Mar 21

Cultural Differences

Written by Steve on Sunday, March 21st, 2010 at 4:36 pm
Filed under:culture, General | Tags:, , ,
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One of the more interesting aspects of living in or marrying into another culture is to observe how that culture handles ordinary tasks in an entirely different way from what I had learned growing up in the States. I thought I’d list a few I had seen and see if anyone else can contribute their own. I’d like to hear from every cross cultural combination and from both the Chinese and non-Chinese viewpoints.

Shortly after I married, I couldn’t help but notice that when my wife would fold my socks, she did it in a totally different way from what I had ever observed. I had seen two ways to “bundle” socks, either to lay one on top of another and fold then in half (not too secure)

…or to lay one over another and turn them inside out

…but until that day, I had never before seen socks tied in a knot like a pretzel.

Clever! And also very practical. But completely unknown to me. I thought to myself, “Hmm… what other surprises does she have up her sleeve?”

Some weeks later, we were going somewhere or other and being that we never wear shoes in the house (another difference from most Americans but a custom that I’ve noticed more and more Californians adopting, even those who are not Asian), we were both putting on our sneakers in the garage. The knot I tie my shoelaces with and the only knot I had ever seen is to make a figure eight, then a loop, circle the loop and pull through the opening. So I look over as my wife makes TWO loops does a quick move and shazam, her shoelaces are tied faster than mine but the knot looks exactly the same.

My wife is 5’4” (163 cm) tall so about average height. One day in the kitchen I noticed her getting a bowl off the top shelf of a cabinet, not by reaching up or using a chair, but by using a chopstick to tip it into her hand, which was too low to grab it directly. She did this effortlessly while talking to me and again, I thought how clever it was since I had only considered chopsticks as utensils before that time. It seemed I had married a true existentialist!

Another cultural difference I noticed in restaurants there was that instead of the napkin being placed on my lap, the diagonal end would go under my plate and then the napkin would drape from there into my lap. That made a lot more sense to me than our conventional method, since it was more likely to catch anything that dropped on the way from the plate to my mouth.

On a different note, I noticed in China that much of the social life was based around work colleagues and that people who changed jobs usually allowed their previous friendships to wither while spending more time with their new colleagues. The exceptions seemed to be with old school friends who stayed friends for life. Though this pattern exists in other countries, it seemed stronger to me in China than in the west.

One cultural aspect I found very refreshing in China was the lack of a guilt complex. I run into this all the time in the west but never in Asia. However, there was potentially a far more pronounced sense of shame that didn’t exist in the States. For instance, I would never see a show like Jerry Springer’s in China; no one would ever air their dirty laundry in public like that. That’s probably more of an American than a western phenomenon since I remember Michael Palin (former Monty Python member)  in his travelogue “Around the World in 80 Days” remarking that Americans who he had just met would proceed to tell him their life stories, including rather intimate details.

Once I saw a girl on a moped lose control around a curve and wipe out. Though many people were near her, not one bothered to see if she were OK. I ran to her to make sure she wasn’t hurt and she thought I was crazy! I just chalked it up to another cultural difference.

These are just a few that I can think of off the top of my head. The first travel advice I ever received (and damn good advice at that!) was to never compare cultures or I’d be disappointed and would not be able to experience the true nature of where I was visiting. I’ve always embraced that advice and have never been disappointed by anywhere I’ve ever been, yet I find that I have adapted certain behaviors that just made a lot of sense to me.

Here is a graph on found on this website that listed some differences between Chinese and Americans:


Major inspiration for this chart comes from the Li Qing presentation listed in the References. Another important source was the Aguilar and Stokes publication, also listed in the References.

Conception Of the Self Collectivist: Higher value placed on group cooperation and individual modesty. Individualist:  Higher value placed on self-reliance.  Self-promotion is more accepted. High value placed on “freedom” from externally imposed constraints.
Social Relationships Formal, hierarchical. People most comfortable in the presence of a hierarchy in which they know their position and the customs/rules for behavior in the situation. Informal, egalitarian. People most comfortable with their social equals; importance of social rankings minimized.
Friendship Small number of close, lifelong friends who feel deeply obligated to give each other whatever help might seem required. Large collection of “friends” and acquaintances which changes over time and involves only limited mutual obligations.
Obligation Relationships with other people involve reciprocal obligations. People avoid interdependent relationships and situations that might entail long-term obligations.
Task vs. Relationship Orientation Relationship-oriented:  Maintaining a harmonious relationship has priority over accomplishing tasks. Task-oriented.  Relationships are less important than getting the work done.
Harmony vs.
Avoid direct confrontation, open criticism, and controversial topics.  Concern maintaining harmony and with “face.” Willing to confront directly, criticize, discuss controversial topics, press personal opinions about what they consider “the truth.  Little concern with “face.”
Role of laws, rules, and regulations More faith in personal relationships than in written rules and procedures for structuring interactions. Written rules presumably apply to everyone and are assumed to produce fair, reasonable procedures and decisions.
Time Consciousness Relatively more attention to the past and to the longer-term future. Less interested in the past; eye on near-term future.
Ascribed vs. Achieved Status Traditionally, a person’s status in the society was based importantly on inherited characteristics such as age, gender, and family.  This is changing. People’s status is based mainly on their own achievements, including education obtained and level of success realized in their line of work.

Can anyone else add their own experiences to my little list? I sometimes wonder if some of the vehement disagreements seen on this forum are due to the differences between cultures and not necessarily one view being “right or wrong”. What is “right” in one culture might be “wrong” in another and vice versa. That is why the understanding and blending of different cultures becomes more and more important over time, at least in my view.

There are currently 3 comments highlighted: 66847, 66856, 66860.

40 Responses to “Cultural Differences”

  1. ChineseInUK Says:

    One major difference I found between Chinese and English are their attitudes towards their elderly family members. Most Chinese consider personally looking after their parents & grandparents their natural responsibilities and would choose to do so whilst most English couldn’t stand their parents & grandparents and would rather leave their parents struggle on their own or send them to homes for others to do the job.

    It breaks my heart to see my elderly neighbours fending for themselves and living sadly lonely lives. Their children seem to be quite happy to make financial & career sacrafices to bring up their children, but couldn’t contemplate doing the same for their parents. But I believe they don’t know what they’re missing: their parents’ wisdom (from decades of life expereinces) and practical help (they can make perfect role models and babysitters!).

  2. justkeeper Says:

    Wonderful post, Steve. Just out of curiosity: do you and your wife do feet-bathing like it’s traditionally done in China or you just stick with shower? 😉

  3. Raj Says:

    Steve, what about putting the socks together and then flipping the tops over? Firmly attached with a quick-release! mechanism.


    ChineseInUK, you raise some important issues, but I think you’re stereotyping too much based on your personal experiences. Many Britons give up work to care for elderly relatives, and my family always looked after our parents/grandparents one way or another. But then they had a large, “Chinese-style” family on hand nearby to look after them. Many people simply don’t have that luxury anymore – if two only-children marry and live in Manchester, how do they care for four parents/parents-in-law in Edinburgh and Cardiff at the same time? It just isn’t going to work. Chinese families will probably face the same dillemma thanks to the one-child policy in the near future.

    Whilst there are those people in the UK who don’t care or care only enough to visit once in a while, they are a minority. Most try to juggle their responsibilities and make things work as best they can.

    On the point about retirement homes, those who move in to them are almost always those who are not suitable to be looked after in their children’s home and/or care for children. They may well be better off being cared for in their own homes, but that’s a matter of State provision.

  4. Rhan Says:

    Interesting articles.

    I notice Chinese very often use phrase, idiom, axiom and poem in our daily conversation and writing, whenever we mention our hometown or a certain place, sure the Chinese can come up with some expression or personalities that are originate from what we cite. Even the Taiwan/China political analyst love to quote bible, Thomas Jefferson, Paine, Mao, and any emperor/scholar to articulate their view point. I don’t see this norm practice in the West/America.

    “do you and your wife do feet-bathing like it’s traditionally done in China”
    Serious? Chinese still do it today? Honestly I didn’t know this part of tradition until I watch series like 闯关东. When the husband (传武) refuses his wife to bath his feet, I am not sure is it out of respect of woman rights, or he feel guilt for not loving her. In Malaysia, “basin” is a must during marriage but most of us not sure what is it for, seem like I figure out the puzzle now. How i wish we would keep this tradition. “:D”

  5. Tait Says:

    American, Chinese, Japanese and Canadian cultures are totally different!

    Inside the house:
    – Americans wear shoes
    – Chinese people wear slippers
    – Canadians don’t wear shoes or slippers
    – Japanese people don’t wear shoes, slippers or even socks.

  6. Raj Says:

    Tait, they’re not all totally different from all of each other (and you’re slightly wrong with your example). Japanese people do wear socks in doors, they tend not to go around barefoot – sometimes they wear slippers.

    Also both Chinese and Japanese people generally respect their elders more than you find in countries like the USA, Canada, European states, etc. Not to say those countries don’t respect older people, they’re more respected in China and Japan.

  7. ChineseInUK Says:


    Not sure I can agree with you.

    How many English (what %) you know actually look after their parents personally in England, compared with modern Chinese smaller families who have only 1 or 2 children and work away from native towns too? Elderlies travel in China to their children whilst most English couldn’t imagine taking their parents into their own homes. State benefits may have had a impact but I think it’s more in the culture. Just look at the rich in China. They are rich enough to send their parents to homes but most only hire home helps and keep their parents at home with them.

  8. justkeeper Says:

    @Rhan: You misunderstood me! I meant feet washing with your own hands! 🙂

  9. Steve Says:

    @ ChineseInUK #1: I’ve noticed this really varies in the States depending mostly on the previous cultural background. In my family, we’d never put anyone in a nursing home or leave them to themselves. I’m one of five and all my brothers and sisters live near my parents. If I were an only child, I wouldn’t have left the area but we’re an Italian American family and even my wife noticed that our way is similar to hers. The biggest difference I saw was that in my culture, my wife’s family is my family so I don’t think of my sister or brother in law’s as being in laws but as being my sisters and brothers. She would look at my family as being MY family and separate from hers, so in that respect we’re a bit different. I am greatly impressed with the Chinese sense of family and really respect that part of the culture.

    @ Justkeeper #2: No, we don’t do feet bathing but just the normal shower. I’ve had my feet washed from the basin in China before a traditional foot massage but that’s about it.

    @ Raj #3: I’m not sure what you mean regarding the socks folding, can you explain it in more detail or send a photo?

    @ Rhan #4: Good point! That reminded me of the Chinese love of aphorisms. I was amazed when my wife once quoted Nietzsche off the top of her head! I later found out that Nietzsche is very popular in Taiwan. In the first few years of our marriage, my wife would frequently quote Chinese sayings if a situation came up that applied. She’d always say it in Chinese first and then translate it into English. I could probably write a book based on her Chinese expressions (seems she knows a million of them) and how they apply to life situations in the States. It’d be better than All I Ever Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. 😉

    Something every salesman is told to avoid in foreign countries is humor, since it changes from culture to culture. Fortunately, I happen to be married to a wife who is really funny, both in Chinese and English. Because I’ve heard so much Chinese humor, I was able to use some of it when giving presentations over there without any problem. The difference was that Chinese don’t tell “jokes” per se; the humor is based more on wordplay and multiple meanings. One of my salesmen in Shanghai loved riddles and he was always hitting me with them while in the States, riddles are more in the “children” realm. I also noticed that women there were fantastic flirts but in the beginning, I didn’t realize they were flirting because what they said could have a different, normal meaning. But after it happened a few times, I finally figured it out. 😛

    @ Tait: I’m running into more and more Americans (at least in the San Diego area) who don’t wear shoes in the house anymore. They’ve picked it up from the Asian cultures over time. My best friend is from Hiroshima so I’ll ask her if her family goes barefoot or wears slippers/socks/shoes. Hiroshima tends to be more traditional than cities such as Tokyo.

  10. Raj Says:


    Currently I do not know anyone with one/no siblings and parents that need assistance – my friends have healthy parents who are fine as they are (and see their children regularly). The same applies for those I know in China.

    If you’re Chinese, how do you know what most British people think – are you suggesting they brazenly tell you that they would never consider having their parents live with them? I doubt that very much. It may be the case that generally speaking we don’t think it normal for parents to move in with their children, but that’s because most people want to live in their own homes with their own space. Older people more often than not want to continue living in their own homes, living as they choose, rather than become totally dependent on their children. If there’s a cultural difference it’s merely that older Chinese people see nothing wrong with moving in with the relations.

    Rich people in the UK also get carers for their parents so they can stay at home. Those who go into homes do so because they need support but the family doesn’t have the money to pay for people to look after them at their house.



    I am not going to take pictures of me tying my socks!

    The method is easy.

    1. Put the socks on top of each other.
    2. Hold the top of the socks (where your foot goes in) together in one hand.
    3. Put your thumb inside one of the socks, whilst holding the other one with the rest of your hand.
    4. Turn the top of the socks inside out.

  11. CW Hayford Says:

    A nicely thoughtful lead into a big question!

    I posted a piece at Frog in A Well a while ago on “Puking, Spitting, and Face,” which is a lot less nice than the differences in how we fold our socks! http://www.froginawell.net/china/category/culture/

    There’s also quite an amusing & insightful set of banners by Yang Liu, who was born in China but grew up in Germany: http://blog.nationmultimedia.com/print.php?id=1748

  12. Wukailong Says:

    I think ChineseInUK is right in the sense that in China you’re supposed to behave towards your elders in a certain way by supporting them economically, as well as living together with them. It seems to me these things are slowly changing though, as it’s getting harder for people with careers to care in the same way. Also, there’s still somewhat of a cultural taboo to hire carers since it’s supposed to be done by the children (that’s the way you show your 孝心, “filial character”).

    One thing I’ve always wondered about, though, is why Chinese parents tend to leave their kids in kindergarten for so long? Almost everyone I know here were sent to kindergartens in their early childhood and only saw their parents once a week or so. I only went to kindergarten for short periods. I sometimes tease people with this fact when they bring up Western treatment of old people… 🙂

    Washing your feet with the hands is a Chinese tradition? I guess I’ve been assimilated then…

    As for cultural comparisons, I sometimes tend to feel that my own “home culture” is somewhat in between Chinese and American. I would say most of the parts of the diagram tend to the American side, except time consciousness and “harmony” vs. facts. Actually, Chinese can be quite direct on matters that doesn’t concern hierarchy, even more so than Westerners, but I’m used to trying to feel things out before I voice my opion. I still speak too indirectly and my inlaws make fun of me because of that, but I’m trying to be more direct. The Japanese are even more so, so I can usually get along well with Japanese people, even though they seem a bit too extreme in this regard.

    One of the most obvious way in which cultures differ is the way they all think they’re doing the best job: caring. Chinese care most about their family and friends, and think people from other cultures are cold because they don’t do it to the same extent. On the other hand, they don’t really bother as much about society at large and strangers (公德心 or “public virtue”), so I guess that’s the reason things often look messy and undisciplined. A lot of Westerners complain about this and say Chinese are selfish, but don’t understand that they themselves are being uncaring from a Chinese perspective.

  13. TonyP4 Says:

    Steve, nice piece and observation. Does your wife fold your underwear differently, haha?

    China is so big. I bet the folks in Hong Kong behave differently than folks in mainland China. The last 50 years affects our culture and behavior a lot esp. in China. I bet we’re moving more from ‘collectivist’ to ‘ individualist’ in China.

  14. Steve Says:

    @ Raj #10: Isn’t your sock method the same as my photo #2? The reason I asked you for a more detailed description was because it sounded the same as my second photo.

    @ Wukailong #12: Your kindergarten remark reminded me of a few friends in Shanghai who told me that when they were in pre-school, they were raised by their maternal grandparents for a couple of years and this is apparently quite common in that part of China. This caused them to have a very tight bond with them, especially with their maternal grandmother.

    One of my friends in Shanghai, a member of the one child family generation, said she would not want her parents to live with her but would gladly support them financially. I was surprised at her statement since I was under the impression that parents would commonly live with their children in old age. I wonder if the younger generation is changing in this respect?

    My personality is more direct than indirect so I always felt more comfortable with Chinese compared to Japanese. Japanese can be really good at avoiding direct answers or even indirect ones; they just subtly change the subject.

    I used to kid around with my colleagues about the fact that they never said “thank you” when I complimented them but always denigrated themselves, especially the women. After awhile, they got used to me and would catch themselves and say “thank you” to me after a compliment, then giggle over it. I thought it was cute that when I would say thank you to them, instead of the usual “you’re welcome” I’d normally hear “It’s my pleasure”, especially in Taiwan.

  15. Raj Says:

    Steve, it isn’t the same. You turn the whole sock inside-out. What I’m talking about is turning just the top inside out.

  16. Wukailong Says:

    As for Japanese indirectness, I once saw an amusing example somewhere where an American guy had written a comment in a piece of program code, saying that “this problem could have been solved years ago if the %#%^$# Japanese team had told us about it instead of working around it.” I can just imagine what thoughts raced through the Japanese guy’s mind as he realized there was a problem in code written by an American colleague… 😉

    I like grandparents taking care of children, and I’ve always been very close to my grandparents. But there’s a difference between that and the kindergarten thing. I’m not sure why kids are so often being sent there at such young age, unless there are no grandparents nearby of course.

  17. Wukailong Says:

    By the way, this is not an Asian thing but something I’ve realized when interacting with Americans. I didn’t even realize there was such a thing until I got into (minor) conflicts because of it. In a Swedish group, if you discuss the pros and cons of a decision there will be a certain time to hear out dissenting opinions and negotiate a solution. At a certain time, if everybody seems to agree, the decision will be set and not changed further on.

    I remember a situation with me, a Swedish and an American friend. We discussed where to eat, something like this:
    Me: How about Greek food?
    SW: Yeah, Greek will be nice.
    AM: Alright.
    (after getting close to the restaurant)
    AM: There’s also a Chinese restaurant nearby, and a Japanese sushi place. We could there instead.
    SW: But we agreed to have Greek food?
    Me: Yeah, I think we said Greek.

    Apparently this is important in business decisions too. Other nationalities are sometimes puzzled by this tacit agreement.

  18. Steve Says:

    @ Wukailong #17: Yup, that’s definitely American. He’s throwing out options as they occurred to him, not to counteract the group decision but just to put more options on the table. I’d guess when you both said you all had agreed to Greek he didn’t argue but just went along with it? That would be the normal response over here. It’s the same in a business decision; if you think of new options after a decision has been made that might be more viable, you’d be negligent not to bring them up.

  19. wei Says:

    I agree with 3. Raj. I know some American give up their job at another state to come back to their hometown to take care of their grand parents. (which a guy had a really high pay job for a very small job at his hometown for his parents.)

  20. wei Says:

    Add to what I say, his parent has some kind of serious problem that get really bad because of aging.

  21. wei Says:

    I am afraid of living with my mom when I get older because me and she never get along. And I am feeling tense around her. My mom alot of time ask me of this, if I will take care of her when she get older. I don’t really know how to answer her.

  22. Wukailong Says:

    As for being implicit and indirect, the Japanese have taken it to the extreme. My favorite example is how to answer when you’re asked for someone who’s not present. “So-and-so isn’t here” won’t do, you say “so-and-so is a little not here.” If you don’t believe me, try searching for “ちょっと不在” which is how it’s written…

    (Caveat: I don’t really know Japanese, but I have confirmed that this example is indeed correct, and did the search myself)

  23. Steve Says:

    @ Tait #5: I checked with my friend in Hiroshima to see what they wore in the house and everyone wears open toed sandals with no heels, same as we do in our house. My friend said everyone she knew did the same.

    @ Wukailong #22: I don’t remember this in China but in Taiwan when someone is asked a question they’re not sure how to answer, made them feel uncomfortable or that their answer might be negative, they’ll suck some air through their teeth before they prevaricate. I heard it so much that I even did it on occasion. I’ve also noticed that my wife virtually never says “no”. She might say “I don’t think so” or “not really” but she always phrases it in a softer way.

  24. ChineseInUK Says:

    Steve #9

    “ChineseInUK #1: I’ve noticed this really varies in the States depending mostly on the previous cultural background”
    Thanks, Steve, for your comment. I was comparing English (as a race) with Chinese (as a race) not British (as a nation) with Chinese (as a nation).

    Glad to know Italians look after their families too 🙂

  25. ChineseInUK Says:

    Raj #10

    “Currently I do not know anyone with one/no siblings and parents that need assistance – my friends have healthy parents who are fine as they are (and see their children regularly). The same applies for those I know in China.”

    Either it is very convenient that no old people you know of need assistance, or you’re trying to avoid the reality in life. I leave it to other to decide which one is more likely.

    “If you’re Chinese, how do you know what most British people think – are you suggesting they brazenly tell you that they would never consider having their parents live with them? I doubt that very much.”

    Well, I have lived in England for many years and work & live with English.

    Professionally I have got involved with an English PFI Housing project, worked for 3 months exclusively with over 40 sheltered housing schemes and some residential care homes. I know the ins & outs of what kind of lives most English old people live.

    Personally, most of my colleagues, friends & neighbours, (I would say over 90%) would not make a career or substantial financial sacrifices for their parents. When my father died a few years back, I obtained a 2 year visa for my mum to stay with me in England. My mum went with us on all our family holidays and she also went to all my Chinese parties. My English colleagues & friends called me a saint. But my Chinese friends simply called her “auntie” and treated her as such: someone to be respected and taken care of.

    “Rich people in the UK also get carers for their parents so they can stay at home.”

    Rich English pay for carers for their parents to stay away from their own home, knowing perfectly well, their parents would have preferred to live with them. During my working with sheltered housing schemes, I sat with many of residents who longed for weeks even months for a visit from their families and some would even put up with their grandchildren stealing or cheating money off them and refused to allow wardens to report incidents to the police because they were worried they would end up with no family visitors at all!

    “Those who go into homes do so because they need support but the family doesn’t have the money to pay for people to look after them at their house.”

    In the sheltered housing schemes I worked with, 28% of the residents paid for all costs (rents, services & supporting people charges) from their own pockets, i.e. they were too rich to receive housing benefits or Supporting people benefits. Their families can certainly afford to look after them at their own home, which would be much cheaper as they wouldn’t have to pay for rent, but choose not to.

  26. ChineseInUK Says:

    Steve #14

    “I used to kid around with my colleagues about the fact that they never said “thank you” when I complimented them but always denigrated themselves, especially the women. After awhile, they got used to me and would catch themselves and say “thank you” to me after a compliment, then giggle over it.”

    You’re very right. Modesty is highly promoted in Chinese upbringing and it would be natural for Chinese to “deflect” direct praises.

    It took me years to realise that my modesty was putting myself at disadvantage in job interviews, other professional events & career progression but it took me another few years before I was able to accept compliments as they were and reply with a simple “thank you”, instead of trying to say something negative about myself including picking holes in my own achievement!

    I now tell Chinese new to England to sell themselves and be aware of the culture difference. What most Chinese would consider “boasting” is simply considered effective self-promoting by English and if they want to compete with English in local job market, they have to adapt to local customs. When in Rome, do as the Romans.

  27. Steve Says:

    @ ChineseInUK #25: My oldest son did some volunteer work in a nursing home when he was in high school and told us that most of the people there virtually never saw their kids or if they did, the visits didn’t last very long. They really appreciated his being there and talking to them. I sometimes wonder if the lack of interaction with their parents when they were younger created a distance that never bridged later in life but that’s just guessing on my part. It’s like that old Harry Chapin song Cat’s in the Cradle. I see this a lot with newer Asian immigrant families in the US, especially from the Philippines. The parents are so busy working and trying to live the American dream that they spend almost no time at home and the kids join gangs and get into trouble. It’s not as prevalent in the Taiwanese and Chinese families, at least among our friends and acquaintances.

    @ ChineseInUK #26: I remember when I met my wife’s nephew for the first time. He was a freshman at UCSD and after we shook hands, I took him aside later and taught him how to shake hands western style, with a much firmer handshake. That’s your first impression over here and what we call a ‘wimpy’ handshake does not make a good first impression because some take it as an indication of your general personality. When I was over in China, I lightened up my handshake quite a bit.

  28. Wukailong Says:

    @ChineseInUK (#25): I agree there are differences like the ones you describe (Chinese parents living with their kids, very rare that they live in retirement homes) but please refrain from saying that other commentators “avoid the reality in life” because they don’t have the same impression.

    One question: did you spend any time in kindergarten when you were a kid? Many Chinese I know stayed there during their formative years and only saw their parents once a week. (I don’t refer to staying with your grandparents which is a different thing)

    (adding in Steve) As for modesty, one thing that seems to be very popular in China, though, is to talk big. I’m not sure if this is something studied from the West, but looking at the patriotism it doesn’t seem that way. I think this might be my cultural imprint since I’ve never been taught to pay attention to formal titles, education or the like, but here it’s very important, so when some big shot describes himself as being the second coming most people here seem to appreciate it. I just wonder what he has to back up his claim. 🙂

  29. Wukailong Says:

    I’m a bit apprehensive about these discussions. I’ve often heard the following from Westerners and Chinese:

    * Western: Chinese are selfish, don’t care about rules or the common order, spit and litter, are nationalist and don’t make quality goods.
    * Chinese: Westerners are selfish, don’t take care of their parents, are too individualist and only care about their own turf, lack discipline and don’t like hard work.

    I get the impression that most people don’t like the cultures of the other country they’re staying in. Is that so?

  30. Steve Says:

    When I linked to CW Hayford #11’s Frog in a Well site, I came across a review of a book called Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Henderson Smith, written back in 1894. He was a missionary there for decades and his book covers some of the differences we’ve talked about here, though of course taking into account that it was written more than one hundred years ago. I just started it but if anyone else is interested, you can find it here on Google Books.

    CW also mentions Lin Yutang, who also compares cultures in many of his works. From Google Books you can download The Importance of Living along with other works he’s written.

  31. Wukailong Says:

    I might have made the wrong impression above. I like the discussions, but I sometimes wonder if the cultural divide is stronger than it has to be. TV programs about students returning from the US to China, for example, tend to emphasize the cultural differences and how hard it was to live in a society that is not what you’re used to. It’s like it was just a baptism of fire before returning home to go about your real tasks. That’s why I like this post, because it is about how cultural differences can actually be interesting rather than just annoying.

    One such difference I like to observe is how children are reared. Parents worry so much about their kids tripping or hurting themselves that they tend to carry them instead of letting them walk by themselves, at least up to a certain age. I know I’m probably going to stumble into these issues more seriously soon, so I need to think about what’s best for the children.

    One thing about parenting that’s also peculiar is the amount of criticism and praise. Asian parents seem to be very critical and strict, based on the idea that it’s a harsh world and the child needs to be cultivated into a good person. From what I’ve heard, US parents lavish praise on their children. When I grew up it was somewhere in between, perhaps with a bit more praise. On the one hand, being critical might make children work harder, but praising gives them more self-confidence. I think many of the temperamental differences between Chinese and Westerners are due to their upbringing. Once again, what’s best is hard to say; I admire both the working ethos of the Japanese and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Americans.

  32. Steve Says:

    @ Wukailong #28: My wife is always calling friends Professor Liu or Dr. Lee while I just call them by their given name. I’ve never heard her call them by their given name if they have an educational title. I also noticed that in hiring salesmen in both Taiwan and China, education was given more priority than work experience or the interview itself. For me, hiring someone with a doctorate to be a salesman is normally not a good idea, since the kind of person who stays in school that long usually doesn’t make a very good salesman, and also has a tendency to tell the customer what he needs rather than asking him what he wants. I’ve met a few good salesmen who have doctorates but very, very few. I wanted someone to train who was smart, young and hungry, right out of college with no sales experience so no bad habits to correct. This went completely against the grain of what my colleagues thought was appropriate but when I did get someone who had the qualifications I was looking for, they turned out to be my best salesman.

    Per your #29: In my experience, Chinese are not selfish and care a lot about social rules, it’s just that their social rules are different from ours. Their homes are very neat and clean while outside their homes they aren’t as polite or what we might call “socially conscious” as we might be, per the example I gave of the girl taking a spill from her scooter. That would also apply to littering since it’s outdoors. Spitting never bothered me; it was just their custom. Even now, my wife will not spit on the ground but spit quietly into a Kleenex or napkin and throw it away. I think some goods are quality and some are not; the problem is in distinguishing which is which. I don’t think the Chinese culture is as quality oriented as the Japanese culture, but neither is the American. The Japanese are just very meticulous people.

    I won’t comment on the Chinese opinion of westerners since I’m a westerner, but I have talked to Chinese businessmen who now live in the States and they’ve told me that Americans are some of the hardest workers they’ve ever seen and that it’s a myth that they don’t work hard. I think some of that applies to the profession and also to the geographic region. As ChineseInUK and I discussed, I think most of that is how the people were raised and what their cultural background was.

    I agree with you that most people don’t like the culture of the other country they’re staying in, whether western, eastern or anywhere else. One of the first thing you learn in sales is that most people hate to change, even if it involves change for the better. I know I sound like a broken record on this but I believe the problem stems from comparing the new culture to your own rather than just accepting it for what it is as an intrinsic whole, and socializing with your own countrymen rather than socializing with the natives. Do you condemn the difference or find the difference interesting and fascinating? The answer to that question tends to relate directly to whether you like or dislike the new culture, and how much culture shock you end up enduring.

    I do know one thing; if you condemn the culture of the country you’re in, you’d better not marry anyone from that culture. 😉

  33. ChineseInUK Says:

    Wukailong #28

    Thank you for your comment.

    I’m afraid I truly believed and still believe Raj was avoiding the reality in life. We all have families, relatives, colleagues & friends who have parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts. I simply can’t imagine anyone knowing no elderly people who need help, who would have preferred to live with their families, to get more help from their families or simply to see more of their families.

    I’m highly supportive of open debates and to encourage others to voice different opinions but at the same time I also believe we need to point out the potential falacies in other’s arguments and point out the possibility that someone may be hiding behind a pretence to avoid full & proper conversations. Let’s call a spade a spade, or at lease pose the question whether it is a spade, and hopefully have a livelier debate as a result.

    Having said that, I was careful not to make an accusation because I wasn’t sure. I asked a straight question and he gave me an unbelieveable answer and I suspected he realsied his own mistake of not having thought hard and thorough enough before commenting then tried to avoid the reality. So I posed a question to others to see if my suspicion was unfounded. Judging by your comment, you seem to think his answer was believeable, which is fair enough: I got an answer to my probing question and know that at least one other person believe that my suspicion was unfounded. If I hadn’t asked the question, I would never have known.

    In answering your question to me, I spent all my pre-school years in kindergartens but I was collected by my parents at the end of each working day. My brother & I were the only grandchildren on my father’s side who didn’t spend sometime living with his parents. But the fact those cousins of mine spent sometime living with their grandparents instead of their parents didn’t seem to affect their respect & their feeling of responsibilities toward their parents, certainly compared with the average English I know.

    Also I agree with you Chinese are more obliged to refer people by their positions and educational titles. I think it goes hand in hand with the Chinese culture of respect for experience, authority & educational attainment.

  34. ChineseInUK Says:

    Wukailong #29

    “I get the impression that most people don’t like the cultures of the other country they’re staying in. Is that so?”

    I think it is human nature to remember the frustrations more than the plain sailings simply because it would have caused one to think, act or worry more when things go wrong. You tend to remember the times when your train/flight etc arrived late not the times when they arrived on time because when they arrived on time, everything went smoothly and time passed quickly without much registered either biologically or psychologically compared with when they were late with raised heart beat / temperature / temper etc and forced quick brainstorming for alternative resolutions!

    I think most people moving abroad go through an initial period of misunderstanding and frustration which is well reflected in the comments you listed. But as they stay abroad for longer and get more & more involved in local lives, their understanding get deeper and their views gradually get much more balanced and realistic: they are able to appreciate the strengths and the backgrounds (the difficulties & reasons) behind the weaknesses of their host country’s culture.

    As matter of fact I feel I can often figure out the length of someone’s stay and/or how active they are in local lives simply by looking at how one-sided their views are, either all positive or all negative.

  35. ChineseInUK Says:

    Wukailong #31

    “Parents worry so much about their kids tripping or hurting themselves that they tend to carry them instead of letting them walk by themselves, at least up to a certain age.”

    Agree with you there and my advice would be to learn from Western parents and let children appreciate the danger & how to cope with the real world as early as possible.

    “Asian parents seem to be very critical and strict, based on the idea that it’s a harsh world and the child needs to be cultivated into a good person. From what I’ve heard, US parents lavish praise on their children.”

    I have to say my mother was extremely critical of me when I was young and I still bear the scars of my upbringing in my characters. But at the same time, I don’t think I would have worked half as hard and achieved half as much as I have done without the push & harsh talks my mother gave me, and still hands out generously nowadays 🙂

    I don’t think it easy to combine and balance the two. My personal approach with my daughter has been erring on the Western side and it seems to have worked well so far.

  36. ChinkTalk Says:

    When I was in high school, I worked in some Chinese restaruants and they always gave me free food and drinks. In essence, the idea was that you can eat whatever you want as long as you don’t dent the profits. But when I worked in Western restaurants, they would give me a discount. I don’t know if this is a cultural thing for the Chinese or not because I don’t know if they do that in China’s restaurants.

    I grew up in a small town and all of the Chinese restaurant owners would give free food to the the Natives when they come by the back door. These Chinese restarants are mom and pops and they are barely scratching a living themselves but it was always accepted as normal that if you are an employee the restaurant will feed you.

    Food is central to the Chinese psyche and I think they believe that everybody should be entitled to food whereas Westerners look at it differently.

  37. Wukailong Says:

    @ChineseInUK (#34): “As matter of fact I feel I can often figure out the length of someone’s stay and/or how active they are in local lives simply by looking at how one-sided their views are, either all positive or all negative.”

    You’re right, of course. I hope I didn’t come off as too defensive. 🙂 My background is that I came to China in 1997 as a language student, full of hopes and dreams. Of course the country had its fair share of frustrations, but I just couldn’t understand why so many of my fellow students seemed to look down at the country. After a while I realized the problem was that most people hung out in groups and just didn’t interact much with the locals due to language problems, but I also believe some people viewed themselves as superior, and I’ve been wary of exclusive expat circles since. I went back to my home country 2 years later but have been back in periods and live in Beijing since 2006.

    It took me longer to get to know the Chinese complaints about Western culture. Some of it is valid and some is prejudice. Since there really is no manual on how to fit into a new society, I think the best piece of advice I can get is to separate personal frustrations from cultural ones, and get to know people quickly (like you say, to be active locally). I’ve heard complaints about the difficulty of getting Chinese friends, as if it was the host country’s fault.

  38. Steve Says:

    Hi Rhan~ Your post was off topic but still worthwhile as an alternative view of modern Chinese history so I published it on the letters page for all to read and comment upon. Thanks!

  39. ChineseInUK Says:

    Wukailong #37

    “I hope I didn’t come off as too defensive.”

    Not at all.

    It was clear from your comment that you were quoting what you heard from others and your numerous comments combined gave me a clear indication of a very rounded & sensible person 🙂

    It’s a pleasure “talking” to you.

  40. ChineseInUK Says:

    Wukailong #37

    “Since there really is no manual on how to fit into a new society, I think the best piece of advice I can get is to separate personal frustrations from cultural ones, and get to know people quickly (like you say, to be active locally).”

    Can’t agree more.

    I get on with just about anybody, English, Chinese, Indian, African……For me, it’s the individuals that I mix with not the races they belong. Personally I find every race has its own specifics, good and bad, just like every age group, every sex, every class, every geographical root……If you concentrate on the personality, intelligence & philosophy then you’re likely to find friends from all walks of life and enjoy life to the full.

    I have some Chinese friends who hardly mix with locals and have very little good things to say about England & its people. It can be difficult to decide if their isolated lives in England enforced their negative views of the country or their negative views prohibited them from mixing with the locals. Probably a bit of both. I can’t help but wondering why they are in England at all!

    I’d like to think I’m able to see clearly both the strength & weaknesses of both cultures, Chinese & English, and try to “pick & mix” when I can the best of both worlds. Having said that, this is not always possible because sometimes, they are the opposite sides of the same coin and at other times old habits die hard, I’m afraid.

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