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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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Cross Cultural Issues: Stealing Flowers    

By Peter V
1302 Views | 5 Comments | 12/13/2016 12:49:08 PM

Chinese Women and Western Men find cross cultural differences in the smallest things, and in so doing create either closeness or distance...

So Yong wanted flowers. Usually this is one of her easier requests of her life in the West to fulfill. Certainly much easier than her request for “real” Chinese food, which requires a seventy-mile trip to Chicago’s Chinatown.



Unfortunately, things were not so simple here. The flowers she was coveting resided on public land, part of a display of wildflowers a local park had established. My response to her was the same one I offer to my students who request an extension on an assignment. What if everyone did it? If everyone simply turned in the assignment whenever they wished, it would make no sense to set a due date, no grading deadline would be possible, and class would be pure chaos. And if everyone who ventured by was attracted by the flower display grabbed a handful of flowers, there would soon be no more flowers for park visitors to enjoy.



Rule #1: Your wife is not one of your students.



It turns out, however, that my response to this request was not simply the product of a mind steeped in Kant’s categorical imperative. Rather, according to comparative culture research my desire to invoke the “what if everyone did it” standard is in fact a very typical Westerner response.



Consider the following scenario:



You are riding in a car driven by a close friend when he hits a pedestrian. There are no other witnesses and the pedestrian is bruised but not badly hurt. The speed limit in this part of town is 20 miles an hour, but you happen to notice that your friend was driving 35. His lawyer tells you that if you will testify under oath that your friend was driving 20, he will suffer no serious consequences. Would you testify that your friend was driving at 20?



96% of Americans said they would not, while only 34% of Venezualans said they would not.



According to Fons Trompenaars, Riding the Waves of Culture, America is what is known as a “universalist” culture. According to this worldview, “Certain absolutes apply across the board, regardless of circumstances or the particular situation. Wherever possible, you should try to apply the same rules to everyone in like situations. To be fair is to treat everyone alike and not make exceptions for family, friends, or members of your in-group.”



By contrast Venezuela (and China it turns out as well) is what is known as a “particularlist” culture. How you behave in a given situation depends on the circumstances. You treat family, friends, and your in-group the best you can, and you let the rest of the world take care of itself.



Despite being the product of a universalist culture, I have to say the particularists have a point.  Any westerner can see that there are few if any moral rules that do not admit of exception.  We all recognize that even the seemingly simple “do not lie” ought to be transcended if the Nazis are knocking at your door and asking if you have any Jews in your attic—not to mention the numerous white lies that we all indulge in.  Of course the westerner will respond that any exception we invoke must itself be a universalizable if it is to be moral.  I can justify breaking my promise to pick you up at the airport if a family emergency arises but this itself is a universal rule: only break your promises in case of emergency.  In fact the debate between the universalist and a particularist can probably go on indefinitely.  But it is probably a good idea to try to as much as possible to keep it out of mixed marriages.



Yong is no doubt right that the fate of this particular patch of wildflowers in no way hinges upon whether or not I decide to grab a handful.  But realizing this doesn’t make it any easier for me to act against a moral sentiment that has been drummed into me by the culture for most of my life.



So we’re at a standstill, or so it seems.  And while I could explain all this to her ,I somehow don’t think that’s going  make in any better. At such times I invariably recall the Chinese concept of the middle way, and attempt to find some compromise between extremes, in this case, between universalist and a particularist point of view.



So I bend down, make sure no one is looking, pluck out a single flower, and say let’s go.


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#2016-12-13 12:48:47 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Ahhh... the "middle way", how much grief would be spared we Western males if we would just take a deep breathe and a short pause when faced with what is clearly becoming a situation where conflict with our Chinese women seems inevitable, and use that pause to silently say to ourselves "Think! Think fast! What in the name of all that is sacred is the middle way right now?"



I hate to admit that the lawyer in me frequently interferes with me remembering to seek the middle way, and instead pursue my own intense need to always win every dispute, even it is not quite yet a dispute, and even when winning will clearly be tantamount to a severe long term loss.



I bow to your wisdom Peter, and hope every one who reads this blog learns the important lesson of the "middle way", and learns to seek it out at every opportunity. Because finding the middle way allows your lovely Chinese woman to come out of the situation feeling like a winner at best and suffering no loss of face at worst, and at the same time ensures you are not a loser, and more importantly, that you suffer no loss of face in her eyes which makes you a winner too.



Nice going, Peter, although I am left wondering what would have happened if the Flower Police had been on hand, and had ticketed you with a hefty fine for plucking that single flower. There's no telling how much the loss of money over a silly flower may have dampened your Chinese wife's pleasure in your finding the middle way.



But since that didn't happen, let's forget about it and all revel in your victory of sorts. Cheers.   (beer)   (clap)


#2016-12-13 17:52:10 by melcyan @melcyan

Peter, you have hit on a problem that I have great difficulty accepting.

 

My partner sometimes "steals" flowers and plants from nearby holiday places that we use for our vacations in South Australia. She, however, does not see herself as stealing plants. She sees herself as identifying an excess and relocating a small part of that excess to a more suitable home, her home.

 

Fortunately, I am never asked to collect the plants or flowers.  However, if I did take her one flower she would ask why I did not take more flowers. 

 

When we travel overseas I have to beg her to follow Australia’s strict quarantine and customs laws. I hate to think what happens when she travels without me.

 

#2016-12-13 22:32:41 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

Ah, the lesson of the 'middle-way'. Is that like a compromise, middle-ground, or is it something different? Is it really a 'cultural issue' or simply an issue of 'morality'?

Perhaps morality differs between cultures.....or perhaps not....

What about morality when stealing a single flower?  It's just that; it's technically stealing.

'Petty theft' was an executionable offence during the reign of Henry VIII. People were hanged for stealing a loaf of bread or cutting down a tree in a public place.

 

What would happen if there was a sign in that park saying:

'FREE FLOWERS, PLEASE TAKE ONE'

Suddenly it's not 'culture', it's morality. How many people would simply take one?

And if they DID take a whole bunch, is taking more than one flower, stealing?

 

I submit that it's more a question of 'attitude'. An attitude that comes from not just learned behaviour, but from life's experiences.

 

Sitting staring at a red traffic light, for what seemed eternity, at around 3am at a quiet junction in Australia, impatience got the better of me and I slipped through. The policemen, who were obviously either hiding behind a tree or in a flying saucer, nabbed me instantly. There wasn't another car on the road, yet I was prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

A mate of mine was driving home from the airport at 4am, there wasn't another car to be seen, yet when he changed lanes without indicating, the cops materialised out of nowhere, (perhaps with the help of Mr 'beam-me-up' Scotty'), and fined him. When he attempted to convince them of their folly, they slapped an 'un-roadworthy' sticker on his 3-day-old, brand new car.

On another occasion, I was driving along a road, minding my own business, when a cop-car heading towards me, passed me, did a 180 degree turn and pulled me over for not wearing a seat belt. When I pointed to my seat belt and said 'What's this then?', they accused me of putting it on after I SAW them turn round.

I followed this ridiculous allegation right through to a court hearing, but each of the two morons gave independent testimony like it was a script they'd been rehearsing for the lead role in a Sherlock Holmes play.

 

Therefore, if I was ordered by my friends lawyer to say that he was doing 20mph, I would say, 'sorry, I must have dozed off and didn't notice'

 

I remember, also, an incident back in 1996 when I took my first trip to the USA. We went to Disneyland in Florida and were heading to the airport to go home. I was driving in a 55mph speed limit, yet all the traffic was doing 65mph. As I overtook another vehicle, a State Trooper pulled me over for speeding. Apparently I was doing 75mph.

Once I explained to him that it was my first time in the US and that I didn't realise that everyone essentially did 10mph over the limit without penalty, this copper surprised me.

He told me that although I was technically travelling at 20mph over the limit and should be fined around $200, he would 'book' me for simply 'not obeying a traffic sign', which meant a fine of around $70 (from memory).

Amazingly, I found myself thanking him and shaking his hand. This kind of attitude is what Australians call 'doing the right thing'. He accepted my side of the story, and I accepted that he was only doing his job. That is what I would call 'middle-way'. Or was it a 'compromise'?

I know one thing, it was certainly a far-cry from the attitude of the moronic Aussie police.

 

On the flip-side, attitude is often related to incentive. The moronic system in Western Australia means that coppers get a bonus for every fine they issue. I always thought this was nonsense until my brother was assigned to traffic police and ended up making more in bonus than he did in salary.

 

Peter's reply to his students is certainly valid, mine is a little different. I tell them to take all the time they need, but for each day the assignment is late, they lose 20% of the total possible mark. One day late means a 'perfect score' of 80%. It's amazing how suddenly they become incentivised, yet strangely, they consider it to be a 'fair' answer and often thank me in the same way as I thanked the State Trooper for giving me a fine.

 

Sometimes 'right and wrong' isn't 'black-and-white'. It's all about attitude; morals; but more importantly, doing what Aussies call 'the rightie'. And herein lies the problem.....

 

'Nike' said - 'If you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right'

 

Ain't THAT the truth?

 

#2016-12-15 00:02:15 by Map1 @Map1

A friend of mine came as a visiting scholar from Remin Daxue in Beijing. He was amazed that Americans would stop at a cross-section, even if there were no other cars. The US is a nation of laws and they are ususally enforced. America has a strong Reformational heritage. It comes from Calvin  and was brought to the New World by the Pilgrims and Puritans. We have a much stronger work ethic as documented in Max Weber's "Protestanism and the Work Ethic." The French philospher Torqueville (sic) came to the US to find out what made it so great. He wrote in, "Democracy in America" that it was the churches. We are losing our heritage and sense of values. More crime, poorer public schools, corruption in business and our government. Many American's have no moral compass. Postmodernism, nilism, political correctness, the cardinal virture of tolerance at the expense of Christianity is ruling the day. Muslims and homosexuals have more rights than I do now. I experienced this as a adjunct faculty member at USC. I'm finding my 1st Amendment rights  more and more being violated. So I tried to bring a legal suit against the university. This will change under the new Trump administration. I'm much more hopeful that the corrupt, globalist, Republicrat, establishment, Soros puppet, neocon Hillary Clinton lost!!

#2016-12-15 13:59:04 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

@Map1

Firstly, it's Renmin Daxue, it has an 'n' in it.

Secondly, the Church being the reason for making America 'great'? well, maybe a few hundred years ago, but not now.

'The Church', as an institution, should have moved with the times instead of staying in it's puritanical 'bubble', surrounding itself with draconian beliefs whilst attempting to indoctrinate moronic imbeciles who are not capable of thinking for themselves.

When we are kids, our parents tell us to 'be good, or Santa won't come'. When we are older, the Church tells us to 'be good or we won't go to heaven'.

If kids don't eat their peas, the Devil will punish them!

Then, if we behave in an obnoxious manner, all we need to do is to 'repent', and God will forgive us.

The truth is, that in the 21st century, we don't need ten bloody commandments; one is enough....'Don't Be An Asshole!'

If the Church had used its influence (and 'power', if you like), in order to teach 'morality' instead of brainwashing people into believing that there's some 'Big Guy' with a big white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere and watching our every move, then the Church, as an institution, may have earned itself a bit more respect, and humanity as a whole may not find itself in this predicament.

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