Culture Shock in Singapore: The Chinese…

Chinese Language School

Chinese Language School (Photo credit: oso)

Bhagavad gita english

Bhagavad gita english (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    • Since about fifteen days I have been exchanging comments and replies with a quite extraordinary someone from Singapore who knew everything about the writings of Sri Aurobindo and Mother, it was a real pleasure to discuss with him, on issues related to one of my older posts he had started commenting upon, revealing interests far above normal. His English was far above normal as well, and so were the topics we kept touching upon afterwards. Even his name, ‘Jared’, happened to be interesting to me, because it was the first time I was encountering that name in a real person, just after encountering it for the first time too, but as the name of a very sympathetic character in a great film I had recently watched. The character by that name was a white young man in America some time in the Future, part of a mixed group of human beings having to hide from enemies.

      Quite naturally, as the only Jared I had yet met, and only online at that  – which means, without meeting him physically – all the while during our lengthy exchanges I imagined him after the character wearing the same name: about the same age and looking more or less the same too. While discussing also that name, ‘Jared’, I ended up asking him whether he was British or American, and he answered my question.

      Down below you will find my own reply to his answer, and the rest of the exchange that followed:

      “Now about your name, and origin: it was so funny for me to learn that you are actually a CHINESE Singaporean!!! This is why:
      In 1991, for my first trip to the USA, I took Singapore Airlines, and of course then stopped in Singapore. I even stayed for a few days, thanks to the invitation of a British lady, disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, who was still living there. Besides staying at her home I went excitedly out also with the intention of doing some shopping, particularly in that very famous big tower kind of building which is one of the hot spots in Singapore. I assumed Singapore to be mostly populated by white settlers, predominantly British like the lady kindly receiving me. Once in the streets, imagine my surprise to find myself in a Singapore actually full of Chinese absolutely everywhere, and in such big numbers that I started to feel at first vaguely and then more and more intensely scared!…
      Having grown up in the then French part of Africa, I am quite used to people from there; they do have a different appearance than the regular French people, but anyway my own family, coming from the French West Indies, has African blood too, which doesn’t show much in my own case, but each individual there comes out a unique mix, sometimes as Black as those Africans who are Black. So I didn’t mind at all the Africans, I lived among them, studied with them, and didn’t see them as strangers at all, all the more because everyone was speaking French and the French culture, type of education etc, were all very reassuringly French.
      Even when I came to live in India, Pondicherry too was at the time still a bit French, the people in this area even look a bit like some of the people in my family or generally from Martinique like us, I didn’t get too much of a culture shock, I was still to some extent on familiar ground.
      But the Chinese!!!
      Even in Auroville, we had only a few Japanese, no Chinese at all; and the Coreans in 1991 had not started arriving yet, so I had never had any exposure to anything Chinese or coming close to that.
      Except for the English language at least spoken everywhere, and the Western style of dress most everyone was wearing, I suddenly felt alone in an alien and not especially welcoming world.
      I knew about Hong-Kong, and would have been prepared there. But the sheer surprise of finding so many Chinese people in the still mostly British Singapore I had expected gave me the eerie feeling that the Chinese had appeared there kind of overnight, in a silent, discrete and all the more threatening invasion of the place,.. ! And the next thought appearing in my mind was, Singapore is so close to India they could as well appear there one fine day just in the same way!!!
      There was no rationality in my panicky feeling, I was fully aware of that, yet it became so strong, so overwhelming, that I had soon to retreat, as quickly as I could find the way again, back to my hostess’ house, where I felt immediately more secure.
      My memory of that encounter with the massive Chinese presence in Singapore being what I just described, you will understand that for me it is a fantastic Divine Joke that since a few days, without suspecting that in the least, I have come in contact in such a spontaneously deep and friendly manner with precisely a Chinese Singaporean!… :-D
      How wonderful.

      Reply

  1. Jared
    Nov 21, 2013 @ 14:28:17 [Edit]

    Hi Bhaga,

    Thanks again for your candid sharing. I guess your attitude towards the Chinese might mirror the complex and ambivalent attitude that the Mother herself had.

    On the one hand, there was the time where she told a Western missionary that the Chinese had discovered a way to God long before the birth of Christianity – and certainly did not need the West (or him) to show it to them. In scattered references, I believe she also mentioned how the Chinese are very intelligent, and have reached the apex in the development of the mind (meaning the intellect, I am sure) and even that no one could understand Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy better than the Chinese (?). Certainly, the Mother had high regard for Xu Fancheng (Chinese: 徐梵澄) an early Chinese disciple in the Ashram. She described him as “… a scholar who is at once an artist and a yogi.” Indeed, an online source tells us that: “Xu Fancheng is a master of classical Chinese poetry, calligraphy, sculpture, and painting, had also mastered 8 ancient and modern languages, and was a great scholar of Chinese, Western, and Indian cultures. For 33 years, Xu Fancheng led a peaceful, humble life in India. He studied and translated classical and modern Indian texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, 50 verses of the Upanishads and the major works of Sri Aurobindo, including The Life Divine, and The Mother, who was a close personal friend.”

    (http://auromere.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/xu-fancheng-徐梵澄-a-chinese-disciple-of-sri-aurobindo-and-the-mother/)

    On the other hand, she mentioned that the Chinese are spiritually cold and unreceptive. In some remarks in the Agenda, she also mentioned the lunar origin of the Chinese (???) and even that the Chinese in general do not have a psychic being. The latter shocking statement might possibly mean that most Chinese are not sufficiently evolved to have a strong and individualised psychic presence, though the psychic presence in its original form is of course found in all matter, while all human beings should at least have some beginning of an individualised psychic. Perhaps the ambiguous nature of the remark is a result of its translation from French into English, as I am not sure how we can take it literally (since it will possibly imply that the Chinese, or 1/6 of humanity, are not really human). Of course, in the Agenda, soon after the Chinese victory over India in Sino-Indian war, she also mentioned a vision of the possibility of a Chinese invasion all the way to Pondicherry.

    On my part, I would think that the puzzling final remarks aside, what the Mother said certainly appears to be true. The Chinese in general are not distinguished by high spirituality. Compared to spiritual powerhouses like Israel or India, China has been predominantly (though far from exclusively) secular and humanistic. For instance, China, with all its immense size and extraordinarily long history, has produced only one native religion, Taoism – and even that is not a “universal world religion” like Buddhism or Christianity that attempts to “democratise” a fundamental spiritual core.

    At the same time, no other culture in the world (other than perhaps the Jewish) has such respect for scholarship or intellectual achievement. China is after all the inventor of the national examinations, which in its ideal form, was used to select men of intellectual and ethical attainments to form the ruling Confucian elite. Even today, Far Eastern and Chinese-influenced cultures all focus intensely on educational attainment and achievement. For instance, if you examine international assessments of mathematics and science like TIMMS and PISA, Chinese-dominated regions like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and Confucian-influenced countries like Korea or Japan, basically dominate the top ranks. E.g. for TIMMS (2011), the first five nations in mathematical achievement for 4th grade students were Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. For PISA Science, the top 6 countries were Shanghai (China), Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea. Of course, exam results are hardly the equivalence of culture, but they do demonstrate a nation’s focus on intellectual achievement – which is after all the base of a wider mental culture.

    China has also been home to an immense and prolonged flourishing of arts of all kinds, poetry
    (probably above all), calligraphy, music, metal-working, porcelain-making, sculpture, architecture etc. I remember a 7000-year-old jade carving I once saw in a museum in Shanghai. Besides the exquisite skill that the artist exhibited at such an early period, what struck me was how that carving looked so quintessentially Chinese. There seem to be a long and extraordinarily continuous artistic tradition stretching from the remotest time all the way to the present, with very high achievements at early dates (e.g. the Shang bronze works of about 3000-4000 years ago). Technology and the practical arts also flourished – with gunpowder, paper, the printing press, paper money and the magnetic compass among many others being first invented in China. Today’s China is the “factory of the world”, but without exaggeration, Chinese metallurgical technology was literally thousands of years ahead of Europe’s for a long time, with cast iron and blast furnaces in place 2400 years ago (Britain only made cast iron in the 14th century). Its vast metal-working industries dwarfed Europe’s and probably the rest of the world for the longest time.

    Indeed, I would think there was a very good chance Song-dynasty China could have entered into the industrial age almost a thousand years earlier than England if not for the fact that China had a huge population and no need for labour-saving machines!

    Thus, there is no doubt that if India is the land of the Spirit, China is basically the land of the Mind – with a lively and many-sided mental culture that had gone on for many thousands of years. An interesting online article that linked the technical and economic accomplishments of ancient China with its humanistic philosophies is found in:

    http://east_west_dialogue.tripod.com/id1.html

    Having said that, for the earliest few thousand years of Chinese history (inclusive of the Neolithic ages), China was basically a shamanic culture, with a strong sense of the occult. Most of the exquisite jade or bronze objects left behind from the earliest times served shamanic uses, and the earliest known Chinese writing was used by Shamans, who may even have been the earliest Chinese Kings. The earliest surviving Chinese text, the “I-Ching”, the Book of Changes, is a mystic and occult text still used today for divination. The only native Chinese religion, Taoism, is clearly a shamanic religion evolved into more “modern” guise. This ancient layer of the occult traditions (not really spiritual, probably) was submerged by the prolonged and enormous development of Reason that turned China into quite a different country. Nevertheless, the ancient layer of occultism persisted through Taoism and later, Chinese Buddhism.

    Finally, a dark side of the Chinese focus on intellectual development is also an unfortunate and very sophisticated development of the art of strategy and ruse. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is more than 2000 years old, a great intellectual achievement and even today is widely studied by the military academies of East and West. It is however born of a culture with centuries of experience in the art of cunning deception. In later classics like the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (a text almost like the Mahabharata of China), mingled with salutary ethical counsels and heroic deeds would be a complete education in sophisticated strategies to deceive and destroy one’s enemies – strategies that might make Machiavelli blush (or at least nod in appreciation). It might be this perverse aspect of Chinese culture that excited a good deal of the Mother’s disdain.

    I don’t know whether the above writing is helpful – but since you said China is quite an alien culture to you, hopefully it may open certain doors…

    Jared

    Reply

    • Bhaga
      Nov 22, 2013 @ 08:40:14 [Edit]

      the Reply from me under this one was in fact destined to you of course (as the “Hi Jared!’ also indicates), and this one too…
      I want to mention to you the fact that I had another Culture Shock just after the one in Singapore, but in the USA, when confronted, again unexpectedly, this time with the Native Americans there in the Reservations they are forced to live in, or in special places were they are better respected and accepted, but where I didn’t expect to find them either!… :-D
      This should be proof to you that my gut reaction to the situation in Singapore was not especially against the Chinese people. By the way, you must have noticed in my original post, to which our present writings are comments, I have myself been a rich and powerful Chinese woman in some ancient times; I loved the humble people serving me and took good care of them. Having been Chinese doesn’t shock me at all, I have not the slightest racial prejudice about that, on the contrary, I am rather proud of having been part also of that remarkable culture.
      My intention is to present this other instance of drastic human stupidity in myself – the one in the US -, through yet another post after the first one in Singapore.

      Reply

  2. Bhaga
    Nov 22, 2013 @ 07:55:09 [Edit]

    Hi Jared!
    I am glad to have now your reply to my ‘candid’ indeed telling you of my reaction when unexpectedly confronted with Singapore’s quite Chinese population!… And I am glad also that this prompted you to give me this whole lot of very interesting information about Chinese Culture, straight from your own unbiased opinion based on historical facts. Your reminiscences from some remarks by Mother that I knew already of course were a valuable addition too in themselves; but please understand that the reaction I had twenty years ago in Singapore was simply, as I tried to make clear, a gut reaction to a culture shock due only to the surprise, the unexpected discovery of Singapore’s present Chinese reality.
    I have nothing against the Chinese as such, and I did know already, although rather vaguely, of their great achievements on the practical level, and the Tao is something so profound and so vast, along with the Yi Ching, and Chinese Traditional Medicine, that I consider them extraordinary boons from China, and I revere and use them in my own life. So I don’t need to be convinced of the high value of Chinese traditional culture.
    What has probably influenced my feeling about contemporary China, though, is the fact that while I was a teenager and young adult, China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, quite a frightening thing in my mind at the time (all revolutions are rather bloody things while they happen, the French Revolution too, and the Russian one as well) although I knew it was a necessary throwing out of the rottenness of the past. There are always excesses that sentimental people like me wish would not be there. I understand that nowadays it is at least better, even if in China itself the Government is in my eyes regrettably still quite tough with its own citizens – and of course also with those ‘ethnic minorities’ living in areas, like Tibet, previously independent, but now considered officially part of China whether they like it or not.
    I don’t think they are heavy-handed with Singapore, are they? For actually it is that so authoritarian Governmental attitude that scares me, not only in Continental China, but anywhere else around the globe where it is still present.

    So actually it is more the human inner phenomenon of ‘Culture Shock’ that at the time I stayed shortly in Singapore I found interesting to watch happening in myself to my own total surprise… in spite of all those years in a place like Auroville, dedicated to Human Unity!!!
    If you don’t mind, Jared, I would like to take this topic as the one for my next post on this blog of mine, using my tale of Culture Shock in Singapore as the spontaneous starting-point it has been, together now with your answer.

    Reply

    • Jared
      Nov 24, 2013 @ 13:40:21 [Edit]

      Hi Bhaga,

      Thank you again for your insightful and honest remarks.

      Do feel free to use the topic of “culture shock” as your next post. =).

      Best regards.

      Jared”

      *******************

      The Newton Chinese Language School (NCLS) cele...

      The Newton Chinese Language School (NCLS) celebrates it’s 50th birthday (Photo credit: Newton Free Library)

      So here I am now, completing this post with a few additional observations: this whole thing is indeed a Divine Joke forcing me to confront the astonishingly stupid reaction I had at that time… which hopefully I wouldn’t have any more now, but which was equally ludicrous in 1991 when it happened in Singapore, after almost twenty years in Auroville.

      What makes the Joke even more conspicuous is the fact that just now, at the same time as this Chinese Singaporean new friend entered my life incognito, under the misleadingly British/American sounding name ‘Jared’, which is , as Jared himself told me, actually pretty common (and nowadays it is quite unbelievable, there are dozens of Jareds popping up everywhere I look on the Internet, when there were none before!!!), at the very same time I discover that the Tamil young man who is helping me with my shopping has a Chinese old man as his regular boss, who wants at some point to open a Chinese Restaurant in the vicinity; and the nice young Italian lady who volunteered last winter to help me at Repos and who surprised me then by saying she had been to China and had stayed there for a while, is precisely now doing a workshop with me!…

      I feel surrounded by Chinese all over again, yes, but this time the contact is through gentle nudging and indirect reference, through friends I already know who aren’t of Chinese origin themselves, and there are only a few of them together, not a crowd that easily can feel hostile if the faces in it aren’t known and aren’t smiling. No doubt, a big reason for my panic in Singapore was simply the numbers involved: I was alone, new to the place, and lost in the middle of a sea of unknown Chinese people. Some primeval fear surged suddenly inside me before my rational mind had got a chance to intervene, and when it did, it was too late, the fear was too strong and wild to be talked down. It won. How ridiculous.

      So now it is the Divine who is laughing at me and taking steps to slowly acquaint me to having some Chinese friends… at first from Singapore, for a start!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. donsalmon
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 13:29:15

    Wonderful post as ever. I particularly like Jared’s wise view of Mother’s comment about the Chinese and the psychic being. I’ve heard people interpret it literally and thought it was silly. Given that Her Agenda conversations were not meant for public consumption, it makes sense that she figured that her conversation partner, Sat Prem, would understand her metaphorical references.

    Well, on a more mundane note, I’ve always been fascinated with cultural differences. My first Chinese-American friend (actually, Chinese would be correct; he was first generation and was just learning English) was in my junior year, and indeed, I was amazed at his dedication to study. Being Jewish myself, I suppose it’s not altogether surprising we were the two “straight A” students in our class (though this was a private school i went to my junior year – the previous year I had almost flunked most of my classes, but that’s another story:>)

    My observations over the years – both of Chinese Americans and in regard to my reading of Taoist and other Chinese literature – fit very much what Jared said here. As India is in some ways “the guru of the world”, China’s culture always seemed to me to be more ethical-mental. Though one thing I didn’t see Jared mention is the extraordinary reverence for beauty in the Chinese culture. It seems to me you can see this quite regularly in some of the spectacularly beautiful films, even the martial arts films (which capture, i think that shamanic element in Chinese culture very well), like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

    And one of my favorite accounts of mystical Taoism is in John Blofeld’s “The Secret and the Sublime”. His account of the Taoist sage he meets is priceless.

    Like

    Reply

    • Bhaga
      Nov 29, 2013 @ 14:46:50

      Glad that you liked this post, Don!
      Its quality is as much owed to Jared’s as to my own contribution to it, and I hope he will have a look here and contribute some more valuable comments directly to this new post…
      What you say about those beautiful Chinese films,is quite true; even an old one like “The Thirty-Six Chambers of Shao-Lin still lingers in my memory because of its inner beauty as well as visual beauty; and I still remember how they portrayed the Arch Villain, not as an ugly man as is usually done, but on the contrary as an extremely handsome Prince, very refined and in love with Perfection; and it is precisely because he is bored to death by all those simple folks in his kingdom, with their simple niceness and simple idea of virtue, that he treats them like if they don’t count, they can be killed or tortured at will, it doesn’t matter. When someone of higher value and higher fighting skill does challenge him at some point in the film, it is remarkable how his eyes suddenly light up with interest and yes, appreciation for his opponent; but still he is stronger than him, and he defeats him finally just the same, so, disappointed, he disdainfully lets him die a cruel death anyway. Only when the real hero comes up in the end with the real Training in ShaoLin, does the Prince find his Master, and his own death at last. Something in that film had a real purity in it, a kind of sincerity it seemed to me, that i found quite moving.

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      Reply

  2. Jared
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 01:48:37

    Hi Bhaga and Donsalmon:

    About the Chinese’s “extraordinary reverence of beauty”: I would agree that this is definitely true for the cultural elites and would attribute it at least partly to the extraordinarily continuous and prolific artistic tradition that I mentioned in my comment.

    From my limited understanding: In old China, a “gentleman” (yes, usually men) would be expected to display beauty in word (poetry and calligraphy), in art (painting – closely allied to calligraphy), in deed (ethics and rites and traditions), in music and in subtlety (chess – “weiqi”). In all these areas, Chinese civilization has attained a very high level of achievement. After all, how many nations select their top leaders based on an exam that is at least partially a test of one’s poetic flair?

    Having said that, while there has surely been a general refining influence, it is unclear to me how far an “extraordinary reverence of beauty” has penetrated the massive base of peasants and workers supporting the elites. In this respect, one just cannot compare the normal run of Chinese to the normal run of Japanese – though PERHAPS in the highest periods of Chinese civilization (the Tang Dynasty for instance, which greatly influenced Japan), there was a general passion for beauty even among the masses.

    As for myself, I am a descendant of peasants (most Singaporeans are descended from the huddled masses fleeing the chaos and misery in 19th and 20th century China), so don’t take my comments wrongly!

    On a final note, the buried but powerful layer of ancient shamanic China might also have introduced a greater sensitivity in the race that helps it in its aesthetic pursuits.

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