Once in a while I have students in the Support Center who want to talk about the differences between America and China. When dealing with students I try to be circumspect about those areas where I disapprove of Chinese culture, and to emphasize those areas which I love and respect. I don't think it's right for a foreign professor to come to China and dump anti-China propaganda on the students of this country. However, sometimes the cultural conflict becomes unavoidable, even if it's not exactly discussed overtly.
Yesterday, a student named Keren came in to talk about opportunities to study in America for her Ph.D. After we'd discussed the various options, how she needed to prepare, and so on, she wanted to discuss some of the cultural differences she would need to prepare for.
We talked about individualism versus collectivism in the education systems, and the broader range of choice available to American students. She lamented the fact that our university doesn't allow her to take liberal arts classes (though they've got plenty of "Marxist philosophy" thrown at them).
Chinese people, though, are steeped in the art of balancing, and the supposed benefits of collectivism are cemented in their minds, so she went on to say "I think Western individualism has some negative consequences."
Now I should note something about Chinese conversational dynamics. The Chinese are taught never to assert something without qualification. Rather, they raise "both sides" of the issue. Often they lead with what they don't believe, then follow with what they actually do.
Sometimes when dealing with foreigners, Chinese people who don't actually agree with the Party line will nonetheless present as established truths things that are shockingly offensive to the other side, but with that same "I see both sides" mentality. This might be a trap, or it might be an invitation from a student who wants to hear the official dogma debunked. It's often very hard to tell the difference until after you're in the fryer.
It's hard to know what to do in these cases, because I don't want to trash China, and I don't want to trash Chinese culture. Yet I also don't want to be neutral with regard to demonstrably false, propaganda-driven full-frontal assaults on Western culture. So I typically try to use a kind of intellectual judo.
Keren raised the usual arguments, though with a more thoughtful spin because she reads the BBC news. (That's very rare, for a Chinese student.)
First, she talked about violence in America. That's obviously a very real problem, though nowhere near as ubiquitous as the Chinese think it is. I pointed out to her that the US has a free press that loves to talk about every case of violence, whereas the Chinese press cannot do so. I told her that I have personally seen more violence in China than I ever did in America. I pointed out that certain whole categories of violence, such as domestic abuse, are accepted in China but punished in America. (I also mentioned that America is only 30-40 years ahead of China in this regard, since such things used to be tolerated in my country, too.) I told her she'll have to be careful in America, because there are dangerous places, but overall it's not an unsafe place. She nodded intently.
Then she raised the other big one I hear frequently: Americans don't care about their families as much as Chinese people do.
This is a classic case of what Ayn Rand termed a "frozen abstraction" — i.e., a concept or principle that is arbitrarily reduced to only certain of its proper referents, freezing out all other essentially similar instances. The Chinese (most of them) do, indeed, love their families, a love they express through Confucian obedience to their parents well into adulthood. While the extremes of parental rule are in the past, parents still exercise control or at least veto power over such crucial life decisions as a student's major in university, career, and choice of marital partner.
I find this line of discussion especially offensive, because I happen to come from a large and loving family. Of course I don't obey my parents — they wouldn't want me to — but I sure as heck love and respect them, and I consult with them on every important decision.
And if you want to see a family that loves each other, look to my uncle Charles's family, based in the Dallas area. His kids (four of them) and grandkids (six) do everything they can together, they squabble sometimes, and they take care of each other in times of need. Most of all, though, they love each other. At a holiday gathering, it's quite normal for 20-30 people from all reaches of the family to descend upon one house for an all-day party.
So there's a big part of me that bristles every time a Chinese person tells me that — just because we don't allow our parents to dictate every major decision of our lives — Americans don't love our families as much as Chinese people do. In fact, one could make a case that American parents love their children more than Chinese do, since they respect us to make our own decisions on crucial life issues.
One could make that case, but I don't, because I think that, too, would be a frozen abstraction. To love is to value, and valuing is conditioned by one's philosophical understanding of what values are. To the Chinese, with a collectivist and philosophically risk-averse view of values, it seems perfectly loving for parents to order their child not to major in philosophy, not to marry a man from a poor family, not to move overseas, etc.
At this point in my conversation with the student, I made a major pedagogical mistake. In making the point that Westerners see respecting their children's choices as a form of demonstrating love for them, I chose a horrible, horrible example.
A Chinese acquaintance of mine, I said, was in love with an English man who treated her very kindly, spoke fluent Mandarin, and planned to spend the rest of his life in China; but her parents insisted that she must not marry a foreigner, so they broke up. While this wasa perfect case in point, and it should be a great example for a young woman who (by definition, in China) is seeking storybook love (and who almost certainly adores Romeo and Juliet, which they've all read in Chinese), it led to a catastrophe ten minutes later in the conversation.
The signs of trouble should have been immediate. Rather than put herself in the young woman's shoes and bemoaning the parents' orders, as I had expected her to do, the student asserted that this girl's parents were right. "Foreigners and Chinese probably should not get married," she said. "They will not understand each other, and will fight too much. Chinese should only marry Chinese."
The student probably doesn't exactly believe this. Almost all ideas are provisional, in the minds of most Chinese students (with the possible exceptions of the hatred of Japan and the love of China and of money). Unlike America's young hotheads, Chinese youth are prone to put forward ideas they don't fully accept or endorse, then back away from them as warranted by experience or expediency.
Whereas American teens are like cable-news firebrands, Chinese youths are like centrist politicians. They have tendencies, they have interests, they have passions, but they don't have convictions. Whereas Western youths are prone to — as Plato said — nip and tear at arguments like puppies, Chinese youths are more likely to play chess with them. If one argument, like one chess piece, gets "taken," they'll modify their stance and continue playing the game.
With that in mind, I did not start a new argument on the subject of dating foreigners. I did not challenge her on the potentially soul-crushing consequences when parents make decisions that are inappropriate for their children. Instead, I made a friendly tactical retreat, granting her that parents often have better judgment than young people do, but "Americans think" that the final decision should belong with the person whose life is at stake.
If American parents hate the guy their daughter is dating, I told her, the last thing they'll do is to tell her so. Telling her not to date that guy would virtually guarantee that she'll run off to Vegas and marry the bastard. I made the shocking suggestion that, in this respect, American parents are more socially subtle than Chinese parents. That got her attention for a moment, and her eyes, which had been avoiding mine ever since the potentially divisive topics had started to come up, suddenly latched on mine for a second.
A few minutes later, I used my wife's family as an example for some point I was making. Then the student asked the fatal question: "Is your wife American?"
In all innocence I told her no, my wife is Chinese. It literally didn't occur to me that this was a problem until after I'd said it.
Suddenly, the student's face went blank. Her eyes got huge and round, and she quickly stammered something off-topic. She thanked me for the help, packed her bag, and fled the support center as quickly as she could.
It's sad, because I think this student felt terribly ashamed, but she had no need to. I wasn't personally offended at her comment, and indeed I agree that most cross-cultural marriages are highly problematic. Now, though, she likely will not return to the Support Center for the help she needs in order to prepare for study abroad. She may end up paying thousands of dollars to some agency that won't give her as good advice as I could give her for free, and she may end up feeling that talking with foreigners is fraught with social danger.
Later that evening, as we dined on wonton soup and lamb kebabs, I told Ma Lei about my encounter with the student. She nodded with a mock-serious face and told me "The student was right. Chinese women shouldn't marry yangguizi (foreign devils)." Then she punched me in the arm, and we caught a taxi to go home and walk the little dogs.