Juliana’s China Trip – Update 2

Sep 11, 2009

An anthropology professor of mine once explained that culture shock proceeds through several phases:

  1. Oh, My! What’s This?
    In the first phase you experience surprise, physical disorientation, and a strong emotional sense of how different are people’s behaviour, language, appearance, and the surroundings.
  2. We’re Just the Same!
    The second phase is characterized by recognition that we are all exactly the same. The differences that in phase one jumped out at you now seem trivial as our common experiences and goals come to the foreground.
  3. They Are Totally Different!
    In the third phase you begin to understand the beliefs, perceptions, and world views of the other culture. You realize that they are seeing and experiencing the world differently.
  4. Integration
    Finally culture shock subsides as you synthesize your reactions into some kind of understanding.

By the end of the delegation’s visit to Shanghai, I realized that I have entered into stage two of culture shock. My struggles with chopsticks, food, language, and rituals are fading. I’m recognizing similar challenges and approaches for North Americans and Chinese.

In Shanghai, the delegation met with senior Chinese Communist party leaders, Shanghai city planners, law professors, housing administrators, and homeowners associations. Shanghai is growing and changing at an incredible pace. There are cranes, literally, on every block. Historic buildings are being demolished and new offices and malls replace them. Single story and mid level substandard housing is making way for skyscraper apartment buildings.

Shanghai leaders have developed impressive public participation processes. However just as in the U.S. and Canada they face challenges to early, meaningful, and efficient public participation. How do you involve people early in comprehensive planning when plans are large scale and conceptual? How do you move from public recommendations on for comprehensive plans to local development? What do you do with public input that focuses on past issues? Or people who won’t participate because they are waiting for a better or separate deal?

I’ve been impressed with the strong commitment to transparency and participation. On the other hand I worry about the incredible scale, scope, and pace of development and redevelopment. How can people have a meaningful impact on the plans and projects that affect their lives?

Globalization, population growth, rural to urban migration, and environmental degradation are large forces. Can citizens provide input and make recommendations that really improve their living conditions? Or do people have to trust that for the most part government agencies
are trying to take care of health, education, and housing needs? How can governments involve citizens to efficiently address in common economic, social, and environmental problems?

As we move from Shanghai to Xian I am hoping to learn more from our Chinese hosts and to share our public participation experiences. I’m also hoping to discover the real differences in beliefs, behaviours, and ideas. I’m hoping in Xian I move into phase three of culture shock — deepening my learning about public participation and land use in China.

Juliana Birkhoff

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