For some reason, the Cultural Disconnect I just wrote for the Shanghai residency was the hardest. I don't know if that's good or bad.
Full text follows:
I reviewed my ICE profile and the regional Cultural Dimensions the week before arriving in China. What interactions should I worry about? Where would the disconnections come from? China has high in-group collectivism, high power distance, and relatively low uncertainty avoidance, contra the U.S. My ICE profile spells out a hybrid Midwestern-East Coast sensibility, being across-the-board direct in the relationship context, having a mixed direct-expressive communication style, and an almost completely reserved space context. (My time context is all over the place, but that’s a different essay.)
I expected China would bang away on my communication style and space contexts especially. From everything I’d read about them, I expected Chinese people to be much more reserved in communication style but much more expressive in space context than I am. I looked forward to being trampled by the teeming masses in the Metro and engaging in indirect negotiations that never quite began, and never quite ended.
As soon as I got onto the China Eastern airplane at Narita (as alien a place to me as I had ever experienced, at least since leaving O’Hare a few hours earlier), I started looking for Cultural Disconnects. OK: there’s a sullen-looking Chinese person already sitting in my seat on the plane! That’s because of the expressive...because the attitude towards...because she just didn’t know that A is the window and B is the aisle? Point, point, shrug, shrug, we’re in our correct seats. It differed from similar interactions I’ve had on American Airlines only because I can usually communicate orally in the U.S., even though pointing and shrugging politely and with good humor works just as well as saying “I’m sorry, you seem to be in my seat.”
Next opportunity: Passport control. OK, looks a little different than the U.S. Much better run than Miami, less crowded than O’Hare...short, orderly lines...signs in English. Huh. The immigration officer and I had a brief conversation in English, she stamped my passport, and I left. In the annals of culturally distinctive immigration experiences, this rated somewhere between Dublin and Schiphol.
Next: navigating Pudong Airport to find the Maglev. Huh. More signs in English. Many of them say “Maglev” with arrows pointing to, I found out, the Maglev station. That the signs also had Chinese characters on them doesn’t really have ICE or CD significance, does it? It looked cool, though.
Buying a Maglev ticket: with the RMB I’d bought at an offensive markup in the terminal (again, pretty common in airports world-wide), I whipped out my Mandarin phrase-book and walked up to the ticket counter. “One way or return?” she asked, in perfect English, before I’d even opened the book. She could have been selling tickets at Penn Station, except that no train leaving Penn Station has ever got up to 430 km/h. Security screening to get on the train: now we’re getting somewhere. I’ve never had my bags X-Rayed before getting on a train, let alone a Metro. But does this fit into the definition of “cultural disconnect?” It’s a different trade-off between security and convenience than we make in Chicago, sure. But Shanghai was just a week from opening the World Expo, so heightened “security theater” should be expected. The police at least looked at the X-Ray monitor, unlike in Dubai where one screener was actually asleep when I put my bags through.
Getting out of the Metro at People’s Square, I got accosted by a pimp. Cultural disconnect? I could argue that my expressive “avoid disagreement” and “avoid conflict/tension” communication styles, not to mention my direct “ambiguity in communication” style, explains my clearly disagreeable, tense, unambiguous response; and maybe it was his in-group collectivism (I wasn’t “one of us” and therefore a target) that made him follow me halfway to the hotel even after I’d told him where he should go instead. But no, I think he was just a pimp harassing a traveler and got told off. I’ve spent nearly my entire life in the three largest cities in the U.S.; I can assure doubters that his was not culturally-distinctive behavior, nor was my response.
Next day: a nice-looking young couple “on vacation” chatted me up “to practice their English” and, inevitably, invited me to a tea ceremony. How droll. Again: where there are tourists, there are scammers, only this time I told them “I am afraid it will not be possible to go with you at this time” instead of what I told the pimp. (Ah, but how did I know they were scammers? Could my wariness have been a cultural disconnect? Or might I have read about the “tea ceremony” scam in the Lonely Planet guide on the flight over?)
On and on it went for 10 days. Cultural disconnects just didn’t seem to happen. Of course, I’m sure I had dozens of them—but I wasn’t aware of them. I think, instead, that consciously looking for cultural disconnects dissipated them before they could start. I anticipated things being radically different in China, so maybe I kept looking for big disconnects like I had in Dubai and Delhi and missed the countless little ones in Shanghai. Or maybe I should have gotten farther away from Shanghai than Zhouzhuang.
The last is the most likely. And there are compelling historical reasons for this. Shanghai has had an openness to foreigners (not, of course, entirely voluntarily) for centuries. Western interests in particular dominated Shanghai from the 1800s until the Japanese turfed them out in the 1930s. Flash forward to the more open economic policies of Deng Xiaoping starting in the 1980s continuing through Hu Jintao’s today: China’s desire to prove itself equal to the West, and Shanghai’s historical Western orientation (occidation?), led to a conscious effort to develop Pudong as a modern city center. Puxi, with its Victorian and Third Republic architecture, benefitted as well. Shanghai’s growing reputation as a Chinese city with Western sensibilities encouraged more Western visitors to Shanghai, which made it a more Western-feeling place. In short, a virtuous cycle.
Still, I think Shanghai was simultaneously too alien and too similar for me to experience differences as disconnects. Alien, because forget it, Jake, it’s China. In Shanghai, the thick language barrier prevented me from taking any communications for granted, and kept me so focused on the instant conversation that I forgot about the larger cultural context. Cultural disconnects disappeared from my forebrain when I had trouble saying “forty five” without it sounding like “death decade company.”
Similar, because for innumerable reasons, Shanghai felt like Chicago—except when it felt like New York. Sure, people do things differently in Shanghai than we do here, but people do things differently everywhere. But people in large, cosmopolitan cities have ways of behaving that are more similar than not. I’m not really joking when I say Raleigh sometimes feels more alien to me than Shanghai did. My disconnects in North Carolina come not from my direct-expressive communication style and time context smacking into their reserved Southern counterparts, but rather from thinking, because we’re all from the same country, we should all act the same, and then being surprised when we don’t. That was not a possibility in China.
 Most of my cultural priming came from James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square. Fallows spent three years in Shanghai as the Atlantic’s Asia correspondent. The book collects and extends the columns he wrote about living in China for the magazine.
 In fact, my two most unusual interactions were at a land crossing into Canada, where I had my car searched, and at De Gaulle, where the immigration officers had to deal with simultaneously arriving flights from Boston and Nigeria. The solution in the latter case was to shout, in perfect English, “Americans, British, Canadians, EU, this way please” and then shoo the European-looking folks past the counters without a second glance or even a look at our passports. I will leave to the reader to sort out what may they may have been thinking, and if this is really the way we want cops to behave.
 Cf. Nicholson, Polanski, et al., 1972.