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A Personal Experience
By Lillian Y. Zhang
Before I came to America I heard many things about this country: fast food, Coca Cola, divorce, crime, lawsuits, etc. In America I heard so many things about the Chinese culture: Feng Shui, Gong Fu, acupuncture, food, favoring boys, etc. I am surprised by how different we feel about our own culture and how other people feel about our culture.
I am also surprised by how I felt about my own culture in different cultural settings. In China, I was very negative about the Chinese culture, just like generations of scholars and students from the past two hundred years. The Chinese culture is very conservative and passive. It was designed to maintain the established order and not to encourage any changes. In the States, however, I suddenly realize that we have many positive things in the Chinese culture that we should maintain even if we become an industrialized society!
At a personal level, I feel like a mixed person. Here in the States, I still hear comments on how Chinese I am. In China, I hear comments on how Americanized I have become. I laugh all the time when I watch Chinese TV programs (Channel 66 on Cable) on the things that are so familiar, so dear, and suddenly so funny. On one occasion, two county governors talked to each other about an upcoming flood: As parents of all people in our county, what should we do? On another occasion, one man called home on the Chinese New Year saying, "Daddy, Daddy, I am your son Ugly Number One!" Only with distance in a different culture can I understand my own culture! But, would others share my feelings?
So, cultural misunderstandings are expected. Before we understand why other people misunderstand our own culture, we need to understand why we misunderstand other cultures. The first reason is that we are instilled with our own culture. The process starts with childhood daily routines. The values we are taught constitute a reference system from which we learn, compare, and understand new things. In this sense, we involuntarily become preconditioned to view other cultures in a particular way.
As a people or a nation, this reference system at a personal level constitutes a huge umbrella to protect a culture from outside influence. For example, the communism in China is a term of justification of a new government. It is so Chinese that it has more to do with the Chinese traditions than the German or Russian communist ideals. Mainland China and Taiwan have the same legal systems like that of twin sisters. Another example: Christianity came to people's attention in China through the Tai Ping Movement. This peasant movement brought in many negative elements to the Christian faith such as Ghost Playing. One more example is Feng Shui. It was from the ancestor worship tradition. It was a set of rules to locate a good burying spot for elderly so that they could continue to bless their children in their next lives. It turns out to be a positive thing here because the American culture focuses on the value of life in the present, not in the afterlife!