You don’t have to be a cultural expert to know there is a vast difference between America and China.
Here’s a quick quiz, which country is this?
- Dancing in the streets
- Excellent coffee
- Laser light shows
- Tropical vacations
- Ridiculous beachwear
- Color-drenched buildings and streets
So, did you pick China?
Maybe, but only because of the pictures. This is not the image we have of China, but it is China.
I lived and worked in China for three semesters lecturing in the Economics Department at Shandong University in Jinan. I went to teach, it turns out I did most of the learning.
We have an idea of the difference between America and China. But, I suspect your idea of China is probably similar to what mine was before I lived there. It’s shaped by what others want us to believe about China. Just as my Chinese colleagues and students have their ideas of the United States shaped by what others want them to believe about America.
But your idea of China and the difference between America and China is probably wrong and travel will set you straight. Travel causes preconceived, implanted ideas to be reshaped, corrected, and become truly one’s own ideas.
Traveling also shines a bright light on the differences between countries and cultures. And this is where the astute observer can start to connect the dots.
Wrong here right there
To be fair it’s not just the difference between America and China. For example, when I arrived at Bangkok University to lecture, I heard the Thai students plagiarize ‘everything’. They do engage in a lot of plagiarism but . . . Thai culture emphasizes respect and the demonstration of respect. Thai students use an author’s words to show respect to the author.
And really think about it, what better way to communicate someone’s importance and show your respect for his or her ideas and talent. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
But please, cite your sources!
One big difference between America and China
Just after I gave my last final for the Fall semester one of the English instructors became seriously ill, as in two weeks in the hospital ill. The English Department works on a different schedule than the Economics Department (it’s a long story) so there were still several weeks in their semester. The university asked me to cover his classes.
The students were working on an essay to be presented in class. The prompt was something along the line of “What makes China great?”
Here’s another question for you. If you asked freshmen at a U.S. university “What makes America great?” What do you think the general answer would be? The usual answer I get when I ask this question is freedom.
What do you think most of the Chinese students choose to write about when asked what makes China great?
Most chose harmony.
That’s a big difference – Freedom and Harmony. And it explains a lot of other differences. Think about it. It’s the difference between a genuine deep desire to do what you want (freedom) versus a genuine deep desire for everyone to get along (harmony).
A difference in speech between America and China
In America, people say whatever they want. One person’s opinion is as valid as any other and there’s no problem disagreeing and arguing the point, even if the discussion leads to discord, dislike, and division. It’s what Americans do.
In China, people avoid topics that divide, upset, or otherwise disrupt harmony. It’s not ok to get upset and create division. It’s what the Chinese do.
A difference in government between America and China
In America people want their individual ideas to be represented. An individual vote for an American represents the freedom to choose what he or she wants, even if it harms other Americans.
In China, people want a system in which everyone gets along even if it means an individual can’t do some things he or she wants.
Chinese prefer to make sacrifices for their fellow Chinese. Americans prefer to get what they want despite their fellow Americans.
A difference in freedoms between America and China
These choices result in different freedoms. America has freedom of speech. China has freedom from crime. Americans can say what they want. But some areas in the U.S. are off-limits because it’s too dangerous to go there, it’s too violent.
Chinese can go anywhere they want, any time, every place is safe. But some things can’t be talked about in public, it’s too disruptive to harmony.
So, yes you can actually go to any part of a city at any time in America but you put yourself at risk. In China, you can actually say anything you want but you put yourself at risk. But what I discovered is that privately, between friends, people say what they want anyway. That is, China claims to restrict speech but not really. America claims freedom of travel but you can’t really go everywhere.
The great cultural divide
These two differing ideas, freedom and harmony, stem from the broad cultural divide across the globe between collective cultures and individualistic cultures.
Collective cultures, like China, want
All moving in the same direction
Making sacrifices for the greater good
Uniform way of life
Individualistic cultures, like America, want
Everyone doing what they want
Differentiated way of life
Of course, these cultural preferences overlap, but you can see the distinction. As always, one is not better than the other, they are just different.
It may be impossible for the two cultures to fully understand each other. And this basic difference spawns infinite differences and misunderstandings.
So, next time you hear something negative about China, reflect for a moment, can it be explained by the collective/individualist cultural divide? Is it the deep desire for harmony over freedom? Is it really negative or just different?