When culture differences create trouble: How to be an 'outsider' in a foreign society

Consultant Ma Haotian takes a look at two recent incidents showing conflict between groups of people from different cultures, one between China and the West, and another between Chinese societies of different places. While Chinese culture is indeed vastly different from British culture, different Chinese communities around the world also live under different political systems and social environments, and have different ways of thinking and behavioural patterns.
Screenshot of a video showing the argument between British pianist Brendan Kavanagh and a Chinese TV group, with the police entering the scene. (YouTube)
Screenshot of a video showing the argument between British pianist Brendan Kavanagh and a Chinese TV group, with the police entering the scene. (YouTube)

Two “minor incidents” that occurred one after another just a month into 2024 has attracted the attention of Chinese media around the world. I think that both incidents can be interpreted from a culture clash framework. 

Different interpretations of similar topics 

On 19 January, a video of an altercation in London between British pianist Brendan Kavanagh and a Chinese TV crew went viral online after Kavanagh’s livestream performance caught the latter in the background, leading to a dispute over image rights, political identity and physical contact. 

From an anthropological perspective, this is a typical case of a culture clash when a group enters a foreign culture and encounters others. Because of this, people from different cultural backgrounds are often either biased towards the pianist or the Chinese crew.

On 22 January, Japan-based Chinese media personality Wang Zhian was invited on Taiwanese current affairs talk show The Night Night Show with Hello. In the programme, Wang mimicked the voice and movements of Chen Chun-han (陈俊翰), a disabled Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator-at-large candidate, and attacked the DPP for making use of disabled people to elicit sympathy. 

This segment of the show sparked a huge controversy after the programme was aired. On 24 January, Taiwan authorities revoked Wang’s entry permit and banned him from entering Taiwan for tourism purposes for five years on the grounds of breaching the terms of his tourism visa.  

Taiwan has undergone eight elections since its democratisation process and people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have formed different ways of thinking and behaving, creating a different cultural model. 

A screenshot of Wang Zhian on Taiwanese current affairs talk show The Night Night Show with Hello. (YouTube)
A screenshot of Chinese journalist Wang Zhian on Taiwanese current affairs talk show The Night Night Show with Hello. (YouTube)

While both sides of the Taiwan Strait use the same language and are of the same ethnicity, they have different social mechanisms. Taiwan has undergone eight elections since its democratisation process and people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have formed different ways of thinking and behaving, creating a different cultural model. 

Thus, the interaction between Wang and the talk show host is also a battle between two cultures. It highlights the different usages of Chinese terms between both sides of the Taiwan Strait, such as lima (立马, lit. standing horse but it means "immediately" in mainland China), haiwang (海王, lit. king of the sea but it means "a casanova" in mainland China) and zhiyu (支语, a derogative term meaning "Cheena language"). It also points to different interpretations of the same subject, proving that the culture of both sides of the Taiwan Strait is divided and different. 

Understanding the culture of the other

Taboo topics are also an area of anthropological research, with academics initially focusing on incest taboo between blood relatives in primitive tribes. In contemporary societies, taboos have since given rise to different manifestations of "political correctness", which promotes social cohesion. 

As taboos are related to culture, different cultures will have different taboos. In mainland China, people respect authority; stand-up comedian Li Haoshi faced huge backlash when he used a military slogan to describe stray dogs in May 2023. Whereas in Taiwan, people can criticise authority, but the protection of the weak in society is especially valued, which is why Wang’s behaviour on the talk show triggered backlash. People with disabilities should not be mocked; Wang’s actions on the talk show were indeed inappropriate.  

Li Haoshi, stage name House, got into trouble after a joke about the People's Liberation Army. (Internet)
Li Haoshi, stage name House, got into trouble after a joke about the People's Liberation Army. (Internet)

Apart from taboos, anthropologists have also discovered “joking relationship” among people with close relationships in primitive tribes — an individual can joke with his or her loved ones largely without holding back.

Taboos and jokes are two sides of the same coin in human society and prevalent in cultures around the world. It is clear that taboos and jokes are a balancing act in contemporary societies.     

Simply put, compared with the apparent culture clash between the pianist and the Chinese TV crew, Wang’s behaviour on the talk show is also a cross-cultural communication faux pas.  

When a group enters a foreign culture, it is common for them to make the mistake of not having enough understanding of the other’s culture. The different taboos of different cultures should be taken into account in cross-cultural communication. The Chinese TV crew and Wang have clearly neglected this.   

Becoming self-aware of one’s own culture

As a Chinese saying goes: “The onlooker sees more of the game.” In the same vein, anthropologists often only study foreign cultures, just as how overseas sinologists have made various insightful observations of Chinese society. 

During the Taiwan elections, Wang attended the campaign rallies of the three political parties, hosted a few eating shows introducing Chinese food, and even helped a mainland netizen find a loved one. As a mainland audience, it was a culture shock to see Taiwan’s scenery and learn about the Taiwanese people’s way of thinking. 

While Chinese culture is indeed vastly different from British culture, different Chinese communities around the world also live under different political systems and social environments, and have different ways of thinking and behavioural patterns.

Image showing the crowds in Chinatown in London, UK, 14 January 2024. (CNS)
Image showing the crowds in Chinatown in London, UK, on 14 January 2024. (CNS)

As an outsider from a foreign culture, Wang has also criticised Taiwan society. Meanwhile, the Chinese TV crew, also an outsider entering British society, expressed unhappiness with the UK's public photography law which allows photographers to take pictures in all public places, and this includes taking photos of people for journalistic, editorial or art purposes.

Although these criticisms and dissatisfaction from outsiders have violated social taboos, they have also contributed to the increased self-awareness of those within that culture. Having lived in a culture and society for a long time, it helps to look at how outsiders view their own society.   

These two minor incidents also reflect the cultural conflict between China and the West, and even between Chinese societies across the world, all worthy of thought. While Chinese culture is indeed vastly different from British culture, different Chinese communities around the world also live under different political systems and social environments, and have different ways of thinking and behavioural patterns. The differences and barriers between them deserve attention as well.

Hence, it is worth revisiting Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong’s concept of “each civilisation celebrates its own unique beauty, and appreciates the beauty of others. When we treasure the diversity of civilisations, universal harmony comes into being."

Outsiders encountering a foreign culture should always be genuine, understanding and tolerant. When we enter the social and cultural environment of another, it is culturally necessary that we strive to do as the Romans do.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "伦敦钢琴和夜夜秀的文化小冲突".

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