Why do you do what you do? Or, 哪儿 isn’t there Narcissism?



During one of my early morning jaunts about town, I ran across an older man exercising all by his lonesome in the middle of the street. Chinese roads are relatively less crowded before 8 am (which is like saying there’s relatively less water near the beach at low tide), and he managed to find a sphere of personal space in which to practice 太极拳 (Tai Chi Chuan). I gawked as I walked by, and he didn’t even recognize my passing as I took this picture (everyone’s a paparazzi in China, sue me).

From an American perspective, I assume that this action if conducted in America would be about on par with ‘wearing a fanny pack because it holds your belongings best’: a decision wholly rational, but still a bit odd in nature, and requiring guts to pull off successfully. My thought process?

1. Wow, this guy’s weird.

2. Wow, this guy’s awesome, he totally doesn’t even care that this is weird.

3. Wait, everyone does whatever the Hell they want wherever they want in China.

4. Everyone in China is a total BAMF.

5. Everyone in China is intimidating. They know what they gotta do, and they get it done through whichever means they want. These people wear surgical masks for goodness sakes. They honestly could care less what I think of them.

6. Are Chinese people just so confident in themselves that they know they can accomplish the end result, so the oddity of their journey in a social context is of no matter to them?

7. Are Chinese people so self-confident, or do they just do what’s expected of them, just because, and they find a way to accomplish what they need to do without considering the social implications of it?

8. Are all Chinese people alike, Hannah, really? Can I even tell what’s going on in someone’s head, from another culture no less, just by looking at them, when I know nothing about modern culture?

9. Am I even looking at this from the right angle? Are the judgements I’m making even coincident with Chinese values? Is it weird to practice Tai Chi wherever? Do the Chinese care? They like saving face, right? And saying ‘Screw You and Your Beliefs’ isn’t exactly a belief harmonious with saving face, if your pride is found in external validation. Maybe they aren’t so self-confident? How does self-confidence relate to making oneself the best one can be in China? Is it a duty to be your best because you have a responsibility to contribute to society, or do you do it because you are taught to think you can, and that you’re wonderful, because each person is needed to make the whole effective, and your helping society is a gift to other people instead of an obligation?

I jotted this especially rambling sentiment down in my journal- it’s disjunctive and barely coherent, but there’s no real way for me to answer the questions I have yet without doing more research:

Possible Chinese view of self and responsibilities to self, summary: 

1. You are ballsy and you do what you want- probably not, b/c China is all about community

2. You know what you’re capable of, and you expect a lot from yourself pride, narcissism (either external or internal validation)

3. You know what you need to do and you do it cuz you’re worth it- self-confidence

4. Possible other extreme- You know what needs to be done- pragmatism-You save face by doing what’s expected of you, – honor- and people expect you to do whatever you need to do to do that, weird or not- end results are all that matter


A few day’s previous, Christina, Camilla and myself sauntered by the lake, holding bags of fruit while eating choice breakfasts of ice cream and pastry. Autumn weather is still far off, and Asian families appreciate warm rays of sun in droves. For every baby-faced father cradling his cuddly bowling-ball of a child, and there were many of these, there was a pack of teenage girls directing each other in vanity photos. They draped themselves over rocks, hid behind trees, dipped their feet in the lake, popped their heels and tipped their hats. Every location has picture potential, and I half expected to see them cushion their pale chins in their hands, smiling, elbows atop a recycling bin.

“Look at all the girls taking pictures of each other!” I exclaim, scanning the scene. “Either they’re all really narcissistic or photography is just something Chinese people do.” I’ve thought that maybe photography is big because cameras are technology, and owning technology is a sign of status.

“They’re definitely narcissistic,” Camilla replies automatically. She’s been to China before, to a small village without such technology, so I figure she’s in a better place to make comparisons; at least, she’s had more experience.

“But isn’t China a community-oriented society?”

“That’s the thing,” Camilla replies, “In order for society to function, everyone has to participate. Everyone’s important.”

“So a community-oriented society, next to an individualistic-society, almost places more emphasis on the individual because everyone depends on everyone else to succeed?”


*I have since talked to Camilla about her views on Chinese self-confidence: She says that the Chinese are narcissistic yet without any degree of self-confidence.*

“It’s funny,” I note, parasols bouncing by our heads.

“What is?”

“That in a community of 1.3 billion people, people can still feel certain of their own importance.” *I write this now with a tinge of self-consciousness; I write a blog and possibly believe that I’ll write something novel when I’m one of billions myself.*


If I were one of 1.3 billion in a country with a history of community-oriented conceptualizations of the self, or even more cognizant of being one of almost 400 million, I think I’d be less likely to think something of myself. But knowing that, if every cog doesn’t play its part right, the whole machine will collapse, I feel a degree of importance and responsibility; still, I don’t think my importance merits photo albums of peace signs and doilies simply because if I don’t work, I threaten the whole- or if I do work, I affect the whole exponentially. Every minute I’m inanely taking pictures of myself and my friends is a minute I’m contributing to stagnation. However, when someone’s self-concept is at stake, a person might be more likely to cling to the delusion that they’re incredibly important, as a defense against the knowledge that there are millions and millions of people with similar qualities that could replace them and that they can’t control everything. In China, though, a country that’s been really insular, every person DID need to play their part because there were no external outlets to depend on.

What do you think? Does any of my thought process and semi-conclusions make sense? I kind of want to do a research paper regarding Chinese views of the self and importance of the self for my final project.

One response »

  1. Facinating, especially the idea that individualism is supported through the communitarian ideal. although I agree that the vanity does not fit…if you feel important because of your contribution to society, the self love of physical characteristics should be reduced-surely pride would come from you accomplishments and work for the whole?

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