BETTER TOGETHER: A chorus composed of senior citizens in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, rehearse in a park (CFP)
China has become an economic superpower, but that success is not contingent on Chinese businessmen, government officials, and other elites on having assimilated into a Western style of communication. There are still vast differences in the ways in which Chinese interact with Western people, and with the world at large. Significantly, the primary function of Chinese communication strategy rests upon maintaining existing relationships between individuals, while emphasizing and adhering to role and status differences, with the ultimate aim being to preserve harmony within the group. Unlike American cultural norms, which may appear brash and individualistic, Chinese cultural norms are geared to serve the group and family. Because of this, people define themselves through their relation to others—a Chinese is whole and complete only if he can integrate successfully with others and with his surroundings. For this reason, conflict must be avoided. Communication should serve to strengthen bonds, not challenge them. Thus, the ultimate goal is to create and preserve harmony among people. All my Chinese friends strive to live harmoniously with their family members, with their neighbors, and with their coworkers. In my time living in China, I have noted that my Chinese friends seem much more successful than my Western friends in balancing their relationships. I wanted to know why.
"The basis for the Chinese success with relationships comes from the way we Chinese perceive the self," said Teacher Zhang, an elderly Hohhot local who has been teaching foreigners like me Chinese for more than 20 years. "Those Chinese who are Buddhist divide the self into two: the big self and the small self. For Buddhists and Taoists, this greater self is the part of us that merges with nature, with the cosmos; it is devoid of individuality. The little self is our human side, our needy side, with constant desires." Teacher Zhang went on to explain that Confucian thought has also influenced the Chinese sense of self, emphasizing that children are taught from an early age to cultivate their greater self, and discipline their little self. "This is because the true self, the civilized Chinese person, feels social and ethical responsibilities toward other members of his society. He knows that a person is judged and created in relation to others; we never live alone, we all need interaction with others and with the world to create our identity," she added.
Certainly, anyone who has lived in China for any length of time understands how powerful these bonds between people can be, and how relationships, especially kinship relations, require Chinese to cultivate their filial piety, which in turn generates loyalty, dignity, and integrity. When I first asked David Meng, a professor who often worked with me, to tell me about himself, he answered simply: "I can only define myself as an affectionate father to my child, a faithful husband to my wife, and a loyal son to my dear mother ... maybe also as a professor here for 17 years ... but as a person? That is difficult ... do you mean you want to know my hobbies?" At first, his answer shocked me, because, as an American, I have been socialized by my culture to define myself differently. In contrast to the Chinese collective identification, the American idea of identity is very individualistic.
"Yes, you Westerners only think of your own needs, you seem to us like children, without restraint or thoughtfulness," said Professor Meng, as we discussed cultural differences. "We are brought up to think of the interests of everyone, not just ourselves... for example, if a marriage is having troubles, a parent or relative will appeal to the needs of others: the child involved, extended family, and even friends, who are part of the husband and wife's network. If a woman or a man divorces, others may think he or she has a lack of tolerance and self-control."
"But you may also be staying together because you are concerned that others will gossip, and that you will lose face," I countered.
"Yes, that is true, but it is not everything," Professor Meng answered. "Certainly, Chinese people are concerned with how other people feel and think about them, perhaps more so than Westerners, because the Chinese outlook for relationships is long term. Moreover, Chinese cultural norms promote modesty and humility; there is a saying that a Chinese gentleman treats himself strictly and others leniently."
In contrast, I often hear American friends saying "I don't care what others think," and telling me that this is a sign of self-confidence and courage. Western people are not shy to tell others of their accomplishments, their talents, and their aspirations. This can sound offensive to Chinese ears.
How can Chinese and Westerners reconcile and understand each other? As a bilingual educator, I advocate learning each others' languages, because language and culture are interconnected. This linguistic understanding can bring mutual respect.
The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region