Depending only on our assumptions to understand a culture is dangerous. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner (1996) state that the only way to manage cultural change is to use stories to rewrite our assumptions about implicit culture. In this short essay I am going to talk about assumptions I had about Chinese culture (based on my initial reactions to experiences I had), and then relate several stories that changed my mind, and through these experiences explain some of the key differences between an American upbringing and Chinese culture.
When I first came to China, I had an opportunity to attend a funeral in the mountainside. Even though this was a funeral, I was curious to know how funerals among Chinese Christians differed from funerals among American Christians. You see, I come from a culture where the dead are mourned in personal silence. God, for Americans, is a mystical calculator they keep in their pocket, who I have often imagined has the voice of the late Richard Harris; a great, mournful voice, apologizing for the blood of the world, and a bright piñata for our confusion and angst, opening his arms to the barbs we throw in our pain and guilt. However, in China I experienced a different kind of God, one that surrounded the crowd on the mountain in a warmth only because we were together, and uplifted each person there with the peace of a prosperous and unique future, promising each family a future of peace while also promising each family a future of struggle.
The United States comes from a strong background of Puritan beliefs, capitalistic philosophy, Enlightenment idealism, and postmodern sensibilities, while China comes from a background of Confucian ethics, taoist emotionalism, historical precedence, and socialist methodologies. Every artefact of culture invaded my brain and tried to make sense, but continually failed: Russian winter jackets, German cars, French superstores, Korean movies, American fast food, Japanese televisions, and English accents: for a country that prided itself on an immense history and sterling culture, how could so many other cultures have so much power? In the United States, Chinese culture had been relegated to cheap restaurants, Japanese culture to cheap cars, and European culture to out-of-date emotionalism, but in China foreign constructs held immense power. In China, the political, military, and artistic systems were Russian imports, the economic model an American import, and the social system was a fragment of Marxist ideology and failed dreams, touched with a bit of ancient Chinese sentimentalism. The values and underlying beliefs of the two countries were not even comparable, and that fascinated me.
While I was working as an English teacher at Peking University, I was invited to be a guest judge for an English-speaking competition, and later as an honored guest for the televised finals. In the story above, I spoke about internal characteristics of both China and America (values and underlying beliefs), but in this story I will speak about the external characteristics (the arts). Art in China has a long history of emulation, from the long-standing tradition of learning how to paint landscapes by copying the masters, to the art of calligraphy, a beautiful discipline where the artist instills his or her passion into the brush and the tiniest variant of movement in the shape of a word is considered beautiful and unique. As I was sitting in my front-row seat at the televised finals of the competition, this emulation became magnified in everything, although strangely the emulation was not from the Chinese masters but from American television shows.
Whenever I look back on the recording of the competition finals, I swallow a bit of my pride. Every object on the set, everyone sitting in the arena-benches in the audience, and every activity the participants took part in looked American… except when the camera panned to me. Bigger than everyone around me, dressed in a yellow tweed jacket, and clapping and smiling out of sync, I was noticeably different from everyone else in the audience, who were sitting quietly with their hands in their laps, trying to blend in with the background, not making sudden movements, but becoming a part of the portrait of intense expectations. The CCTV Cup was a realization that even as a spectator, my basic instinct was to act like an American, to move to my own rhythm, even when the rest of the world was clapping at the same time.
“Work is Work”
I was nervous; previously she had refused to see me, take my calls, or even recognize my desires to communicate with her. Just a week before, we were on good terms; suddenly we were enemies, beholden on opposites sides of a battlefield without a choice. She could not look at me; I could only wonder what I had done wrong. “Family is family, work is work,” she told me in her office, sighing and shrugging her shoulders as if she held a great burden. “When you work in China, you must understand this.” A week before, I walked up the aisle of a conference hall of the Saixiang Hotel in Tianjin, a city not far from Beijing. When I embraced hands with my bride, I had little idea that my school, unbeknownst to me, forgot about the date of my wedding and scheduled a very expensive class on that very day, and because there was no teacher to teach that class, the school not only lost a huge amount of money but also a great deal of face, and something had to change.
According to Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner, cultures deviate between universalism and particularism in the development of rules, and the use of internal and external control mechanisms to enforce those rules. China, for example, is highly universalistic when it comes to developing rules but incredibly particularistic when it comes to enforcing them. Furthermore, the influence of Taoist philosophy on Chinese culture has engrained among people a dialectic of natural movement between dark and light, or that people naturally transform from something into something else rather the American perception that people are born a certain way and can never change. Nothing good can last, and nothing can really last; therefore, the only things that last are the things that must change and in changing they last. After I was let go from the school, I spent a long time in mourning and anger, even though I left one of the most dismal schools and ended up in the highest university in the country, not even one day after I was let go. The American in me was stunned, but no one else seemed surprised. The American in me demanded retribution and punishment, but the Chinese seeping into me transformed that rage and frustration into the most amazing thing: forgiveness.
“The Walking Street”
More than the impersonal attributes of rules and control however, are cultural issues that affect a person’s self-perception as well as emotional state. Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner also relate the cultural values of individualism and collectivism (self-perception), and neutral and affective (emotions). Growing up in the United States, I learned some very difficult lessons about not allowing other people to define what I believed about myself, and that I was fully in control of my emotions: no external force could or should govern my state of mind, unless I allowed it to. Like most people, I believed what I knew to be the truth; that either people thought that way, or wanted to think that way because they knew in the darkest part of their heart, they also knew it to be true.
Consider my surprise, then, when I took my teacher for coffee. Over the last couple of weeks, I felt there had been some tension between us, and being that she was my tutor, I wanted to make things right. I should have realized something was off when the moment we stepped outside of the cab, she started walking on the opposite side of the street, and when I moved toward her, she reacted and asked me to stay a few feet away from her, but to keep walking. Perhaps she wanted to play the part of a spy? No, actually. She was embarrassed that others seeing her would think she was my girlfriend.
Later that afternoon, after buying her some ice cream to assuage her frustration as well as drinking a cup of coffee to try and force my brain to interpret the events of the day, she told me that not only had I embarrassed her in class by asking too many questions, but that everyday she felt a creeping doom when she had to mentally prepare herself to teach me. And here I thought I was the model student! I had been praised by my professors in university for my unflinching dedication to learning and truth-seeking, but in China I was considered a brute, little better than a hoodlum looking for an easy pinch (a term of endearment, I thought). However, for many people in China, self-perception is a reflection of perceived expectations from other people, and emotions are contextually defined by those same perceived expectations. I thought that by inviting my teacher out for coffee, I could make it right, but it wasn’t until I realized that by trying to make it right, I was constantly making it worse. Only after I changed how I acted in front of her in the classroom, was she able to change how she acted in front of me.
One winter, I visited a friend who lived in the city of Xi’an. A prominent surgeon and Party member, a couple of years before he stayed with my parents in California while he was doing a residency as a foreign expert and cancer researcher at Stanford University. He quickly became a close family friend. While visiting him in Xi’an, I believed that like great family friends, we would spend some time together, visiting the sites, having dinner together, and speaking of my family back in California and his life there. However to my surprise we spent most of the time entertaining his friends, drinking in teahouses, schmoozing up to officials, and only speaking to each other in the car as we moved from place to place. By the end of the trip, I was so confused, upset, and in pain from the massive headaches I suffered from the large amounts of tea I drank, but more importantly, I was jaded by our friendship, believing he had used me to uplift his position as a Party member so as to ensure his status as the “surgeon with the exotic foreign friend”.
Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner speak also of three very important cultural concepts: specific and diffuse (responsibility), achievement and ascription (status), and past, present, and future time (orientation). My experience with my friend allowed me a unique glimpse into a special situation. My reactions were pure examples of American perceptions of responsibility, status, and orientation. As a friend, we should (responsibility) have spent the time together, growing closer and laughing about old times, thereby solidifying our status as friends, and securing the future of our relationship. However, in the mind of my friend, he would owe me far more by the simple act of allowing me an opportunity to show him off to his friends, and that action would ensure for decades to come his appreciation and dedication to us as friends. Furthermore, the status I would afford him would be “change in the bank”, so that in the future if I needed a favor from him he would be more than happy to sacrifice his time and effort to help me, something that even my greatest of American friends would likely need a lot of convincing to even consider. Once I had realized this, I was embarrassed, but I suppose I can write that off as being too American about the whole situation.
“The Man with the Turtle-Skin Glasses”
My first year in China I worked at a kindergarten. My boss was a big man built like a football player, with broad shoulders, a belly of iron, and huge, square-framed glasses that he claimed were covered in turtle-skin (he said with pride). I remember walking into his office for the first time and being surprised: he was sitting at his computer desk, playing Counter Strike, a popular computer game where the player acts in the role of a counter-terrorist officer and runs around a map shooting terrorists in the head. He was older, in his fifties, respectable, but when I walked in he motioned me to sit in a wooden chair beside his desk and continued playing his game. When he was done, he turned to face me and asked me if I liked Chinese food, and what did I think of the cold buns they served in the school cafeteria for breakfast. I was too stunned to reply; eventually I gathered up my energy and said it was good; I waited for some time, but he didn’t have anything more to say, so then I collected myself and after making up an excuse, went back to my room, about ten feet away just down the hall.
As a final conclusion to this short essay, I want to talk a little about leaders and followers. I wouldn’t necessarily say my boss was a good leader (he had to flee the country two years later) but he was an ordinary leader who did what he believed was expected of him. He was an authority, he was rich, and in general he didn’t have a lot of expectations of others except to not embarrass him and work with the other staff. He was always there, but rarely did he make his presence known unless circumstances demanded, but if his presence was made known his shadow fell over everything. Aside from being less personable, he was more or less like any other non-exceptional leader I had ever known. He expected his staff to fulfill their duties, and they expected him to tell them what to do. Sure, certain intricacies were apparent: the lack of discussion when he made a decision, the sardonic and cleverly worded remarks from the staff when he wasn’t around (as well as some moaning), and the fear of what it might mean to have a relationship with him. We are all people of flesh and blood and more or less respond in similar ways. If we let it, culture has power over us, but if we master it, culture is merely another language to learn.