My last full day in China found me following my mother around to different banks, lugging her briefcase, and watching her frantically speak with several bank staff. This is my mom – rushing, scattered, and flushed with the anxiety of one who is eager to complete a mission.

The meeting I had scheduled with the mental health professional was at 11am. At 10:50a, I was still standing in a bank waiting for my mother. I stood there exasperated as my mom turned around in her seat in the banker’s cubicle, held up her hand to gesture that she would be done in 5 minutes for the 3rd time, and turned back around. I walked up to her, handed over her bag of stuff, and told her I was leaving and directed her where to meet me. She directed me how to get to my destination and said she was right behind me – and off I went.

I left in a harried walk over to the hotel where I was meeting my new contact. The direction my mother provided had me walking in an arc which backtracked toward her apartment and following the curvature of the road, led me to the hotel. As I was breaking a sweat, nearly jogging, I thought to myself, “if I had made a right instead of a left from the bank, I think I would be there. Suddenly, as I was walking the last stretch, my mom popped out in front of me after turning out from a small street. She smiles big at me. I receive it with frustration. Confused, I asked, “how did you get here before me?” She told me that she sent me the long way to prevent me from getting lost. But in fact, the hotel was right around the corner. Wow. Yea, this is my mother.

5 minutes late, I rushed into the lobby to be greeted by a friendly smile. In order to protect confidentiality, I will only refer to this person as “X.” X and I exchanged greetings and sat down to talk. I began describing my ideas for an immersion program for mental health students and practitioners in Shanghai. X began sharing experiences and insights. Only 15 minutes into our discussion, I had already learned a great deal about the challenges that lay ahead in building such a program given China’s politics, culture, and the sheer risk of being taken for a ride by vendors and professionals alike. X was gracious, eloquent, and honest. I was honored to be sitting with someone who was so well-educated and successful.

Much to my dismay, some of the things I learned were not unfamiliar to me. I have learned about similar challenges in India and Mexico when having a chance to hear speakers in the field share their challenges working with, or rather, despite of government. On a more micro level, I also had experiences with maneuvering and negotiating cultural dynamics in a workplace influenced by Confucian ideologies during my time in South Korea. Apparently, China is no different. However, I’d like to highlight below my reactions which are a result from my conversations with X and other sources.

1) Darwin’s role in China post Cultural Revolution. While in China, you will undoubtedly experience locals giving little regard to personal space as they push past you in the metro lines, push past you while walking on the street, getting on and off elevators, etc. It feels as though there is a sense of urgency to be the first. I thought, well we are all going to get off the bus, plane, elevator, train, so why must you push? Is it because being first is associated with being the best? Is there a fear of not having enough so the early bird gets the worm?
What was explained to me was that post revolution, as China slowly slid out of pure communist rule, China found her people hustling hard to survive. In communism, people were guaranteed survival at the cost of reward, recognition and inevitable, motivation and joy for one’s work. Unfortunately hustling meant that China became a breeding ground for liars, cheats, and fraud. Suddenly scam artists were surfacing everywhere and no one was protected from being scammed. My mother shared her experience where she would receive phone calls from scammers claiming to be her bank and saying there was an urgent situation which required her to provide her pin number or she would lose her money. Luckily, she caught onto what was happening and hung up. Needless to say, China’s people began to develop a sense of paranoia similar to that which may be characteristic of tourists – fear of being overcharged or robbed. If taken out of context, the psychological ramifications (lack of trust in others, fearfulness, anger, and anxiety) may mimic paranoid personality or even paranoid delusions. In modern China, the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) simply does not have a place. And as such, people have to fight to survive – fight to earn their money, fight to keep it, and fight when spending it. There is an ambience of panic and urgency. It is as if people are saying as they push past you in the elevator “resources are limited, people are coming to take it, so hurry up.” Hurry hurry.

2) Freedom versus anarchy. X made a statement that freedom has different meanings. I wondered about the difference between China and the US. My understanding of freedom is that I feel free when I can express myself without fear that my human rights will be taken from me. However, true freedom cannot exist without a sense of morality otherwise it becomes anarchy. If I am free do express myself but what I express or how I express it causes harm, then to what degree am I held accountable? If freedoms are exercised with a sense of compassion and conscientiousness, then fear of chaos is absent. However, it appears that anxiety about one’s survival can breed greed, panic, loss of conscience, and lack of compassion. Some may call it evil. Coupled with freedom this becomes anarchy. I am reminded of the book The Road where post-apocalyptic desperation leads to cannibalism. When resources are low, people lose themselves.

3) Abuse of power. As a professional psychologist in the U.S., we are expected to adhere to an ethical code. These codes are in place to protect the public and offer a baseline for the standard of care which can be expected of practitioners. In China (and Korea), the codes exist but adherence is optional and consequences for ethical violations are not enforced. As such, it cannot be ascertained that a professional making a recommendation to a patient is doing so purely based on sound clinical judgment with the patient’s best interests in mind. Unfortunately, it is quite possible that professionals may be pursuing their own agenda, or that of someone else. I am sure this happens around the world. However, I am learning it happens more frequently in places like China simply because there is no governance. Again, it appears that if there are no consequences for our actions and we are anxious about survival, basic human kindness, decency, and respect for others gets buried. Professionals lose their ethics, people lose ability to trust, and everyone is paranoid. No wonder customer service is terrible!

Wow. Imagine if someone living in this context emigrates to the US, speaks little English, has limited resources, and is isolated. As a result this person is suspicious of others, lacks social support, is angry, untrusting, defensive, and accusatory… wouldn’t he or she look crazy?

My last day was quite important. I had a different perspective of my mother – no longer judging her as an anxious woman by as someone who makes sense in this context.
After being a tourist, seeing the beauty of China, understanding myself and my family better being in this context, learning more about China’s history and culture, I also needed to learn the reality. I am very grateful to have met and spoken to X and others who have contributed to my educational experience in China.