river by cegoh in Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

ne of my early culture shock recollections dates from a visit to Singapore in the Spring of 2005. I had been shipped by a former employer to work with one of our customers in the region. Being my first time in Asia, I spent most of my spare time exploring the unique vibe of this incredible city.

Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and a hub between Eastern and Western lifestyles. With three quarters of the population being ethnic Chinese, before long I found myself chatting with locals squatting in line while waiting for the bus, business owners cheerfully chopping vegetables at the front of their shops, or the patrons dining in the hawker food stalls.

I ended up making a handful of Chinese friends, and I have to say they were incredible to me. Seeing my curiosity, they opened the door of their homes and shared their daily lives without expecting anything in return. Coming from opposite locations in the Globe, we were eager to know more about each other, so we shared stories of our daily lives, listening to each other with fascination.

Without being able to point out a specific reason, I felt like something started to change slowly inside me upon my return. I was constantly replaying the range of emotions I had went through, like the immense gratitude for the hospitality received (an integral part of Chinese culture) or the simple gestures of generosity I witnessed. I also came loaded with tangible, more haptic memories: the blazing humid weather on my skin, my sore fingers while learning to handle the chopsticks, the new smell in the air. I was under the influence of the things I saw and the people I met, from which I learned like a child.

The feeling crawling on me was a sort of dissatisfaction for having to narrow my cultural exposure to my home country, where everything was known and predictable. Initially, the explanation I gave to myself was that the itch for adventure had planted its seed on me and it was growing fast, asking for more. Or probably it was just the rebound effect of coming back to my ordinary life after having been exposed to another culture. Whatever the reason was, I forced myself to focus on my work and I started to plan my next holidays in China later that year to continue exploring.

However, as the weeks went by I felt an inexplicable inner void that daily routines could not fulfill, and many of the things that were important to me up until that point ceased to matter. I started to give intentional steps towards a definitive change, and it all eventually bursted a few months later, when I changed my job, left my country and, without knowing quite surely what I was doing, started my nomad life.

It is intriguing how the same experience can trigger various reactions on different people based on their life situation. Some people undergo a profound personal transformation attached to a spiritual opening, and while for some these changes are gradual and relatively smooth, for others they can be rapid and dramatic. At the time I didn’t know that my thirst for adventure would grow into something bigger and richer, changing the way I relate to people and conditioning each decision I have made in my life thereafter.

Overtime I learned that I was not alone: like me, many people experience a similar process, resulting in a radical shift in values and a deeper awareness of the mystical dimension of our existence. Being disarmed of better tools to explain this change on perspective, I turned into Eastern cultures as a starting point to try make sense of the deafening noise of the Western civilization I was raised in, looking for answers to that “something” that was falling short inside.

Probably it would’ve been easier to describe my spiritual awakening in modern terms which I didn’t have at the time. In recent years we have seen a massive adoption of the different flavors of the term mindfulness, which has its origins on the meditative practices of ancient inhabitants of the Buddhist India and the Taoist China. It is often overplayed, overhyped and inaccurate, used nowadays ad nauseam to make superfluous adaptations of these ancient practices to the busy lives of Westerners.

Once I moved to China, I realized how concepts like the human connections with nature and with the present moment were seamlessly embedded in the culture, so much that even Chinese would not notice them at times. It was an eye-opener discovery that greatly contributed to start putting together the pieces of my internal puzzle, helping me to stop overthinking and to go with the flow.

To fully understand Chinese culture one needs to refer to the teachings of Confucius (孔子), the man who influenced a whole civilization on the values of social harmony, humility and respect for the elderly. Thousands of years after his death, his legacy is still present in the way people live their lives and educate their children. Wealth and prosperity are changing society rapidly, but even accounting for the transformation that the country is immersed into, the cultural abyss is strikingly obvious to the naked eye.

Without being fully conscious about it, Chinese people have a deeper understanding of the energy flow of the universe and the balance of their own bodies with nature. This works like an internal compass that acts in combination with an education that promotes hard work, communal behavior and a central focus on the family, and it helps to control extreme emotions of happiness, anger or sadness, shaping a characteristic phlegmatic character.

It happens when a country opens up to the world and it gets exposed to other ways of dealing with life challenges, that many find the need for emotions to be expressed. It can bring doubts and wonders into people’s hearts, paradoxically the same nature of doubts and wonders which disturbed my peace and brought me to China in the first place.

On their exposure to Western cultures, some Chinese people embrace the freedom of expression, the more relaxed take on societal rules, and the possibility to choose the character one wants to play in life without being judged or measured against others. A conflict surges between the values engraved in their souls, and the explosion of foreign stimuli promising the new land of a more forgiving and carefree society.

As to my own process, up to this day my Chinese friends and I are frequently meeting at this crossroads of cultures in our globalized world, where Westerners look for harmony and humility as the paramount virtues upheld by the East, and the Chinese are questing after the freedom to express their true feelings without being straitjacketed by the command of balancing a relationship between Men and Society, a balancing act that they increasingly don’t feel responsible for.

It is soul lifting to learn from each other, and everyday I am walking closer to the realization that there is not a magical single truth at the end of the road, and in the mix we find the best of each civilization. As the Chinese saying goes, “求同存异” (qiú tóng cún yì): seek common ground, but recognizing each other’s differences.

Nomad. Procrastinator. Addicted to jazz, books and coffee.

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