Last year while raveling with a friend in remote Mingshi, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in China we came across this scene:
Neither of us had seen these "streamers on a stick" before.
Especially since my friend is Hong Kong Chinese, very well traveled, and experienced in professionally writing about China, I was curious to hear her impressions. She strongly believed that they were for wedding ceremonies. When I shared my very different suspicion that they were for graves she disagreed and said colors like the ones seen here would never be used this way on items related to death.
Although I recognized that my friend possessed much knowledge about China, from a research perspective I wasn't convinced she really knew the answer, particularly since she was not from this part of China. So, when we later saw someone who appeared to be a local we asked him about the streamers on sticks. He said they were for graves. My friend was surprised and as we walked onwards I had the sense she wasn't entirely convinced.
Not far from there we came across another site that proved to be more compelling. Here you can see her soaking it in:
Not only are the streamers even more brightly colored, but there are more obvious (well, more obvious to an American and Hongkonger) markers for the graves. She was now completely convinced.
This is one of the many examples of China's diversity. Often, what you find in Shanghai or Hong Kong will not apply in other places in China -- even when you're looking at something so seemingly fundamental as associations for colors. This has an immense impact on how to best conduct research in China -- whether for driving the design of technology or developing effective marketing campaigns. For example, if business goals aren't limited to a specific region in China, conducting research in multiple regions can be critical to ensuring any results will apply to the range of people being targeted. It doesn't necessarily mean the resulting product, marketing campaign, etc. will need to be tailored to each region, but it could mean finding the best single solution that can apply to multiple regions.
It's not only just about what differs. In some of my research, I've seen unifying threads across China and its people. But depending on what you're looking at it may be related to factors such as region, size of the city, prosperity of the city, income level, personal interests, age, etc. For example, I've seen some surprising similarities in people living in very different parts of China -- such as Changsha, Hunan province and Changchun, Jilin province. However, there were other ways in which they differed that were largely related to regional issues. Identifying these patterns and understanding them can be key to applying any findings in an effective and meaningful manner.
Finally, in the experience with the graves in Guangxi my friend had a more difficult time than I did in questioning her initial beliefs. In part, this is likely because her cultural associations with the colors were very strong and she assumed they would apply elsewhere in China. As an outsider I had fewer (or at least different) biases that made it easier for me to question whether I really knew the answer and also made it more likely I'd seek additional input.
This leads to another topic I'll address in an upcoming post: How being an outsider to a culture can be advantageous for certain types of research. In many ways it holds true for all cultures, but I have found it to be especially true in China.