American Born Chinese – 美國土生華人

August 5, 2007

Differences in Western and Chinese/Asian Cultures

Filed under: Asia America — americanbornchinese @ 6:52 am

General News Update: This ABC blog has finally been updated with a new post! Again, I apologize for the lack of updates since it’s been so long that I’ve last written an entry (wow, more than a month ago). I’ve been wrapped up with many other obligations and priorities (such as job hunting) that I haven’t paid much heed to this blog. Anyway, I’ve taken the time to research this topic and contemplate upon my own relevant experiences, and I’ve spent about two days writing up this entry – here it is.

It is no doubt that Americans generally hold a certain perspective on China and Chinese people in the overall scheme of thought. I’ve heard of stereotypical jokes made by comedians about Chinese and other Asians, and the images that often come to their minds are often men clad in straw cone hats with hair tied in a queue trailing behind their backs, emperors surrounded by numerous concubines, and woman with bound feet and dressed in Oriental style robes. How often I would hear non-Chinese Americans mimicking our language with fake, and rather mocking, Chinese – “Aiiiahahaa! Ching Chang Chong!” – as though doing so was an intentional degradation to our culture and ethnicity. This is the harsh yet inevitable reality of racial discrimination, and this also applies to all other ethnic groups in the United States and other overseas countries of the world.

In a nation of diverse cultural influences, racial diversity has paved the way for heterogeneous societies throughout the century, yet integration has yielded forth a tendency of parallel thought in accordance with shared political viewpoints, mainstream cultural practices, as well as proper norms and ethical values. This is displayed within the “melting pot” theory in which the ingredients of the pot – the people, cultures, and religions – are combined so as to create a more uniform and consistent mixture of what defines American culture in this contemporary society today.

In saying so, there are many differences between the American and Chinese cultures encompassing various aspects such as politics and government, educational policies, cultural norms, standards of living, and even industrial and technological modernization. I’ll discuss one of these aspects here since the subject is so broad and it would be a pain to cover them all at once. I may address these other issues in the near future.

Article Spotlight:
Americans and Chinese recall memories very differently, indicating the impact of cultures on ‘self-concept’

It seems to me that when I first read this article, I began to realize how relevant many of the situations were toward real life circumstances and how the general population is able to relate to them. As a Chinese living in America, I’ve been exposed to both sides of the spectrum, both as a Chinese and an American.

What I would like to talk about are the dissimilarities in cultural values relating to the self. Many Chinese are group oriented, whereas Americans are more elaborately focused on the self as a central character. These types of individual-focused verses group-oriented styles aptly define the differences between mainstream American and Chinese cultures. In regard to a survey conducted at Harvard University, according to Susan S. Lang’s article, American and Chinese mothers have a different type of communicative style when interacting with their own children, both of which deviate from one another in an entirely contradictory fashion. Americans often use a communicative style in which both mother and child would expound upon each other’s responses, personal opinions, as well as feelings, amplifying the overall significance of self-appreciation and esteem. On the contrary, Chinese emphasize upon the concern of moral discipline in concordance with behavioral standards and proper conduct, thus, often shying away from the accentuation of self-worth and individuality.

The discrepancy of unlike communicative styles consequently mold the perceptions of young children as they age, with their acquired values embedded within their mind as they continue to interact in accordance with their own cultural norms. This then paves the way for stereotypes and generalizations as they begin to enter the larger picture in which cultural differences are analyzed within a broader cultural context of the acculturated mainstream society. When under scrutiny of the general public, Chinese and other Asians are perceived to be passive, nerdy or geeky, and sometimes unassertive in comparison to other non-Asian majority populations. Consequently, they are often thought of as humble beings, often lacking in self-confidence especially in the midst of direct confrontation or openly voicing forth an opinion in public.

In this manner, many are often subject to outside discrimination based on these so-called “flaws,” and, living in a multiracial society where cultural worlds conflict, one might experience a sense of “internalized racism” of one’s own ethnicity in which he/she might be pressured to adhere to the distortions of racism and the stereotypes contained within it. With the constant bombardment of these generalizations and stereotypes, it is not difficult to detest one’s own ethnicity as a result of the inability to maintain feelings of self-worth and importance.

A specific example I’ve witnessed in my personal experiences is that most non-Asian Westerners are more inclined to be unconstrained and sociable within group or classroom settings, whereas Asians generally tend to more inhibited and reserved when it comes to verbally expressing themselves in front of the public.

In the university setting, I’ve taken an English course a year ago in which our curriculum consisted of a grading policy divided evenly between essay writing and open discussions among our class. Each of our essay assignments focused upon a particular topic in which our class would get together beforehand to discuss as a whole group. Each student, whether shy or outgoing, was also graded upon participation in the overall discussion. Our class consisted predominantly of white Caucasians, and the rest were minority students such as Asians, Hispanics, or African Americans. Among approximately twenty-five students, there were around three Asian students, myself included. While I sat at my desk in the corner, I listened to the lively exchange between my classmates and the conversations that they carried on regarding our topic, some randomly jumping in at ease whenever they were enlightened by a sudden idea or thought and wanted to share with the entire group. Mostly everyone was involved, including White and minority students alike; however, it was mainly the Caucasian students that were most assertive and therefore dived headfirst into the discussion, jumping in randomly whenever they felt like it – as if they were talking amongst a close group of friends and didn’t feel the slightest tension at all.

I sat silently for the majority of the time, but knowing that class participation was a heavy part of my overall grade, I frantically scrambled with relevant ideas to share about, quickly planning out and jotting down notes about what I was going to contribute to the rest of the discussion. One aspect of my personality is that I find it much easier expressing myself through the written word than through the spoken mouth, so by brainstorming and jotting down what I planned to say would make me feel more at ease sharing out loud. I was known as one of the quiet ones in class, so to my surprise, I received light applause from some people in the class after I had openly shared.

It was then that I had felt awkward because it was as though I was being regarded as a shy person who had suddenly penetrated her silent barrier, casting aside all traces of reticence and had therefore entered the realm of standard “normality” at just one instance of having spoken forth. Yes, indeed – odd. And just like me, I had noticed the other two Asian students had been somewhat quiet as well with occasional contributions to the discussion.

From this, some of you might argue that observing the situation in this particular classroom setting cannot serve as the sole representation to my overall point because:
(1) there were a lot more Caucasians than minority students (thus, I cannot arrive to such a snap conclusion)
(2) this had only been one class I had mentioned thus far
(3) individual personality also plays a role in one’s level of comfort and sociability

I would agree with all three reasons; however, throughout my entire life and the years of schooling and interaction with others of varying ethnic backgrounds, I’ve also witnessed many similar circumstances of relevancy. And yes, everyone has different individual personalities, so there are often exceptions and I’ve noticed those as well. But scrutinizing the contrast between Asians and Westerners from a broad perspective, I would say there is an inevitable discrepancy between the sphere of standard thought and behavior encompassing the lifestyles of two distinct, yet unique worlds.

So long as we all learn to embrace the distinctiveness of varying cultures and ideas which define different ethnic backgrounds, we can soon learn to appreciate the world as an inclusive embodiment to the rich diversity and sophistication of our human race on Earth.

Sources: (Cornell News) (Harbinger)

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