The clash between Republicans and Democrats is culturally evident in the U.S. along with the war between conservatism and liberalism. Other nations around the globe view this dichotomy as a cultural phenomenon in America.
Being a liberal, conservative, or moderate reveals how we as individuals identify ourselves in society. In today's, political arena Democrats and Republicans also view their party affiliation in a fundamentally different way too. My students like to bring up these ideological differences in my classes because it is not something they experience on the Chinese mainland.
On a global scale, I like to explain to my students how Westerners and Asians see themselves in a fundamentally different way. I always understood that we Americans view ourselves as being individualistic, independent, and analytical, it’s due to our cultural history. The Asian cultures take a more holistic view of life, emphasizing interdependence which I find intriguing.
Each year, I conduct a word game for my Cultural Diversity students, where the students must pair off a series of words to reveal their cultural views and their relationship with society.
For instance, if the words are train, bus, and tracks, an American with an individualistic mindset would pair train and bus since they belong to the same category (modes of transportation). In contrast, a Chinese person with a culturally holistic mindset is more likely to pair train with tracks since they share a functional relationship.
China’s history has influenced its cultural perceptions and for thousands of years working the land led to their interdependence with nature. People of Asia, have a higher percentage of farmland devoted to rice paddies they think more holistically than your average American.
If you were to ask a Chinese person to draw a diagram of their social network, they would draw a circle emphasizing their friends and acquaintances. In contrast, most Americans would emphasize themselves concerning others due to our cultural perceptions and assumptions.
Unconsciously, Americans stress the importance of the self and westerners will self-inflate their importance more so than those from Asian cultures. On the most part, people born in China won’t inflate their self-worth but on average people born in western cultures do.
For thousands of years growing rice was a labor-intensive crop in Asian countries, dependent upon a complex infrastructure of dikes and canals. This influenced or created a culture that recognizes human interdependence. Most Asians would also view the importance of society over their individual needs.
In contrast, our American history of the frontiersman, hunting, fishing, and growing simple crops have shaped our perception of independence and the rugged- individualistic mindset.
The relationship between people and land helped shape our cultural assumptions, which are then passed down from generation to generation. This is certainly true when it comes to the contrast between the western and eastern cultures.
Our western influence, however, is beginning to have an impact on China and their perceptions about the west. It’s mostly due to the popularity of American films and western music. I am witnessing, among my students and Chinese teenagers in general. That they want to become like their counterparts in western countries.
There are regions mostly in the large cities of China that have populations that share many basic assumptions with westerners. Many others, though, are much closer in the mindset of people in other rice-cultivating countries such as Japan and Korea.
Cultural differences between the East and West, especially, as China’s influence expands, our relationship with the nation will only continue to grow. Many foreign exchange students are also bringing western ideals, and customs, back to China with the hope of bridging the differences through a growing cultural understanding.
A simpler way of understanding our cultural differences is to understand that Chinese society is all about the group, while Americans celebrate the individual. The United States is a meritocracy in which individuals can shine, while in China, any success is regarded as a success for the company, or the family, or the team. A Chinese person will consider how their actions may affect the group rather than looking out only for themselves.
One thing I noticed when I came to China is that the hierarchy is important to the Chinese and respect will be shown to those higher up in the structure. American companies tend to have much flatter structures, with workers at all levels having access to those at the top. In China, a worker low down the pay scale would not expect to have direct contact with their superiors. Everybody knows their place in the structure and abides by the rules that come with it. The company at times will reward the employees through a means of profit-sharing when the company does will everyone reaps the benefits.
I found that conversations with my students can often make westerners feel intruded upon. A conversation in China can feel direct to Americans. Even though Americans like to place people in the context toward the common ground, small talk about age, income, and marital status, all favored by the Chinese, can feel intrusive and overly personal to an American. Having said this, Chinese visitors to the United States can find the language and tone used in American workplaces rude and uncomfortable. Thinking before you speak is important to the Chinese, as is showing respect for those higher in the hierarchy. Communication style is indirect and Americans doing business with Chinese counterparts will need to learn to read between the lines.
Some of my students that traveled to America as exchange students bring up the differences in how the elderly are treated in the US. China treats its seniors differently than we in the West. Elders are held in greater respect and treated as such, both in business and socially. Many families live with several generations under one roof. Even the dead are honored. Americans, on the other hand, expect their offspring to be independent. The older generation can live hundreds of miles away from their children, and the isolation of older adults is a social issue. The American workplace can seem ageist to older people, too, as youth culture is celebrated. On the opposite end of the spectrum though some provinces in China have a mandatory retirement age that we westerners would find discriminatory not to mention illegal in America.
Many Americans I have worked with over the years have brought up the differences between the concept of friendship between Americans and Chinese coworkers. Chinese people are inclined to foster deeper friendships than we Americans are accustomed to. They may see Americans as initially gregarious but difficult to get to know on a deeper personal level. A friend in China is someone to whom you feel deeply obligated and for whom you will do favors when necessary. This translates into business, where the Chinese will try to forge relationships and connections, known as guanxi. Trust is essential before doing business. Colleagues tend to socialize together as part of relationship building and business entertainment is lavish. Americans, on the other hand, tend to keep work and personal life separate. I have attended lavash parties with Chinese people and it is their way of building trust while forging a deeper relationship.
When I first arrived in China, I noticed that Chinese urban areas lack personal space. Cities in China are densely populated, and crowded, especially when it comes to public transportation. Americans are more accustomed to physical space and will become territorial if they feel crowded, snapping at people who push in line and staking out little kingdoms for themselves, whether it’s their car, desk, or airplane seat. That being said, many major cities in China are, clean, especially, when it comes to restaurants. The streets, subways, and public transportation, in general, are also much cleaner than many cities in the US which China prides itself on. However, as everyone knows, air and water pollution are a huge problem for all inhabitants on the Chinese mainland.
I, like most westerners, see the ability to express oneself and to access information as a basic human right. When I came to China, I noticed how heavily censored the media is, especially, when it comes to the internet. Social media networks that Americans take for granted, like Instagram, YouTube and Facebook are not accessible in China, while many Western newspapers are blocked online. You must apply for a license to use a VPN Router that gives you access to everything that the Chinese government has censored. Getting a VPN was the first thing I did when I arrived here. In Chinese companies, information is shared on a need-to-know basis, rarely filtering down from the top, while American corporate culture is much more open, with considerable effort being made to embrace transparency.
I am completely open and honest with my students when I tell them that I find Chinese people to be much more polite than westerners. Unlike Americans’ Chinese people will avoid confrontation wherever possible to save face. Shouting at someone causes both parties to lose face and if a reputation is lost in business, a relationship can be permanently damaged. As such, Chinese executives will often avoid giving a straight answer to save the other person embarrassment. Americans, who tend to be very direct and literal, can find this confusing and frustrating. The worst thing you can do in negotiations with Chinese colleagues is to go out of your way to prove a point, regardless of the effect it has on others. But for Americans, the end result is more important than reputation or even relationships.
One aspect that is most apparent between our two cultures is that humility is revered in China and people tend to downplay their achievements. America is almost the exact opposite; in a meritocracy, you need to make the most of yourself and let people know about your successes. The Chinese can see this as crass and boastful, while in the United States, humility can be regarded as a sign of weakness. I found that in the teaching profession, especially, here in China it is best to let others recognize your abilities while you downplay your accomplishments. Westerners who boast about their accomplishments rarely succeed in their profession in China.
How business is conducted in China can at times lead to some frustration, for westerners. I find patience can take you quite far when it comes to business dealings. Business in the United States moves at a different pace from China. Americans focus on speed and efficiency and will hurry to get things done quickly. Time is money, and people are expected to turn up on time for meetings and to meet deadlines. The Chinese, on the other hand, can be slow decision-makers, preferring to build consensus and foster relationships before plunging into anything. Deadlines may only be met when the time is right, and the project is considered complete. Americans can find this attitude to punctuality frustrating and time-wasting, while in negotiations, the Chinese will take advantage of the American need for speed, playing a waiting game to secure a better deal for themselves. Some in the west would consider the Chinese way of doing business as quite deceptive but to them, it is business as usual, and it would be wise to read between the lines before committing yourself contractually.
I like to tell my students; I no longer view China as a developing nation because living in China has given me a unique perspective that China is on par with America as a developed country. It now has the largest domestic economy in the world and China is about to overtake the US in terms of its immense infrastructure.
Always with love from Suzhou, China
I always do my best to help my students understand the importance of gaining a clearer understanding of the American way of life, and the cultural differences between our two nations; China’s rising power and influence in the world makes gaining that understanding a necessity not just for China but for America’s economic wellbeing.
Thomas F O’Neill
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