Sunday, January 13, 2013

Contradictions and the smell of a restaurant's back door

While walking past the back door of a restaurant, Ma Lei noted the combined smell of rotted produce, grease, and dirty dishes that is common to the back doors of restaurants. "Ayamaya!" She said, "America has smells like that, too?!"

What amused me about this was not the funny look on her face, nor the very expressive Chinese "ayamaya," but her background assumption that America — the entire country — would be devoid of restaurant-backdoor-smell.

I find that many Chinese people are prone to such sweeping generalizations. They meet one American who's nice, and they assume all Americans are nice; they meet one who's a schmuck and assume all are schmucks. I have a few possible explanations for why this is:

1) Chinese culture historically aspired to absolute sameness from everyone, so perhaps it comes naturally for the Chinese to assume that everyone and everything from a given culture is the same. And in fact, in many ways China is remarkably uniform (much of it, indeed, smelling like the back door of a restaurant).

2) The Chinese education does not demand analytical weighing of different or conflicting elements of the same whole. On the contrary, whichever part of history, or literature, or any other subject is presented by the teacher is considered to be the whole of it, and asking about anything else is both a waste of time (since it's not on the test) and an insult to the teacher.

3) Chinese philosophy was not founded on the dialectic method and, most importantly, the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction.

If a Westerner holds two contradictory ideas, such as "all Americans are nice," and "Americans all shoot each other with guns," he will likely recognize that there is a contradiction. If the issue is important to him, he will search for an explanation. At the very least, he will want to resolve the issue into a more nuanced viewpoint: "in respect X, but in another respect Y."

Most of my Chinese friends and students do not follow this approach. Rather, they tend to hold two mutually-exclusive ideas as coequals, to be applied pragmatically according to the circumstances of the moment. When the facts seem to warrant it, or when it's convenient to do so, one applies "all Americans are nice." Tomorrow or the next day, on the other hand, "all Americans are violent."

This may partly explain the huge, rapid swings that characterize much of Chinese history. In 1978, communism is the ideal. In 1979, "to get rich is glorious." Both stand as equally true and equally universal, but they will be applied according to the moment.

Westerners do this too, of course, especially where issues of religion are concerned. ("I am my brother's keeper" — where "my brother" is taken to include everyone in need — yet "to each his own" and "better dead than Red.") Nor do all Chinese people think in stereotypes: Ma Lei in particular has a wonderfully supple mind. Yet there is a strong tendency for Chinese people to think in ways that Westerns find to be flattened-out.

1 comment:

  1. You analysis is very interesting, esp. on the law of non-contradiction. I guess one needs to be analytical in the first place to find contradiction. Can we say Chinese are in general not analytical?

    Another explanation on what happened to Lei is 'representative bias'.