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The second reason why we tend to misunderstand other cultures is that we typically notices differences in other cultures very readily. All cultures share the same values: honesty, loyalty, hard work, being good to each other, etc. We are so used to it and happy to say "We are all humans" when we see the similarities. All cultures have different ways to carry out the values. When we see the differences, we use culture as a ready explanation to calm down our uneasy feelings: Culturally we are different! We need to remember that the difference we see in other cultures is only a tiny part of that culture!
For example, you may have heard of Chinese women's foot-binding practices from a century ago. Western women have had similar kinds of suffering such as high heel shoes and corsets. Additionally, Chinese people take turns to treat each other to meals in restaurants and people here tend to split the cost. They all mean to have long-term relationships from this practice. Chinese students do not ask questions and American students keep asking questions. It is all out of respect to their teachers (Difference: Teacher as father figure or teacher as an equal party).
There is a third factor contributing to our misunderstanding of other cultures. We have a powerful media in our modern society. Look at the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". An Li did a good job to present the Chinese way of thinking -- his culture, as he understands it. Consider the movie "Joy Luck Club," which did a good job explaining mother-daughter relationships in first generation immigrants but we do not see one good Chinese man throughout the duration of the film. It is portrayed by a second generation immigrant girl who is also dismayed by marital relationships in American culture. Look at many Hollywood movies about Chinese people: Many characters are portrayed as unattractive, violent, and low-class. The same goes for the Chinese media. I cannot remember seeing a single positive foreign figure in Chinese movies before I left China.
Now let us turn to the subject of cultural characteristics: Not just the Chinese culture but of all cultures. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines the term CULTURE as following: 1, a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought; b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population; c. These patterns, traits and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression. (There are other meanings but the above quotation is closest to our subject).
I feel humbled to realize how little I really know about my own culture and any other culture. I want to use this definition structure to organize my thoughts. I am so happy that I am not an expert in culture so that I could feel free to chat whatever I want about my personal viewpoint.