It’s not weird. It’s Fengshui.

In Shanghai it’s not hard to run into things that at first glance, seem absolutely absurd/infuriating. For instance, I often find myself asking questions like these: “why is everyone taking a photo of me?;” “Why is this old woman yelling at me?;” “Why are people wearing shirts that have ‘I’m a slut’ printed in big black letters on them;” “Why do people insist on hitting me with their cars when I’m on the cross walk?” “Why is there jackhammering outside my room at midnight?” “Why is everyone touching me?”  So, really, it is only natural to wonder “why does this apartment complex in Shanghai have a 15-story rock attached to the side of the building? It has no structural purpose and– because it was added a few years after the building itself was constructed– blacks out many windows.

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An online news source oriented online for ex-pats, very quickly dismissed it as an architectural “FAIL.” But is it really a failure? Recently I have been struggling to reconcile some of cultural differences that I have been running into while in China. Is it wrong that I’m entirely disgusted by the spitting, the public urination, defecation, the fact that is seems like every motorist is trying to kill me? Is it wrong for me to get angry at people who ask to take pictures with me or who push me on the subway? Is it wrong to get angry at the old woman who cut in line and jab me with their (really) sharp elbows to secure a seat on a bus? More and more I do not think it is necessarily wrong to be frustrated or confused by the things I run into, but I think it’s wrong not to try to cultivate empathy and understanding about a culture that is so different than the one I live in.

This is not to say that all behaviors or cultural practices are acceptable but it important to keep in mind that everyone is a construct of their combined history, culture, and cultures, like the cultures I am experiencing in China do not spontaneously evolve but are a result of culture—of people being people—and it is wrong to judge anyone for practicing being human.

Like the news article that called this building a “fail”, all too often I see Westerners in Shanghai discount and invalidate the lives of people in China by applying to their experiences in China a Western, superior mindset. Of course, I too find it hard not to pass people off as crazy (like the man at the fake market who follows us around saying “you want a watch?” for five minutes), but this is a type of thinking that can lead to unconscious distaste and unfair bias towards a culture and people. Of course, cultural differences sometimes make relationships difficult to pursue (I have definitely been a victim of this) but I think that most of the things in China that infuriate, frustrate, or confuse me all can be explained through deeper cultural understanding. People take pictures of me not because they view me as some sort of circus animal, but because they rarely come in contact with foreigners and because China, up until 1979 was more or less  a closed nation and my mere presence symbolizes a changing country and globalizing (and therefore hopefully more prosperous) future.  Why are people urinating on the sidewalk? Because many of the people I see doing this are people who come from the countryside, where public urination is commonplace, very acceptable practice—one that has been practiced for centuries. How can I expect the culture to keep up with the unprecedented modernization China has seen within the past forty years?

So how can we explain why there is a big rock outside of this building in Shanghai? Because the owners believe its presence will help the fengshui of the building and– in turn– increase the prosperity of their business. Fengshui is a practice thousands of years old that is inextricably linked to Chinese culture. It’s part of a cosmology that attempts to bring some type of explanation to the overwhelming realities of life. While it may easy to call the practice of fengshui an outdated and superstitious, it plays a deeper, more political role in Chinese culture than an outsider may realize.  For instance, as X, a scholar on fengshui, argues, fengshui is a tradition that allows modern Chinese to quietly resist against the forced ideological shifts  (secularization, modernization, etc.) brought about by the rise of the communist party. It could also be a way for Chinese to try to reclaim some of the cultural heritage that was so meticulously destroyed during the cultural revolution.

In the end, Fengshui is a cosmology with principals that are no different than any other leading philosophy or religion. How can I as a foreigner argue the superiority of Christianity, humanism, or any other cosmology when there is no way to truly prove its validity?

http://shanghaiist.com/2010/05/27/shanghai_high-rise_feng_shui_fail.php?gallery0Pic=1

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