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Family Matters Family Matters
by Valerie Sartor
2013-03-30 09:19:14
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As an educator, I have found that work and education have priority over personal happiness for my Chinese students, both in China and abroad. Chinese students work extremely hard, keeping a serious mien, while American students are often casual and joyful, and sometimes rather cavalier regarding their studies. This contrast in academic attitudes is deeper than differences in textbooks, curriculum and teaching methodology. The core cultural values of how people perceive themselves are at stake. Chinese view themselves as members who are connected naturally to an extended network; Americans see themselves as free-willed individuals striving for personal success.

This cultural divide is vast. Because of their grave faces, Chinese students, and consequently Chinese culture, often seems muted, passive, and unemotional to foreign teachers and visitors. Indeed, in China, strong expressions of personal feelings have been discouraged by centuries of cultural norms stipulating behavior for the betterment of the group, not the individual. Confucian ethics are a prime example of this philosophy, teaching Chinese students to respect their elders, their teachers, and their parents. When foreign teachers describe Chinese students as passive and unresponsive, I know that a cultural misunderstanding is taking place, rather than a lack of student discipline regarding assignments and homework. I tell my colleagues that, in China, directly responding to classroom questions is still considered bad manners, because it is rude to challenge anyone who has authority over you. 

Following traditional Confucian cultural norms, the Chinese reduce their need for direct and emotional responses to problems. Students requiring assistance, as well workers in companies, will often employ an intermediary. And, in fact, the greater the reputation and status of the intermediary, the more likely the chances those appealing for something will succeed. Recently, a professor came to my office to appeal for a student, trying to help that person achieve a higher mark. My foreign colleagues were baffled and asked why the student did not come to me directly. They saw the incident as somehow unworthy. By Chinese standards, this wasn’t a negative act, because the intermediary demonstrated the diverse but vital role of the group, showing how status and hierarchy functions in Chinese culture.

The personality of an individual and the culture of his society do not always match up perfectly. I hesitate in drawing broad generalizations about my own American culture, much less Chinese culture. However, I can say with relative impunity that Chinese and American homes reflect contrasting values and these values influence student behavior. 

For example, Americans believe their children have rights from birth, and even in the womb. They cater to their kids, they’re determined to do the very best for them. Americans spoil children and treat them as unique individuals with emotional, social and commercial needs. Unsurprisingly, American children often grow up thinking more of themselves than their families and hometowns. The “Me Generation” aptly describes American kids. Moreover, American children, although raised by adoring parents, often go through teenage rebellions, and parents, once their children’s idols, can easily become adolescent enemies. 

In contrast, Chinese children rarely revolt. They are still, for the most part, raised among an extended family, where mutual affection is discreet, and toned down between children and parents. Even with the One Child Policy, I feel that Chinese children receive balanced affection because the child has opportunities to relate to his extended family. In this way, Chinese children also absorb security, knowing they have a definite place in the family hierarchy. Their duty is to revere and support their parents before all other obligations. This responsibility becomes grounded not just with the mother and father, but extends outward to kin, villagers, and countrymen. 

Instead of belonging to an isolated and emotionally intense American type of dyad – a mother and father – the Chinese child intuits that he belongs to a series of groups. As children grow up and go to school, this obligation is voiced by the adage to perform well in school. The Confucian dictum states that the parents and the teachers are always right, therefore children and students must humbly submit to authority. In this way Chinese children learn to perceive the world as a vast network of relationships. Intermediaries are part of this web. In contrast, American children view themselves as unique individuals who must constantly has to strive alone, seeking security and validation by competing with siblings, peers, and later coworkers.  

Which cultural system is better? Love exists among family members for both Chinese and American families; they’re just different. Chinese literature has many stories of filial piety between sons for fathers and students respecting teachers. Folktales recount children slicing off portions of their flesh to help ailing parents. In today’s postmodern world, respect, loyalty and affection are needed around the world. We can learn much from our Chinese students.   

 


    
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Murray Hunter2013-03-30 11:01:27
Dear Valerie,
I read your article with great interest, and have found some different experiences.
Firstly I find the generation who were born within the "Cultrual Revolution" era to be extremely "strong minded" and even rebellious against "Confucian ethics". Although there is still respect towards elders, etc, their tends to be a strong "self centred" will or drive to achieve for their own self.
Another generation who might best be called "the little Goddesses" often dont have the same achievement ethics as you described above. "Mummy and Daddy will look after things so i dont have to worry", etc. I aslo see a great divide in attitude depended upon where a person comes from. A "Shanghai" Chinese is very different in their attitudes to say another person from say "Chengdo" or "Kunming". I definatley see a strong reformation towards "Confucianism" but Im reluctant to say that this is a major part of the Chinese psych at this point of time. China is such a hetegenious place and I look forward to learning more. Thank you for your insights.Look forward to reading more from you.


Eva2013-03-30 11:42:21
Yes, they are just different. But I'm sure we could learn a lot from the Chinese - with "we" I guess I mean the western world - I sometimes get a bit fed up with the self-obsession among young people today. Everything is me, me, me. Not very healthy in the long run.


Emanuel Paparella2013-03-30 12:48:13
Thank you Valerie for this insightful comparison between Chinese and American cultural attitudes. While understanding those differences I remain somewhat perplexed by the comparison between the Confucian tradition still alive and revered among families in China and the the more public and officially approved Marxian tradition and ideology (called Communism) by which the Chinese government rules the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps in a future article you could dwell a bit on such a comparison. Is it seen as a contrast or as complementary to each other? I wonder.

Indeed Confucian respect for one’s elders and the notion of humbly submitting to authority and what the Chinese government requires of its citizens seem to complement each other and one can safely assume that the Communist Party would readily approve of this famous Confucian maxim “Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son,” which discourages confusion of roles, but one hardly ever hears Confucius mentioned and praised as an ideal model to be imitated or at least a complement to Communist ideology at Communist Party rallies.

I remain curious on how would a Party leader interpret Confucius’ depiction of himself in the Analects as someone who “transmits the Dao of the sages of antiquity but does not innovate.” Would he consequently brand Confucius as someone who has nothing to teach as a transmitter; perhaps even call him someone who exhibits little imagination and innovation and originality because he reveres history and tradition too much and refuses to express his own views? I suppose what I am getting to is this question: Is history bunk and an enemy of "modernity" in China too as all too often it is in the West? Would the Communist leader grant that one of the tasks of Confucius was the restoration of the moral integrity of the state when he counseled to “direct the people with moral force and regulate them with ritual, and they will possess shame, and moreover, they will be righteous.” How would he interpret the word “righteous” in such a statement? And finally how would he interpret this intriguing statement of Confucius: “The profound person understands what is moral. The small person understands what is profitable.”


Murray Hunter2013-03-30 16:11:05
You may enjoy this short film about the Shanghai Love market where parents are trying to match make their children.
http://vimeo.com/26106002


Leah Sellers2013-03-31 06:59:28
Ms. Valerie,
I really enjoyed your article, and agree with many of your observations, but have, in working with some Chinese students in the past (although they had moved from China and lived in America for at least a year), also noticed some of the more modern behavioral patterns touched upon by Mr. Murray.
In America, families who raise their children within devout Protestant traditions (and more than likely other devout religious traditions), and whose family members do not become distantly transient, display some of the same behaviors that you noted to be amongst the Chinese children.
For example, in my family we were taught that there is a Rainbow of Life. We enter the World crawling on all fours as Babies and toddlers. Then we walk through Life on two legs as Adults, until we pick up a cane (a third leg) in the latter stages of our Life along the Rainbow.
We were taught that every stage upon the Rainbow of Life is to be Respected, Protected, Nurtured and Sustained.
We were taught that the Adults are to be the CareGivers of the Babies, Children and the Elderly. That we were all Responsible for the Loving Care of the Other.
Of course, some of our family members performed their Loving Care better than others, but the tradtions of the Rainbow of Life were still taught and Acted upon as best as each Family member could or would.
Yes, we were raised to be strong Individualists as well, but always to be cognizant of our Responsibilites to our Communities (church, school, areas of community service,...etc.) at large.
However, doing anything the Family disagreed with could also get you harshly ostracized and/or disinherited (excommunicated).
These types of familial ties can always be laden with some very complex and complicated pros and cons, degrees and varying shades of Love and Punishment.
Thank you for your observations, and for being a concerned and Caring Educator.


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