Does not being Chinese mean I can never understand China?

You’re not Chinese, you don’t understand Chinese culture” said Mr H.

He armed with his Cappuccino and I with my Latte. I recall it was about four minutes into this our first ever meeting, my eyes having hit upon the clock mounted on the wall behind him.  Now where have I heard that remark lots of times before? Hmm.

We were installed in the Mint Bar of Dublin‘s swish Westin and Mr.H, a tall Manchurian from the city of Dalian, was on a mission to make a big impression. Brimming with over-confidence, which a casual observer would have mistaken for cocky arrogance, he was doing his level best to convince me why I should be collaborating with him, the top dog, in a new China business venture (Yes, another iffy agent trying to make a quick monetary return from the 1000s of Liaoning students who come to Ireland each year to study English). OK, so my new 28 year old-ish acquaintance had been living in Ireland for the past nine years, and spoke English with a light Dublin brogue (an accent I couldn’t quite equate with the Trinity College Masters Degree strum I’d have expected).  I certainly don’t speak with a Hangzhou accent.

Perhaps I needed him, then again, perhaps not. Indeed.

Mr. H, I have been thinking about that remark…


I’ve been in and out of the China part of the world practically half my life, which is a friggin long time, yet the more I learn about China I realise the less I know about China. Ok, so each experience and insight has cultivated my China awareness a little bit more, but still there are thousands of doors in front of me, impatiently waiting to be opened by providence. It’s a feeling similar to a fantasy, thinking I’ve become an expert on something only to realise I’ve actually only captured a small part of the knowledge available. To think I’ve even come close to enlightenment in China, Mr H, is a delusion at best.  Yet, I try to keep in mind that my world is limited by what I know and there is always more to learn. Do you Mr. H?

Perhaps your understanding of Chinese culture helps you to close your mind so as to believe there is only one right way. That Mr. H is the kind of Big Brother ‘Party Line‘ understanding that makes people boring,mechanical and mindless.


Ah yes the Party Line, otherwise known as propaganda? Is this your culture Mr. H? Maybe what you call culture I call, for the most part, a half truth – propaganda.  Wouldn’t it be fair to say the State and Party machines in China have created the truths (that you hold to be absolute) by which your culture is defined. In other words: Propaganda?

You see I think you have this black and white opinion of us lao wai (or non-Chinese, foreigners): Because we dare to constantly challenge the half-truths you label us as misunderstanding your culture.

This is not to say that we lao wai have it right and you Chinese have it wrong.  Even in Ireland, on a daily basis, we find ourselves challenging the information we call news, which is increasingly controlled by a small number of major media tycoons pushing their own agendas. We’ll find “Irish culture” hidden between the lines, but we need to delve deep.

Oh and by the way Mr. H, I forgot to mention the small detail that you’ve only spent 19 years of your life in China. Do you understand Chinese culture?


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