When dealing with China, beware of those who give you cultural awareness lessons

China Australia Relations

China Australia Relations

Being a psychology graduate and an avid traveller, I’ve always been curious in how myths shape individual behaviour and perceptions of cultural identity. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was having a beer with a friend who works in the Department of Defence and he was telling me about an ethical dilemma he dealt with when hosting a Chinese military delegation.

It seems the Chinese cultural experts had informed his department that it would be culturally inappropriate to make conversation with the wives of the Chinese officers. Heeding the advice, members of the department ignored the wives but later discussed their frustration at having to appease sexism within Australia.

Having lived in China for three years, I had to say that the Defence Department’s cultural experts had fed them crap. There is nothing in Chinese culture that says women must be seen but not heard. Yes, there are traditions that women should do the housework, but there are also traditions of feisty Chinese women getting the men to do the housework instead. In any case, Chairman Mao said that “women hold up half the sky.” As good supporters of Chairman Mao and communist values, the military officers should have promoted gender equality.

I’d say that the more likely explanation was that the Chinese officers might have been jealous if their wives talked to the Australian men or they may have feared their wives letting out a secret. Such explanations would not have been examples of Chinese culture but instead reflective of something more personal to the officers or militaristic concerns. The Chinese culture explanation was therefore something to keep face or distract attention from the real concerns.

If such issues were the real concern, it would have been important for our defence department to know the truth even while they pretended to believe the lie. I don’t want to cast dispersions on our defence force here but if this is the way our intelligence industries operate, I’ve got to say that they really aren’t very intelligent.

It isn’t just the Australian public service that I have reservations about when it comes to cultural expertise. A few years ago in Beijing I came across a PhD candidate who was being funded by a multinational company to research how communication campaigns could be tailored to specific cultures. As a PhD candidate funded by private enterprise, I expected him to be really switched on and I was eager to hear what he had to say.

I asked him what his research was showing about Chinese cultural values and he responded that his surveys showed that Chinese put the group first. I then asked whether, as a man living in China, he had ever seen individual Chinese put themselves first. The penny dropped and after a pause, he slowly uttered that he had indeed seen Chinese put themselves first. It was not something he could really deny.

China is a third world country where the majority of citizens are striving for a better life. Consequently, it is expected that most of them put themselves first. Sometimes that selfishness is expressed via corruption, which is the classic example of putting the self before the greater good. Sometimes it is expressed by having children, not out of love, but out of a desire to be cared for in their old age. Finally, sometimes it is by taking a step back and waiting for someone else to pay the bill at KTV.

I could have argued these points if he hadn’t conceded all the individualism around him but he didn’t give me an opportunity. He just faced the person to his other side and started listening to a different conversation going on. On the basis of his response, I suppose I could have concluded that Germans don’t like to discuss things but I was culturally literate enough to be aware that in every culture there is a range of personality traits that get expressed differently in different social contexts.

In defence of his work, I knew where he was coming from. I had been told countless times by Chinese people that they put the group first unlike selfish westerners like me. I didn’t dispute it with stories of how I had volunteered to clean up the environment, paid my taxes and freely made art for other’s  enjoyment. Instead, I just used the myth to my advantage.

For example, when I was running English workshops for Chinese scholars preparing to go abroad on collaborative research projects, sometimes I would have a trouble maker who didn’t like my style of teaching. In response to his or her protests, I would say, “I thought Chinese put the group first?”

With the myth being evoked in the context of a western Chinese social dynamic and with most of the troublemaker’s classmates being members of the Communist Party, the troublemaker would have to back down in order for the myth to be affirmed. In other words, the belief in the myth allowed it to become a reality in certain contexts. (Arguably, the ability of the myth to pacify dissent may also be one of the reasons it is so heavily promoted in China.)

The point is that Chinese have a myth of putting the group first and that myth comes out in surveys and can be exploited in certain situations. Yes, Chinese fill up the tea of others in the hope the evening goes well or hold their arm as they travel down the escalator in order to show their consideration, but China is not a country of people sacrificing their own needs to serve the greater good.

The problem with the German man’s survey was that it didn’t show that myths of behaviour are both true and false depending upon context. Furthermore, he had placed such faith in his survey results that he had selectively ignored all the Chinese individualism that he saw being expressed around him.

Despite what cultural “experts” say, culture is never cast in stone. There are only ever myths of behaviours that different individuals have different levels of willingness to believe in different contexts. Sometimes these myths shape how we approach others and sometimes they shape how we behave ourselves. While there is a place for consulting cultural experts to inform our inter-cultural relations, we should be careful when cultural experts start to prescribe them.

Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues

Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Well stated.



  1. How to get a slice of the money flowing out of China | China Daily Mail
  2. China’s Confucius Institutes: A subversive attack on western academic freedom? | China Daily Mail

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