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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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Don't Mess with China, Part 2: The Eyeglasses of Cultural Bias    

By Peter V
1389 Views | 8 Comments | 12/27/2017 3:13:04 PM

Now, one objection that might be raised with respect to the rule with which I ended my previous entry—that one should not say anything negative about China to your Chinese partner—is: Don’t couples need to be truthful with each other? And if the negative statement about China is true, shouldn’t I inform my partner about this fact?

First, I would suggest that before you utter a critical statement about another culture, especially about the culture of someone you are in a relationship with, you should at least attempt to verify that the statement in fact is true and not the result of the cultural bias we all bring to intercultural relationships. If you were staring at a white wall wearing a pair of rose-tinted glasses, you might be absolutely convinced of the false statement:  “the wall in front of me is red.” Cultural bias can have the same impact on our beliefs about another culture, convincing us that a falsehood or questionable claim true. And while we can never completely remove our cultural glasses, we can at least become aware that we are wearing them and try to compensate for their effect.

So how do we become aware of our cultural bias and compensate for its effects? One of the most successful strategies in dealing with our cultural biases comes from a realm that is constantly encountering intercultural contact and conflict: the world of international education. Milton Bennett has distinguished six stages the cultural learner passes through in order to achieve a balanced, holistic appreciation of another culture. If you plan on dating a Chinese woman, or partnering with anyone from another culture, this model provides information and strategies on cultural integration that will help make that process go much more smoothly.

The first stage of relating to other cultures is called “Denial of Difference.” Someone at this level does not so much interact with other cultures as ignore them, believing that a knowledge of cultural differences are not relevant in order to interact with those from another culture. The person who thinks he does not need to know anything about Chinese culture in order to date a Chinese woman would fall into this category. If you are a member of China Love Match, then in all likelihood you don’t fall into this category.  But if you happen to know anyone for whom this description fits, the CLM blogs are in fact an excellent antidote to this ignorance, providing crucial cultural information while avoiding a lot of the abstractions and generalizations one often finds in writing about cultures and get real life knowledge from those on the ground.

As the saying goes, a little learning is a dangerous thing, and at the next stage one uses the little learning one has gained about a culture to conclude that one’s own culture is superior. This stage is known as “Defense.” It is an advance over the previous state because one at least demonstrates enough interest in another culture to learn something about it. However the conclusion of cultural superiority that one draws at this stage is misguided.

To see if this is where you are at, consider the following story: You are driving with a friend through an intersection when he hits a pedestrian. The pedestrian is not seriously injured but claims that your friend was driving beyond the posted speed limit of 20mph. You know the claim is true but your friend asks you to say that he was driving at the speed limit otherwise he will lose his license. Would you testify to this in court? In fact, 96% of Americans said they would not while only 34% of Venezuelans said they would not.

Now, if your first reaction upon reading this story is to declare the moral superiority of one of the cultures (usually the one that is in line with your own), then welcome to the world of Defense. The shortcoming of this stance is that just as not everyone who disagrees with us morally is a scoundrel, not every culture that has a practice that is at odds with our own is evil or wrong. While the cultural practice in question is invariably embedded in a way of viewing the world and human relations that may be alien to us, that doesn’t make it wrong, just different.

It should be mentioned that there is an alternate version of this strategy, where instead of criticizing other cultures at the expense of your own one elevates another culture while condemning one’s own.  Many expats who spew hatred at their home culture while attempting to take on the attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyle of their adopted land exist in this frame of mind. This “Reverse Defense,” however, is equally misguided and simplistic in the way that it views the world.

At the next stage, Minimization, one manages to see beyond the surface differences, conflicts, and contradictions that exist between cultures and searches instead for underlying similarities. To take the example of lying under oath, someone at this stage might conclude that while cultures may respond differently to the demand to lie for a friend, we all have a desire for friendship and in that sense we possess a shared humanity.

Now, the search for a common bond that unites us above and beyond our obvious differences is a noble enough task. And it is correct as far as it goes. The problem is it doesn’t go far enough, for a couple of reasons. First, it fails to recognize that profound differences exist between cultures, differences that cannot be explained away or dismissed but are real and must be accounted for and understood (more on this in the next section). Second, what often happens at the stage of minimization is that one invariably uses one’s own culture as the standard when making universal proclamations. The result is that the universal beliefs I uncover just happen to be the ones that I currently hold. Hence, no critical scrutiny is brought to bear upon one’s own culture. The Christian who concludes that all cultures in their hearts share the same concept of the divine that she does (despite the obvious evidence to the contrary), or the American who contends that in their heart all nations long for his notion of freedom—the freedom to buy all the worthless shit your heart desires—are examples of this type of error.

In order to progress to a more enlightened view of culture, we must arrive at an understanding of true cultural differences and a judgement about their relative merits. This will be the modest goal of the next installment.

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2017-12-27 15:12:49 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

This is very interesting stuff, Peter, and I am glad you're providing this information to us. It is beyond any doubt true that without coming to recognize the cultural differences between oneself and one's other cultured partner, and learning to cope with those differences in some satisfactory manner, the fact that you once found this person to be incredibly attractive due to his or her physical traits that are related to her cultural background (such as her Chinese eyes, for example) will be out the window.

There are going to be differences in your belief systems, your idea of what is or is not appropriate to discuss, either between each other or with others in public, or, down to basics, what food you should eat. Countless differences will arise, get used to it and learn how to deal with it, or face relationship disaster.

As an example of my mentioning differences in what may be inappropriate topics to discuss, I have a Latin American male friend whose Chinese girlfriend frequently points out, in private and in public, that he is overweight and needs to stop eating a number of things. As a Westerner, I suspect that most of us would agree that raising these complaints in private might be difficult as you might hurt the partner's feelings, but doing so is appropriate because it is for the partner's own good.

However, I think most Westerners would cringe at the girlfriend's insistence on raising the issue in public and embarrassing her partner in font of friends, family and even strangers. But in China, if a person is overweight, they'd better get used to it being a topic of discussion raised matter of factly by their friends, family and their partner endlessly. Any other physical trait that a Westerner might prefer not to have to face being discussed in public, like one's big, red nose, is likewise going to haunt him or her endlessly.

The cross cultural hurdles to be crossed in developing a solid relationship may be beneficial, if the couple can recognize them and find ways to accommodate them that work for both sides, but they will be crushing for certain if the couple fails to recognize them and work together on resolving the effects of them early on.

Hence my hope that our members reading your blogs will take heed and start to really think about how they can learn from your writing and use what they learn to better their chances of having a true, life long relationship.

#2017-12-27 19:59:48 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

The 3 questions I was constantly asked by strangers during my time in China were as follows:-

1. Where are you from?

2. What's your job?

3 How much do you earn each month?

These NEVER changed and were always asked in the same order.

The 4th question was often 'How much do you weigh?'

The conclusion I came to during my 3 years in China was the fact that you cannot be TAUGHT Chinese culture, you have to LEARN it for yourself.

#2017-12-27 21:02:19 by melcyan @melcyan

Thank you, Peter, this is a very important topic. For any relationship to become strong we need to develop the ability to see the world through the eyes of the other. People in great relationships have a high degree of empathy for one another. The more we become aware of our cultural bias the greater our potential for developing a high level of empathy.


#2017-12-27 22:06:49 by RWByrum @RWByrum

I wrestled with myself over whether or not to comment on this piece because I agreed with its overall message despite having some rather petty objections to some of its contents.  Well, you can plainly see which side won.

Sometimes, Western culture is superior.  Not often, obviously, and clearly not nearly as often as Western jingoists would claim, but there are times when this is true.  There are cultures that still practice reprehensible things in the name of their traditions.  Such as infanticide, female genital mutilation,'honor' killing, even cannibalism in some parts of the world.  Sometimes the defense reaction is the appropriate one.

Sometimes traditions are practiced simply because they are traditions.  They serve no useful purpose and the original reason for the tradition has been lost in the mists of time.  Sometimes traditions are based upon superstitions but continue to be practiced long after the practitioners have lost faith in the underlying superstition.  Some traditions become so venerated that admirers of the tradition will invent clever and fanciful rationalizations to justify them despite the fact that the original reason for the tradition is well-known and has nothing to do with rationality.  Kosher dietary laws are a perfect example of this.  Devout Jews are forbidden to eat pork not because of notions of pigs' personal haibits or beliefs that eating pork is unhealthy but simply because eating pork violates an ancient taboo against eating the meat of animals that don't chew their cud.  This was stated explicitly in Leviticus 11:7.

Personally, I find ancient traditions interesting and I never object to them as long as they don't involve harming anyone or anything.  My ex-wife's parents stayed with us for several months.  At the beginning of the visit, my mother-in-law stuck a threaded needle into the front door.  I asked my ex-wife why and she explained that the needle and thread was intended to keep ghosts from walking through the door.  Personally, I don't believe in ghosts but if the presence of the threaded needle made my mother-in-law feel better than I saw no reason to remove it or even make an issue out of it.  I don't know what would have happened if I had removed the needle but I don't think it would have turned out pleasantly.  When it comes to most cultural differences I usually just follow the advice that Saint Ambrose gave to Saint Augustine, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."


#2017-12-28 17:18:28 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@Paulfox1: "you cannot be taught Chinese culture, you have to learn it for yourself." Truer words could not be spoken. It's kind of like golf. The only way to really learn it is to get in there and do it for yourself. That said, like golf, there are some aids to the actual doing of the activity that can increase one's proficiency

@RWByrum:  Learning about another culture does not mean we abandon our concepts of right and wrong. The cultural attitude I am encouraging is not ethical relativism. That said, I am not sure wherein Western culture can make a claim for superiority. Western cultures have been guilty of moral atrocity as much as any other cultures. Yes infanticide is wrong, but it was standard practice in ancient Greece and Rome. Slavery is as great a moral outrage as anyting you mentioned, yet America built an economy on the practice.   I am not going to single out the West in general or America in particular as being particularly guilty of moral atrocities, but I fail to find compelling evidence for the inherent superiority of the West in any particular area with the possible exception of fast food and superhero movies.

#2017-12-30 13:29:02 by sandy339 @sandy339

Ok in a whole what I read and understand is you want to explore the truth in intercultural relationship.  Cultural bias is unavoidable, but it is so important to be aware of it, so I think this blog is valuable in this sense. I really need to think twice before making a claim on other cultures.

Although I don’t totally agree on the six strategies I remember I ever read an article: it tells the opinion that all our troubles and sadness come from shortage of our knowledge and wisdom, hehe, which makes a lot of sense to me. If we are just in our own world, it is really hard to have a opener and fairer understanding about other cultures.

But somehow, it is also hard to isolate ourselves from where we come from and even harder not to defend our own country and culture with some patriotism and nationalism to some degree, rather than the moral superiority Moral abduction.

What I think is not only the truth is so important, but also the understanding our own feeling involved. We need gentler and wiser way to communicate especially on some sensitive issues. For example, when my partner complained about the quality of some products, I said because it was made in China, we laughed. He is smart enough not to say that first, if he said it first, I would definitely talk back and have some hard time between us. Thanks for writing here.:)

#2018-01-19 16:01:00 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@sandy339: I definitely agree: "We need gentler and wiser way to communicate especially on some sensitive issues," Your partner is wise enough not to raise a criticism of China first. This is a key point. Chinese are more than willing to criticize their own country. In fact, several studies demonstrate Eastern cultures in general are more self-critical than Western. And this is the time for the Westenr partner to agree. But as your partner realized, any Westerner who wants to maintain a relatiosnhip with a Chinese should not be the first to raise such a criticism

#2018-10-05 12:28:54 by autumn2066 @autumn2066



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