Chinese Culture

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May 29

Chinese Minds Think Chinese Thoughts and American Minds Think American Thoughts

As usual when there is a gap of several days in my blog entries, there is a distinct reason for that which has been occupying my time. Actually, I have been preoccupied by a combination of school duties and helping Isabella (my stepdaughter) with her schoolwork, primarily her Masters' Thesis for her MBA. I rarely write about school, and that process is still ongoing, so I will digress from both the war topic and the school topic, and discuss my insights relating to Isabella's Masters Thesis.

I wrote about Isabella's thesis once before (March 30 under the topic "Research"), when she had just finished collecting the data. Now, she is nearly done with her thesis and preparing to graduate on June 13. Her thesis is about the perceptions of Taiwanese-Chinese and Caucasian-Americans regarding culturally customized websites. Different elements of cultural customization include the use of culture-specific icons, symbols, testimonies by celebrities, authorities, or regular persons, and the use of "strong" (black, white, and red) or "soft" (blue, yellow and green) colors used on a website. The results of Isabella's thesis were actually pretty good, which is a big reason why I think she will graduate on June 13. Taiwanese-Chinese had a considerably greater preference for the use of icons, pop star endorsements, and soft colors, while Caucasian-Americans had a preference for strong colors. The two groups were relatively similar on the use of symbols, authorities and personal testimony.

I have proofread various drafts of Isabella's thesis, and during the past week, have gone to her house several times in order to go over her thesis person-to-person with her. Actually, I have often proofread her writings in English ever since she came to the United States from Taiwan in 1993. I still find myself correcting the same errors in her writing. The same is true of Eunice's (my wife's) writings. I need to add a "d" for past tense, add a "the" or an "a," substract an "ly" from an adverb, add or subtract an "s" rom a noun. I leave the Chinglish (for example, "researches" instead of "research") as is, as long as it does not appear ungrammatical. No matter how many times I make such corrections, the next time Isabella does revisions, I find the same sort of problems. The same is true of Eunice's writings. Thus, I have come to realize that the way our minds use language is culturally ingrained so deeply in our brains from childhood, that all thought is framed in terms of the native language and its grammar, and that is all but impossible to change.

The results of Isabella's thesis also shows the same truth. Chinese minds think Chinese thoughts, and American minds think American thoughts. Culture shapes not only our language, but the way we view the use of colors, icons, and celebrities. Culture acts to facilitate communication among members of the same culture, but the very processes which help people of a common culture communicate and agree, lead to miscommunication, lack of comprehension, and misunderstanding between peoples of different cultures. These communication problems are not only limited to language, but also various other perceptions.

According to Dr. Nitish Singh's Cultural Value Framework model, culture affects our orientation toward collectivism versus individualism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity versus femininity, and high versus low context. Chinese culture is very different on these dimensions from American culture. Chinese culture is relatively collectivist, has great power distance between the populace and the government, is relatively feminine (read unaggressive and peace-loving), is high in uncertainty (risk) avoidance and is high in context, meaning that Chinese infer meanings largely from the context of a communication (which is largely the way that Chinese language works). American culture is high in individualism, has relatively little power distance between the populace and the government (participatory democracy), is masculine, low in uncertainty avoidance and low in context, meaning that Americans prefer direct, clear communication which does not take into account the context. Thus, it is not surprising that Americans have difficulty understanding the Chinese, including our government, which consistently has difficulty inferring the Chinese government's intentions. It is similarly difficult for Americans, due to such cultural differences, to understand people's of many other cultures, such as Middle Easterners. We can see the tragic results of such misunderstandings in the misguided foreign policies of the United States, including the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, nations which members of the Bush administration had not even begun to understand when they decided to undertake these invasions. As one of the world's most multicultural nations, if not the most, it behooves us to ask members of various cultures for help in understanding their cultures, especially when important decisions such as foreign policy may be affected by such knowledge.

Similarly, we need to be sensitive to peoples' cultural values when engaging in personal relationships. Although we all can find much in common as human beings, including basic logic and emotions, culture affects much about how we think and feel about life. Once we understand this, we can work to create a harmony of cultures.

January 19

Yesterday We Went to the Chinese Expo

Well, actually it is called the Asian Expo, but it is almost entirely Chinese, with a few Japanese, Korean and Thai foods. I also saw some traditional Korean dancers. This was in Pomona at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, where the Asian Expo is held every year in January to celebrate the Chinese New Year, which is actually January 25. Eunice and I had only gone once before, about 10 years ago I think, so we were due to go again. Last year, I was still recovering from pneumonia when the Expo was held.

Naturally, Eunice kept announcing to me over the past week or so how we hadn't gone there in a long time, and that we should go, so I felt obligated to take her. Frankly, it is a big money-making opportunity for vendors there, which means it is something of a "ripoff" for consumers, although the social atmosphere there may be said to make the trip worthwhile. We had already spent $23 on parking and tickets before we even got to the Expo. Also, there was finding parking in a large, crowded, distant parking lot, followed by a long walk, then a tram ride just in order to reach the gate. The general atmosphere was crowded, noisy, chaotic even, but cheerful. It was a lot like being in Taiwan.

The large majority of the people there were Chinese. There were some people that I am sure were of other Asian ethnicities, but not that many. The main language being spoken was Chinese, or Chinese dialects. I did see a few families of White people and a few Hispanic families. There were quite a few people with their Chinese spouses or sweethearts, as well as any children they had. Most of these couples were Bai Ren (White) men with their Zhongguo Ren (Chinese) wives or girlfriends, such as myself. I only saw one Black person there. With so many Chinese people engaging in Chinese New Year activities, it was very much like a New Year's Festival in Taiwan.

The Fairgrounds is very large, with gigantic, barn-like structures in which most of the activities took place. The first couple of buildings we went to had various non-food vendors. Since our main interest was food, we quickly moved on. (There was no map to the Expo, which I think was intentional so that people would look around more and presumably buy more.) We found a food stall outside, ate lunch there, then found that Building 7 was full of food vendors. Basically, Eunice stopped at almost every vendor and bought some of their food, even though most of these items were probably things she would have ignored in the supermarket. Fortunately, we were given two large red shopping bags in which to put the items. Eventually, both of these became very heavy and full, however, then Eunice bought a large box full of rice noodles, necessitating the use of a third shopping bag. Meanwhile, we had food or drink samples at almost every stall. After a while, I felt gorged, but I guess that is expected of a Chinese New Year celebration.

Around 4 p.m. we found our way to another gigantic barn. The shopping bags were so heavy (over 50 pounds total) that I did not feel like lugging them throughout the area, so Eunice left me by the entrance while she went looking. After a while, she came back without buying anything, but then went the other direction. After what seemed like a long time, she returned again with a toy cow that made mooing sounds, since the upcoming year is the Year of the Ox. She also had some free, cheap items such as hair clips. Then she left again for a long time. While she was gone, I had lots of time to look at the performers (plate twirlers, children doing some sort of Kung-Fu dancing, traditional Korean female dancers), and observing the people there. As a Social Psychologist (or a budding one before I was officially one), I have always been interested in observing people's ordinary behavior in public. As previously mentioned, there was sort of a frollicking, happy atmosphere there, although there was one Chinese woman, one of the ones with a Bai Ren husband, who somehow had a cut on the top of her head and was taken away for treatment by emergency personnel.

I tried to think of what an "average Chinese" would look like, or act like, and I must say, was only able to observe something that I already knew -- that Chinese people are very diverse in appearance and behavior. Being such a large nation, this makes sense, but it defies stereotypes about Chinese or other Asian peoples for that matter. Strangely enough, Asian peoples also often have trouble telling one person of European ancestry from another. Perhaps it is a matter of familiarity. I have spent so much time with Chinese people that I find their appearances, personalities and habits to vary greatly. Having the world's largest population, including many ethnic groups, China is a large and diverse nation with a diverse gene pool and diverse behaviors. About the only things that Chinese people generally have in common, appearance wise, are straight, black hair in the great majority of Chinese, typically dark brown eyes, an epithelial fold over the corner of their eyes, high cheekbones (not always prominent) and a fairly light, yellowish complexion. Otherwise, one looks, and acts, quite different from another. In fact, I have discovered over the years that the Chinese value individuality highly, as well as a sense of humor about life. Being smaller countries, nations such as Japan, Korea, the Phillipines and Vietnam seem more homogeneous in nature than is China, but still diverse. Stereotypes are all a matter of perspective, or I should say, ignorance.

After Eunice finally returned, she let me look around the building while she stood in a long line in order to spin the Ginseng Wheel for free prizes. I quickly returned in time to spin the wheel. I won an $8 phone calling card, and Eunice won the same thing, but exchanged it for a one ounce package of Ginseng. Ginseng is considered a very valuable health food in Chinese culture. (I like it too.) By that time, it was nearly dark, so we decided to leave. We got back to the car around 6 p.m. and home at 7 p.m. I was so full from all the food samples I had eaten, that I did not have much appetite by the time I got home. Eunice said we should have skipped lunch and merely dined on the samples, as some of our fellow fair goers apparently did. Next time, we will know better.

I had given Eunice $300 a few days earlier to spend at the Expo. On our way home, Eunice announced that she only had $60 left. I wondered how that could be. It didn't seem as though she had spent that much. Upon further examination, Eunice said she had spent around $100 or so, and given $50 to me and Isabella, which should have left her with around $150 in her purse. "Maybe it is hiding somewhere in my purse," she mused. Hmm, I hope so. Was the whole venture worth it? Well, judging by Eunice's happiness when it was all over, I would say so.