When National Culture Looses its Grip on You – Say Thanks to Your Environment!

Who are you? What makes you who you are? Your job, the country you come from, your education, or maybe your religion? Right now I am struggling to answer these questions for myself. Of course I know that all of these aspects together form the person I am. But there are aspects of your life that have a bigger influence on you than others, and there are many conflicts you have to deal with. While you don’t have to move abroad to realize this, expats struggle with these questions every day. We have to question our normal ways of doing things all the time… and sometimes it makes us feel lost.

I will never experience this myself, but I was curious about the lives of Chinese factory workers. Luckily Leslie Chang manages to gives us a glimpse into their world in her amazing book “Factory Girls”. How would you imagine their lives to look like? Do you think they imagine a career for themselves? Or do you think they work in these factories because they want to stay close to home and live a stable life without many worries?

Well, one thing you have to understand first is that most workers in Chinese companies come from villages. They often travel many hours, 20 or more, to the industrial cities where they hope to find work. To them it is like traveling to the other side of the world. But today’s generation of these migrants was raised by parents who lived the traditional life of a farmer. And with that when they leave home, their cultural background is as traditional as it could be.

china cultural dimensions


The cultural dimensions above (as stated on Geert Hofstede’s website)  pretty much reflect what most of us would imagine traditional Chinese culture to be like: highly collectivist with a high power distance. People’s life is all about the group, and within that group there is a clear hierarchy that should not be challenged as it preserves harmony. And that’s exactly how Leslie Chang describes village life in China: the family sleeping in one bed together, open doors, no privacy, people supporting each other financially. Everything as we imagine life as a group to look like.

But what happens to the migrant workers when they leave home is as amazing as it is sad. We are all aware of the terrible work conditions in Chinese factories: 14-hour workdays, no weekends, 10 people sleeping in one room, and, perhaps worst of all, the difficulty of getting out of this life. Often you can’t just go ahead and quit as your boss will refuse to pay you the money he owes you, which leaves you without any money in your pockets until you get a new job.

If you work for these factories, you are just one employee among thousands. The biggest factory with its 70000 employees is just like a city – you can find everything you need without ever leaving the complex. And many workers do just that. But while employees spend day in and day out together, they are wary of forming bonds with others. As Leslie points out, in a single year half of the employees will be replaced. Once you become friends with someone, he or she is already as good as gone. And then what? Many factory workers do not even have a mobile phone. They will probably never meet again.

It’s an environment where the people closest to you can vanish from one moment to the other. It’s an environment where your output compared to the others determines how much you get paid. Helping others out is not the best idea. The result is that most factory girls don’t really know each other. Yes, factory life is a lonely life. A life full of struggle.

But leaving home and surviving all alone is also the toughest thing they have ever done – and they are proud of it. Once they leave the village, they have their own fate in their hands. Seeing the world, developing themselves, and gaining new skills are all part of their priority. But wait… aren’t these the ideals of individualism? Yes, they are. And when migrants leave their home, that’s not commonly what they are looking for.

Leslie gives the example of a family with several children. Their daughter, the first born, and their son are both soon to be college-students. The only problem was that their parents did not have enough money to pay for the education of two people, so the daughter lied to her parents. She said she didn’t want to go to college anyway and became a factory worker instead to help pay for her brother’s tuition.

Self-sacrifice as a Confucian ideal reflects collectivist values. But self-sacrifice is often only the motivation for factory girls at the time when they leave home. Then, after the lonely struggle of the factory, something changes. Sooner or later every girl comes to realize that in the factory world, she can only rely on herself. It is a moral that migrant magazines preach and which they learn from their colleagues. And it is a moral that drives them more and more towards an individualistic mind-set. Personal development then is the only logical answer. Computer classes, English courses, sales training, all these are what gives them hope for a better life.


But what is most interesting is that with such struggle, their personal stories suddenly matter. Where traditional Chinese often did not want to talk about their life-stories, thinking that their own individual suffering was of no importance for society, modern factory girls like to share their own stories. And as they like to take it in their own hands, they also do not allow anyone to interfere with their plans, not even their parents. Where in the past disobedience meant punishment, nowadays factory girls will find ways around their parents’ influence. Instead of asking them in advance, they will just find a new job and tell their parents when it’s already too late. Or they will just don’t say anything.

Money talks. With the financial support they provide their parents, they are often able to in a way break free of the traditional family hierarchy where the parent’s opinion was law. In western countries this might not be something special, but for a society with high power distance it is just amazing. These girls do nothing less but to overpower the national culture of China.

Sure, whenever they go home they still spend all the time surrounded by people and being part of a group still gives them a feeling of power . But on the long run, spending 24 hours a day together with others isn’t their way of life anymore. After a week or two it makes them feel uncomfortable. They miss the freedom and the chances for self-development the city has to offer. And while their village will always be home, it will never be what it used be in their childhood. A new part of their identity – that of being a migrant – has overpowered their national culture. Amazing.


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