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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 3: Culture and Gravity

By Peter V
426 Views | 12 Comments | 1/21/2018 1:54:34 PM

In the previous entry, I distinguished three initial stages of intercultural understanding: Denial, Defense, and Minimization. All of these stages can be roughly characterized as “ethnocentric” insofar as they assume one culture (usually my own) has the correct stance/attitude on cultural matters. This is a natural enough state for people to exist in and if I had to guess I would say that most of humanity ends up spending their lives in this state—convinced of the rightness and rationality of whatever system of beliefs they happened to have been born into. However, we can only move forward to a level necessary for a healthy cross-cultural dating by abandoning this naïve belief that our culture alone has attained the true way and adopting instead an “ethnorelative” perspective that refuses to pass judgment but instead contents itself with understanding the endless variety of cultural expression.

 

The underlying factors that shape cultures are, in a sense, like gravity.  Now, it makes no sense to criticize or praise gravity because it is just a force in the universe. Nor does it make any sense to praise or blame what follows inevitably from gravity. An asteroid crashing into earth may be bad from a human perspective. But in the scheme of things it is just an event that is caused, and the judgement of right or wrong with respect to it is nonsensical. In the same way, the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of a culture follow necessarily from the underlying forces that shape the culture.  Hence, passing an ultimate value judgement on these—calling one good, the other bad or one superior, one inferior—although it might make us feel better, is likewise without a logical basis

 

What are those gravity-like forces when it comes to culture? Anthropologists distinguish five general categories that lie at the foundation of culture: people’s relationship to the environment, to each other, to activity, to time, and to the basic nature of human beings. To see how these forces result in differing cultural beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, consider the well-established distinction between individualistic and collectivist cultures, that is, between cultures where the primary goal is individual self-fulfillment and those where family or group needs are put above those of the individual (an instance of people’s relationship to each other). Western culture in general and America in particular is a prime example of an individualist culture. Adult children in America, while they often contribute financially to their elderly parents, are unlikely to structure their lives around their parents’ situation. Nor do the American parents want them to, preferring usually to move into nursing homes rather than reside with a child. By contrast, Chinese culture, a classic collectivist society, expects children to attend to and care for their older parents, and the obligation to care for elderly parents is even written into law. Rather than judging one culture superior to the other, those who are at the next level of intercultural adaptation, Acceptance, recognize that these differing attitudes towards elderly parents are the result of the underlying forces of individualism and collectivism, that one perspective is not inherently superior to the other, and that most other cultural differences result from similarly inevitable forces.

 

The final two stages, Adaptation and Integration, are the logical consequences of Acceptance. At the level of Adaptation, one applies the insights gained at the stage of Acceptance to actual practice of living in another culture. One example of Adaptation that comes to mind from my own experience of living in China has to do with time. Cultural anthropologists distinguish between cultures with a monochronic and those with a polychronic conception of time. In the former, there exists a sort of slavish attitude with respect to time. Rigid schedules are the norm and people are expected to adjust their behavior to the demands of time. Things like showing up late and changing plans at the last moment are simply unacceptable and will result in everything from unemployment to social ostracism. A much more relaxed attitude prevails in societies with a polychronic conception of time like China. For example, at the university where I taught, course times and rooms were often altered at random, meetings were called and cancelled abruptly, and friends as well texted at the last minute with plans to attend major events. It drove me crazy for a while until it didn’t. Ultimately I adapted, although I don’t think I ever quite achieved Integration.

 

One who has achieved Integration is bicultural the way that others are bilingual. Unfortunately, I was always too much of an observer, standing aside and watching the interactions of daily life rather than fully participating in them. Although this attitude was helpful in my writing, in the end it was perhaps detrimental to achieving true cultural integration and may have played a role in my decision to leave China.

 

In the final installment I will return to the incident that prompted this essay (which you have probably completely forgotten about by now), discuss how I applied all this information in my particular situation, and speculate on what lessons can be drawn.

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2018-01-21 13:53:52 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Like you, during my entire stay in China, in spite of being a family member of my wife's family for the last 6 years, and having owned and operated a bar with many Chinese employees, I chose to observe everything going on around me instead of wading in and becoming a full fledged active participant.

I watched and learned to recognize many of the cultural differences between the Chinese, and analyzed them in depth, developing an understanding of why those different cultural existed, and why and how my Chinese friends and family honored, experienced and savoured their unique culural traits. But I failed entirely to embrace and experience myself what it was like to own those cultural traits, what it felt like to be Chinese.

This failure on my part is much to my regret, and to my shame. When I return t China I fully intend to make every effort to remove my Western mask and replace it with one that is Chinese. Of course, to do that I will likely have to learn that accursedly difficult language, so it may have to wait for my next life to make it happen. But for those of you who are planning to live in China for a time, I urge you not to make the same mistake that I did.

#2018-01-21 19:20:03 by paulfox1 @paulfox1


@JohnAbbot

You make a very valid point that I would like to comment on for the benefit of CLM members who may be considering going to China.

There's a difference between 'embracing' the culture and merely 'observing' it. I have worked with many Western guys in China, and I would say that at least 90% of them merely observe. The ones who embraced it were married to a Chinese woman and could speak a little of the (accursed) language.

I began learning how to SPEAK Chinese back in 2008, so my regret is not learning to read or write (yep, I'm officially 'illiterate' when in China).

That said, it's amazing how much respect one gets for just TRYING to learn how to speak it. Many of my Chinese friends refer to me now as 'zhong guo tong', which kind-of means 'half Chinese' - so I guess that's a back-handed compliment in itself, lol.

Mandarin is an EXTREMELY difficult language to learn, but you'd be amazed at how many Chinese people will LOVE to help you if you show willing.

#2018-01-22 12:29:33 by Map1 @Map1

I taught a couse called Comparative Cultures in which I compared Chinese culture with the American. I began with discussing worldviews and values, which are the underpinings and foundation of a particular culture. America was influenced by the Reformation. Firstly from the Scriptures (Geneva version), then to John Calvin (Intitutes of the Christian Religion) and finally the Pilgrims and Puritans (Marshall. The Hope and Glory, and Carson. Basic US History Vol. 1 The Colonial Experience.)  China has been influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, Communism and now Christianity. Dr. Sun-set San (China's first president)  was an international student in Japan and later Hawaii. During his time in Hawaii he became a Christian. Den Xiao ping and Zhou En Lai were international students in France where they were introduced to Marxism. These worldviews have had a profound affect upon these cultures and we see the result.(Weber.The Spirit and Rise of the Protestant Work Ethic.) The legal system was based upon Scriptures contained in Blackstone's Commentaries. 22, 000 statutes and laws were based directly upon the Bible. In the area of education, the Bible and McGuffey's Readers were the early textbooks. Harvard was founded to train pastors and missionaries. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards (considered the greatest intellectual of his time along with Dr. Benjamin Franklin)  was the President of Princeton for a time. Now in America  we have seen the departure from the Reformational worldview, culture has greatly declined..

#2018-01-22 13:38:57 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

@Map1 - you are very bright guy, you teach English to Chinese students in China and you are married to a Chinese woman who you met while online dating on this site.  Given that, don't you think you could have come up with something more personal based on your own experiences, that could hardly help but be more relevant, than your lengthy discourse on how "culture has greatly declined", which is a thinly disguised defence of Chrstianity.

I have been a war with @PaulFox1 over his neverending insistence on using these blogs to promote his newfound discoveries ranging from the New World Order actually being none other than the Illuminati in the prcess of trying to greatly weed out most of humanity to the fact that the world is flat. To the point that I no longer post comments on those areas of thought unless they somehow come home to actually involve the cultural barriers existing between western men and Chinese or Asian women that they experience while they are dating.

I have also gone to war with a substantial number of readers and members who wanted me to ban yourself and other Christians from discussing Christianity as it relates to this dating site in any fashion. I have done that on the basis that, of course, many of our male members are Christian, and almost all of our female members on CLM are Chinese, so any discussion of overcoming cultural bumps in relationships between Christian and Chinese partners or daters is highly relevant to many people on our sites.

But that is not the same as saying that broad philosophical discourses on why the world would be a better place if we all believed in the doctrines of Christianity anymore than is a broad philisophical discourse on why the world would be a better place if we all believed the world is flat.

So please, you have so much to offer to those members who are of the Christian faith, or even those who are simply westerners generally, if you can do so based on your personal experiences as a Christian or a Westerner in interactign with your Chinese wife.

I woud ask you to refrain from entering us into further indepth discussions of whether Christianity is good or bad, and instead teach us how a Christian (or Westerner) needs to face, overcome and/or accommodate their partners or potential partners cultural differences.

If you can see your way to doing that, I would also welcome you to start blogging on "how a Christian (or Westerner) needs to face, overcome and/or accommodate their partners or potential partners cultural differences" and other relevant discussions that are not, in the end, either a mere promotion or defence of Christianity.  

To all, this same request and advice applies to anyone else who wants to use this site as a platform to promote or defend their own philosophical or cutural beliefs or biasis. On a website which is open to people of all philosophical or cultural beliefs, the promotion or defence of any one philosophical or cultural belief ends up being a boring insult to those who harbour alternate or opposite philosophical or cultural beliefs.    

#2018-01-22 16:00:23 by melcyan @melcyan

@Map1, John has passed on your message to me. Thank you for taking the time to send me your references on Climate Change, evolution and homosexuality. I do not doubt that you are 100% genuine with your words. 

 

I explored most of your references to Climate Change when it was being discussed on CLM previously. We have very different views on skepticalscience.com. I have the utmost respect for John Cook and most of the contributors to his website. Many of those contributors are respected Climate Scientists. 

 

I suspect we have very different views on the nature of science, how it progresses, how we use the scientific literature, and how we assign the tag trustworthy.

 

You have given me extra sources to read this time on Evolution and homosexuality. Sorry to disappoint you but I will not be reading them. When key scientists that I respect with expertise in these fields start to raise the questions that you are raising - only then will I stop and take notice.

 

In future on CLM, I  will be more than willing to talk to you about Chinese woman - Western man relationships, Chinese culture and Chinese language. I will not engage in conversations with you about science, politics or religion. For those topics, we can do nothing more than agree to disagree.

 

In future, the only time that I could see myself going to read original sources in the scientific literature is when two scientists that I respect disagree. I trust the process of science. We are centuries passed the time when a single person could know all the science in the world.  I trust Wikipedia to get the current state of science right 99% of the time and that 1% mismatch to be corrected within days or weeks. The science section of Wikipedia is moderated by people who value their scientific reputations as much or even more than me.

 

I spent 12 months reviewing and closely monitoring the website skepticalscience.com before I recommended its use to other science teachers. I took such a long period of time because I value my credibility as a science teacher and don't do things that would put that credibility at risk. 

 

Congratulations on your marriage. I wish you and your wife all the best for the future.  Cheers melcyan

#2018-01-24 21:03:36 by melcyan @melcyan

Peter, I think I owe you a comment that is a little more closely related to “Don’t mess with China”. Here goes!

 

A westerner passing judgement on the forces that shape China’s culture is counterproductive and at best – a waste of time. The opposite position – being a humble student of China is probably a much more productive way to go.

 

@John Abbot regrets not embracing China more fully. John, I think you are being a little unfair to yourself. You run CLM with great insight. More importantly, you have been a loved and accepted member of a Chinese family for many years. That counts for a lot! You are correct to assume that you would have done better if you were literate in the Chinese language. However, I think I know an easy path that could double your cultural insight with only 30 hours of language study.

 

There is a TED talk by Keith Chen

https://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money

 

in this talk, Chen describes how the Chinese language and the English language differ in relation to two key things – family and time. The reason a Chinese person sees family and time differently to a westerner is primarily due to the way the Chinese language and English language differ.

 

If your wife or a member of your staff watched this talk with you, they probably could devise a 30-hour Chinese language program for you that is centred on family and time. You probably know about 50 Chinese words already and if you expanded it to 300 with this family and time focus you probably will achieve the most important insight that the Chinese language can give you.

#2018-01-26 08:08:27 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@JohnAbbot: Glad you point out the issue of learning the accursed Chinese language. As @PaulFox1 correctly points, out, you get respect for just trying to learn the language. I also think two other types of study help as well: study of Chinese culture and a study of culture in general. I am going to write a blogpost in the near future discussing some of the books I found helpful in each of these areas. But all of this study must be combined with some actual immersion in the culture which, as I pointed out (or will point out in the next post, I can't recall) is most easily done by living in China but can also be accomplished anywhere you are living if there is a critical mass of Chinese (and this includes most places in the world fortunately).

@melcyan: As always, you provide words of wisdom on this issue. I agree humility is the fundamental virtue when it comes to understanding China, or any culture

@Map1: While the Reformation certainly played a role in shaping American (and European) history, I would hardly rank it as the major influence, although I would agree that anyone who wants to understand America needs to study Christianity. But there are numerous other influences that shape the American mind besides Christianity, not the least of which is the Greek thought, from where our political system originates, not to mention the influence on American literature, philosophy, ethics, etc. Although the Greek and Christian tradition are radically at odds in many way, they both unarguably have shaped the American experience, and any attempt to understand America (and the West in general) without focusing on both these traditions is destined to be both inadequate and misleading.

#2018-01-27 12:26:08 by Map1 @Map1


@woaizhongguo as I stated in my comments, I'd suggest you read, Peter Marshall Jr's "The Hope and Glory" and Dr. Clarence Carson's excellent series on American history, "Basic US History Volumes I-5." They can all be obtained used in good condition from Amazon.com.

#2018-01-27 16:37:48 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@Map1: I suggest you read my book, "Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way" available at Amazon.com, or more cheaply from me personally.

#2018-01-27 19:29:01 by paulfox1 @paulfox1


@Map1

What I find particularly disturbing about your reference to 'The Hope and Glory' is the fact that it's the USA you are talking about.

This is a country that has 'In God We Trust' plastered all over its currency, yet since its 'founding' in 1776 has been at war with one country or another for 224 years.

Out of 242 years (2018 - 1776), the USA has NOT BEEN AT WAR for a total of 18 years.

Ironic, or is it just me.....?

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