Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Are relationships supposed to be considered distractions?

Leaving the local public library this morning after the children's story time, I overheard a conversation between two mothers. It dealt with where they chose to do their grocery shopping. It was distinctly American.

The relevant part and point of agreement went something like this:

I don't go to Brookshire's to shop because every time I go I run into someone I know. You stop and chat, and then it takes an hour to finish everything.

It caught my cultural attention because it exemplified a very American value: efficiency. The problem was that running into people one knows requires an investment in time. This time investment disrupts the person's carefully constructed schedule, thus lowering efficiency. Socializing is at odds with productivity. In the end, this mother considered the social aspects of life a distraction from efficient use of time.

I simply can't imagine this being generally true in China. Isn't running into people the very thing that makes shopping enjoyable? Yes, people in China are also busy. In many ways they have less free time than their US counterparts. But that someone would desire efficiency over meeting friends or even acquaintances is virtually unthinkable. Occasionally one might be in a bad mood and prefer to be alone, but it's not a trend. I daresay that meeting people when doing one's shopping is the preferred phenomenon. Efficiency and productivity does not trump social interaction.

There's a lot more that could be said, but it's enough to draw attention to the distinctly different value system. It caught me off guard. Not knowing anyone in this city, I never run into people I know. This encounter reminded me that I'm in a different place.

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