Sunday, January 12, 2014

I hear Chinese don't party, right?

For those of you who have not heard of Channel C, let me provide a brief description. Three Chinese women from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (now all recent graduates) began creating videos trying to address bridge the cultural gap between Chinese and American students. (The team currently have five members, according to their website.) They describe their purpose as follows:

In these videos, we attempt to demystify Chinese students, promote bilateral understanding, and provide an honest, diverse and vernacular perspective on China and Chinese international students, so that Chinese students and domestic students are able to carry out  in-depth conversations in and out of the classroom. (Channel C)
The videos being produced are really quite informative. You should take a look. Today I want to discuss one video in particular: Why Chinese Students Don't Party?! For background, you may want to watch the video first.

What I found interesting about the video is what it didn't say. There was a great discussion of why Chinese find parties in the US difficult: not knowing what to do, valuing academics a bit more, etc. What was not said was why Chinese don't know what to do at parties. I assume this may be due to the fact that the participants are Chinese and already know their background, so they don't touch on the subject.

From my experience, there are essentially three kinds of party experiences in China: dinner, KTV, and "parties".

Dinner could be had in a restaurant or at home. After eating in a restaurant (around a large round table), people will likely go their separate ways, go for a walk, or go to KTV. If at a home, people with likely make food together, eat together for quite some time, and then clean up together.

For the uninitiated, KTV is karaoke. Chinese-style karaoke means reserving a room and singing with friends (or those you hope will be friends). Usually there are snacks. Often alcohol is involved. It's about laughing with each other and giving each other a show. (KTV bars also have a reputations for being fronts for prostitution, but most are legitimate.)

Why do I use the so-called quotations? Because these are not usually parties in the sense of a US party, which is why there is the disconnect between Chinese and US partygoers. A formal party (i.e. for a club, a department, an office, etc.) is what we in the US would call a variety show. There will be an MC. There will be singing acts. There will be dancing acts. There will be dramas. Participants will have practiced, some of them for weeks. It is not uncommon for everyone attending the party to be involved with the production in one way or another.

At an informal party (i.e. at someone's home or dorm room) the host will likely have prepared games for people to play. Often people will be encouraged to give performances. Sometimes performances are the punishments for losing the games.

Summary and suggestions
In these three contexts, one thing holds constant: activity. Yes, people will chat with each other but within the context of shared activity (ritual). Yes, there is room for spontaneity but within a planned context. Now do you understand why Chinese students may feel lost and unsure of themselves at a typical college party? Drinking and talking... Where's the activity?

What can hosts do to help Chinese students feel more comfortable socializing in the US?

First, understand where they are coming from and why they might be uncomfortable. The video and this post should help.

Second, an invitation is not enough. The students need coaching. They need help. It's a completely new kind of social experience. Most Chinese students want to participate. They want to make new friends and experience social life in the US. They generally don't have the cultural background to do so without help.

Third, make introductions. Remember, Chinese social situations are more formalized (ritual) than in the US. Making introductions is a great way to help them break the ice and feel included.

For those of you who are Chinese or have experiences with Chinese, what would you add? What suggestions do you have?

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