American Born Chinese – 美國土生華人

October 28, 2007

Distinguishing Both Chinese and American Rhetoric

Filed under: Asia America, Assimilation, Personal Experiences — americanbornchinese @ 9:04 am

Dear Reader,

I sincerely apologize for the lack of updates as it has been many months since I last posted. I am currently in the midst of school projects, assignments, and midterms. I will definitely try to post more often, but my frequency of posts also depends upon how inspired I am to write regarding a selected topic or about a particular circumstance or series of events happening that pertain primarily to the Chinese/Asian American experience, history, culture, and community. If you are a regular visitor, I thank you for your interest in coming to my blog. Stay tuned for more updates in the near future, and I highly encourage discussion in comments if you would like to share any relevant personal experiences, opinions, or whatnot.

– Site Moderator


Intercultural Communication – Chinese and Western Styles 

I recently read an article online that depicted the differences between Chinese and American communicative styles as an indication of the varying degrees of clarity particularly within the context of written expression. I realized subsequently how applicable this particular article was to my own personal experiences in writing as well. Having a lifestyle defined by a duo identity – Chinese and American – I have often sought for a harmonious balance and integration of both cultures simultaneously into my life, but in the following situation, the issue of discrepancy between both has even risen forth within the classroom context.

For the background information, I am currently an Industrial Design major, and the class I am taking this semester is defined by a curriculum formatted to build and enhance our skills in communication and presentations. We’ve had a number of projects lately that pertained specifically to our career-oriented field, including resumes, cover letters, business proposals, and of the like – a heavy amount of writing skills that we need to utilize for this course. Thus, our work is ultimately scrutinized for its components of structure, formatting, and writing.

One of our major assignments had been to write up a resume and an accompanying cover letter in response to a job posting we found online, tailoring the content so that it would directly fulfill the requirements of the posting with our qualifications. Needless to say, we did not apply in actuality; this assignment was merely to train us so that we would know how to do so effectively in the future.

As you will soon read in the following conversation with my professor, my adherence to a particular cultural standard over another has somehow impeded my ability to write an effective cover letter, though it had initially been oblivious to me. Or, at least, that’s what my professor interpreted it to be… But I am also caught pondering about whether my writing style had been truly reflective of an instilled cultural characteristic or whether it had actually been my own personal style of creative writing evolved over many years of habitual exposure and practice. Maybe a little bit of both.

Conversation with my Professor regarding my Cover Letter

(I apparently did not quote this word-for-word as it was, but this is representative of our discussion and all the details and main points I remember clearly from it.)

Following the end of class, I come up to my professor, wanting to seek help from her on how I could revise and improve upon my cover letter. She takes my sheet of paper, and after a few minutes of reading, she suddenly speaks up:

Professor: “I want to ask you something. What’s your cultural background?”

Me: “My cultural background? What do you want to know?”


Professor: “Just tell me what background or culture you identify most with.”

Me: “Umm…I’m Chinese, if that’s what you’re asking….” 

Up to this point, I had been thinking, “What does my cultural background or ethnicity have anything to do with a cover letter that I’ve just written for a class assignment in order to apply for a potential design job?”

Professor: “Ahh, that might explain your style of writing…After reading your cover letter, I cannot help but notice that you’ve used a lot of particular words and phrases that pertain to a type of communication style I’ve noticed among Chinese. You tend to use a lot of abstract words that deviate from the direct points you ought to make in your letter. Hmm, *peers more closely at the letter* “Blossom” into success? That’s interesting.” *Appears amused*

Me: “Um, well…I normally write this way, and I’ve been told that I often ramble on in my writings without much of a direction sometimes. I like to be abstract and expressive when it comes to writing.” 

Professor: “Okay. However, this isn’t a creative writing class; this is a business-related type of letter that targets an audience of businessmen who are looking for direct, honest statements of how your qualifications can fit their needs and how you can personally contribute to their services. Additionally, you have to include specific examples of how you can particularly tailor your skills to their expectations and eventually prove that you will be an asset to their company. Explaining that you have the capabilities and the competence is what most other applicants write in their letters, but you must demonstrate what you can truly provide them.”  

Me: “Oh I see. So you’re saying I ought to be more direct and just communicate my point across simply by targeting the company’s goals rather than my own?” 

Professor: “Yes, my point exactly. As I read through your letter, I noticed that you included phrases such as “build up my character” and “my strong desire to learn and grow within the company.” In truth, the company is looking to see how you can build them up and how you can develop a strong desire to grow the company. While you use words that are important communication tools that explain who you are and what you expect, you need to be more explicit and direct in your writing and make them realize all that you have to offer. I’ve had my experiences working with different people of varying cultural backgrounds, and what I notice is that Chinese have a tendency to be implicit in their writings, meaning that they are often winding in different directions but not exactly pinpointing their main intent.” 

Me: *Brief hesitation* “Oh, I see; I understand.” 

Professor: “One of the important things to consider is your audience. You are presumably writing to an American company, and the way you write is an important aspect of how the company will view you on first impression based upon your cover letter and resume. So you must also place that into consideration. On the other hand, if you were writing to apply for a position at a Chinese company, well, then you may need to modify your letter in order for it to fit the cultural expectations of your employer.”


It is said that the American communicative pattern could be defined by just a simple arrow pointing in a straight line toward its designated direction, while the Chinese pattern could be characterized by an arrow spiraling and curving every whichway. In other words, the American style is direct, frank, and straightforward, while the Chinese style is implicit and indirect, often weaving its way back and forth before arriving to a final halt at its targeted location.

Does the issue of plainness and clarity truly sprout forth from the product of Western culture, and does Chinese communication really suggest a sense of implicitness and ambiguity on the contrary? Even as my professor had been speaking, I felt compelled to immediately shirk in embarrassment due to the sudden label that segregated me under that “umbrella” of thought and perception toward the Chinese in general. I wanted to launch an impulsive counterattack that, as a matter-of-factly, I had been born and raised on American soil and that I’ve lived my entire life here – having been accustomed and assimilated into its mainstream culture, values, and practices – so how is it possible that one can isolate me and place me into a separate category from the average American based upon my rhetoric style?

Throughout my life, I’ve attended American English school, and I’ve received the same type of education in reading and writing as any of my non-Asian counterparts have in the U.S. Moreover, not once have my parents sent me to a Chinese-learning institution when I was young. Aside from that, the only cultural influences I have been exposed to are namely from my family and the various Chinese ethnic enclaves within the Bay Area, primarily in Chinatown and in other Chinese-populated districts. So it’s difficult for me to fathom how my writing skills, in that case, could have been so culturally influenced by the characteristics of my ethnic heritage roots. Shouldn’t I be more naturally inclined toward an American communicative style instead?

Perhaps, as I’ve mentioned, my writing behavior can also be attributed to my own personal preferences of creative writing. And perhaps, taking into account that this had been my first time writing up a formal cover letter, I probably hadn’t really been able to differentiate the writing techniques and objectives of a business letter as juxtaposed with those of a creative piece of literary work.

To this day, I strive to understand and distinguish the rhetoric between Chinese and American communicative styles in the verbal and written contexts. And overall, as an American-born Chinese, I yearn to be more open-minded to both sides of the picture, and one day, I just might be able to somehow bridge the cultural gaps that divide these two cultures from one another.

Source: (PDF file) 

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