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On Cultural Differences Between China And The US — Not Better, Not Worse

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I spent 4th grade in a public elementary school in Aix-en-Provence, France, and my 11th grade in an Istanbul, Turkey, high school.  Since graduating from law school, not a single year has gone by where I haven’t spent at least some time in a foreign country.  Many times when someone of one nationality/culture/ethnicity complains about another nationality/culture/ethnicity, the complaint is based more on differences than objective quality.  But sometimes I (all of us?) need a reminder of this…

The Journey of Beginnings blog has a great reminder, entitled, I love you = Wo Ai Ni? (h/t to China. Hope. Live.) The post is about the radical (my word) difference between Americans and Chinese in their usage of the phrase “I love you.”

Take, for example, the usage of the phrase “I love you.” I have heard Americans say those three words to people they’ve barely met. I slowly learned not to squirm uncomfortably when I hear these words of affection thrown around like a greeting or more often a closing quip as companies depart. My American friend recently admitted to me sometimes she feels those words are cheapened by how freely and frequently they are tossed around in her family. Being Chinese I’ve had to learn this cultural phenomenon and I’ve observed the following three situations in the way Americans say “I love you”:

1. A semi-to total functional family who genuinely respect and support one another may express I love you frequently as a sign of authentic love for each other. They see the importance of leaving no room to doubt for their children or spouse to truly receive the heart behind the verbally spoken words.

2. I love you becomes an acquiescence to societal norms in an effort to cover up what’s really not-so-functional underneath. Imagine a parent who is never around and drops the L-bomb at the end of a phone conversation in order to soothe their guilt. Or a marriage whose passion has grown cold but continue the ritualistic “I love you-s” each morning as they go off to work in order to keep up the appearance of a healthy bond.

3. Sadly there are truly broken, perhaps even abusive, homes where family members have never been loved nor been told they are loved.

The problem arises when Americans encounter Chinese families who have never uttered those precious three words, “wo ai ni”. I’m afraid the American easily jumps to the conclusion the Chinese must therefore be a number 3 family. I’m even more afraid when Christian Americans make it their mission to demonstrate true love to Chinese families with the assumption they must not know how to love if they don’t say it. This is simply a false assumption! Chinese families know how to love fiercely. They do it through immense generosity, unwavering loyalty, and a lot of food. We love differently, not better, not worse, but definitely different.

This is not to say I don’t think there’s value in verbal expressions of love. Some non-traditional Chinese families are starting to freely say I love you to each other and I believe that can be a healthy development. But I do believe the community should decide for themselves when or how they want to exhibit the love without being judged for being unloving unless they express themselves a certain way.

I agree.  What do you think?

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  • Therese

    The third point is odd. Isn’t it going against the poster’s comment? “People always say ‘I love you’, except when they don’t, and those places are, I the poster am sad to say, homes which lack love.” 

    Otherwise, this may be true for some Americans, but it is certainly not true of the part of America where I was raised; I can count on a single hand the number of times that “love” ever left my parents’ or grandparents’ lips. It feels like a stereotype of Hollywood, or of a generic America that doesn’t exist — to me, at least. 

  • Kai Ni Nai Nai

    Mind your Chinese. No-one says “Wo Ai Ni” in Shanghai for example. It’s “Wo Ai Nong”. Time for some investment in Berlitz I think.

  • Gilman Grundy

    We Brits would never utter those words if we could avoid it, I always wondered if the way you see Americans throwing it around on TV is somewhat fake.

  • Blixenpub

    While love can definitely be expressed in different ways, and the words “Wo Ai Ni” are not used in the same way as “I love you” is in English, the second-handedness that many in the Chinese culture have ingrained in their thinking often prevent sharing of deep values that would generate love.  The “love” within the typical Chinese family is a mixture of loyalty that is never questioned for fear of reprisal, and of real love that a parent and child have for each other due to shared values. Unfortunately, the latter often gets squelched by the former, as manifested by constant bickering amongst siblings, inlaws, parents and children. 

  • Lil’ Red

    Different cultures and different individuals are unique in
    their outward displays and communication of affection.  It is what it is. 

    A male friend of mine from Argentina
    kisses me on the mouth in greeting.  I
    kiss him on the mouth because that is his norm.  I don’t kiss my American male friends on the
    mouth because it’s not their norm, or mine.  My friend thinks Americans are “cold”. 

    When I was 10 my Puerto Rican friend brought me to New York to stay with her extended family.  They all hugged and kissed me in
    greeting.  This was new to me because my
    parents didn’t hug and kiss my friends, in greeting or at all.  

    When I was 11 my brothers and I were informally adopted by a single Vietnamese
    mother with five children of her own.  We
    would stay at her house, for a couple weeks at a time and play ping pong in the
    basement.  My parents never thought
    anything of it.  We kids never thought
    anything of it.  I think some other cultures
    “adopt” other people more readily and easily than many Americans.

    My car insurer is Greek and I’m treated like extended family.  I will never go to another insurer because I
    can’t beat it.  

    My car mechanic is Armenian, and from my understanding, a very diverse people,
    but it’s a family-run business and they are all very warm.  He says Americans are fearful.

    I was just fussing over him because he broke his finger and I think he has it
    splinted incorrectly.  It’s nice to be
    around people with whom I can express genuine warmth and concern.  They also came personally with a driver and
    picked me up from a nearby location when my car was being looked at.  I insist they are too busy working to do that,
    but my mechanic insists I call him and he sends a relative to come get me.  How can anyone not like this kind of personal

    “I love you” means different things to different people and not everyone is
    comfortable with saying “I love you”, or desires to express it in words.  

    I have Chinese friends in the U.S.,
    and most often they are a lot more personally attentive to me than most of my
    American friends.  I think it’s their
    expectation of “community”.  They also
    receive attention more “easily”.   I fuss over them and they fuss over me.

    When my Chinese friend was buying a car, he called me regarding every person he
    called, and had me call them to clarify the details.  When he looked at a car he was interested in
    purchasing, from any English speaking “non-Chinese”, I went with him to oversee
    the communications and stand guard over the details.  This is just what we do. 

    Love is truly expressed in action, anyhow, so whether or not someone says “I
    love you” doesn’t need to be considered too seriously.  

  • MHB

    On love: Indisputably, its essence is not verbal. Practices can differ. Erotic love is exclusionary – ‘you and no other’ – founds its own culture.

    On Chinese love: Apparently, there is no direct translation of ‘I love you’ in Hakka Chinese. Words get their meaning from their use – we all read about and heard about romantic love long before we experienced it. ‘我爱你’ might be the best translation of ‘I love you’, but it may not have the same meaning! Especially if it is used differently. 

    On the post: The blog gives three examples of ‘I love you’. There must be thousands. It can be a bargaining tool, an apology, submissive, dominant, a request, an exclamation of joy, of pain, of suffering, of longing, of lust, a trick, assurance, self-assurance, desperation, … so many! 

    So love must be felt, not simply heard. If it’s love, it never wavers, must be present every second – so what are you going to do, repeat the same three words indefinitely? If its love, you will act accordingly without pause. 

    On lessons learned: In China, trust your feelings – the Chinese do. The obverse holds too; pay attention to feelings. 

  • stevelaudig

    I grew up in the white protestant rural midwest, a handshaking culture; have lived in the hugging part of society in Hawaii for a while and now reside, for the most part, in china which seem to do neither, usually a simple wave. I go back and forth between China and Hawaii. I sensed my Chinese friends in Hawaii [literally] cringing at hugs or even the thought of hugs. Not being oblivious to this awkwardness we came to an agreement. So now when I’m in Hawaii with my cultural Chinese friends we say “I’m Chinese, I don’t hug…… easily!” as a joke when the situation,in Hawaii, would call for a hug. When China, I explain [and almost apologize for] the different cultural practice of hugging upon arrival and departure that is part of Hawaii. One needs to keep one’s antennae up!

  • Wnash7658

    I live in China as a foreigner and from my understanding I see emotions being knocked out of the Chineese children.  It seems emotions like love as seen as a kind of weakness.

    • Lao Sichuan

      I don’t aggree.
      Like in most issues, individuality is more important that nationality.
      But in general …
      Taking Europe as a yardstick, Chinese are not as emotional like Italians, but definitly more emotional than Scandinavians.

  • http://www.shigroupchina.com/ Jnelson

    Hmm, Growing up in Scandinavian America, I never heard my parents say I love you. I believe they said it privately to each other. They also never said I hate you which could fly around many Chinese houses every week. “Do your homework or I will not love you” would also be common. That may be the deeper point.   The Crisis in Chinese families and the educational system that is part of the problem will be hard to solve. Dating in China, the hot button is often “I like you” (wo xihuan ni)  rather than I love you.  Americans marry for a feeling and divorce when they lose it to the detriment of the whole country. China is learning this method and it bodes poorly for the next generation. I fully agree that we cannot say one culture is absolutely better than another.  China culturally is in the American 1910’s, and it is a stage that will pass like it did for the Americans which may or may not make the world better. 

  • Dan (another Dan)

    Yes, it’s true. Every community should and does decides on how to express themselves. 

    Regarding complaints on cultural differences, to complain on objective quality is really hard to do for almost everyone. In a way, it’s not natural and you almost often have to either be raised to see things that way since young or trained to do so either from work, school or other social activities. 

  • PaulR

    I grew up in the US Midwest and “I love you” was reserved for star-crossed lovers in the movies.  As such, I never used it, nor did my friends or relatives.  I’m not old, but I believe words meant more, and and words expressed truth better, in the past.   

    Don’t get me started about “hugging” anyone but ones children or wife/husband.  Its a dreadful habit…..

  • Shirin

    Yes. With exception of a few things, most differences between China and the US/west are not a “better” or “worse” but rather a matter of perspective. And change happen not through imposing, but through sustainable organic growth – for both countries. I get sooo tired of ppl criticizing…

  • Jamesgillis22

    I get the point that is being made here. But the fact that is forgotten in such discussions about culture is that culture is not real; culture is merely a body of ideas appreciated by a particular group of people. Let me say that again: culture is not real. And not real in the same sense as it is that countries are not real – countries are ideas. In English we say “how have you been” when most of the time we do not really want to hear “how you have [really] been.” In Chinese we say “nǐ chīfàn le ma ” which, translated literally, asks the question, “you eat meal (yet)” . . . but this is not the resultant meaning of uttering this phrase. The listener will take this phrase to be a general, friendly greeting. Just as in English I might say “what’s up” or “how’s it hanging.”  When discussing language issues and the meaning that issues from the use of language it is always a mistake to look so shallowly as to not see the meaning which results from the use of a particular phrase or word. When done a particular favour by someone, even a stranger, I might say “I love you” . . . but it is certain that the person listening to my words does not take me to mean that I in fact love them, unless I have uttered this to someone who does not have access to the particular history from which that particular use of the phrase arose; in which case, I have made a mistake of communication. I have made a mistake of not respecting the humanity of the other person. This misunderstanding has nothing to do with culture unless we allow it to. The result of my words is exactly as I choose it to be, a heart felt thank you. International English is “an English which is understandable by the greatest number of people who do not share your culture.” Stop speaking from within culture. Speak as a person to a person and all the unnecessary discussion about this culture is that, or that culture is this drop away.When you teach a language, you must remove the culture, not try to teach culture to the second language learner. When teaching a language you must help the language learner step outside their culture and meet you in a ‘place’ stripped of culture. Attempting to teach someone to use a language in an international context, across cultures, by indoctrinating them into the culture of that target language is a waste of time and is certain to create political pitfalls, depending on how divergent are the political views of the two societies that claim ownership of the target language and the first language. I am a language ‘professional so please, do not debate me on this point. I do not say that with arrogance but only with the certainty of many years of experience. The best way to answer the question: “why is John late for work”, is to remove all specifics and then you end up with the question “why is a person late” and a best, least risky answer, will be: ”s/he must have a problem.” This answer to the question, in an international context, will be the same for any person, any place, anytime. When a Chinese person says “after I graduated from the university I got a job” they are focusing on their specific university. When I say “after I graduated from university I got a job” I am focusing on the specific, general experience of graduating from university – an experience which is, by and large, the same for all people every where. When I ask, in a room that contains three animals – a cat, a dog, and a horse, “what is your favorite animal” you might say “I like the dog” – referring to a specific animal in that room. When I ask, referring to the world at large and all the animals there in, “what is your favorite animal” you might answer (with the same words) “I like the dog” or “I like dogs” – referring to all dogs; the result of your words is to refer to the same target in the real world. These are challenging notions for people who put culture first, and particularly challenging for Chinese who are educated to believe that Chinese people are different. It is difficult to use an international language when you do not accept universal ideas. When we open our moths to communicate, it is our choice to focus on differences or to focus on sameness. Need I point out the commonsensical and obvious fact that focusing on sameness enhances communication and that focusing on cultural differences creates space between communicants.When Westerners come to China and pay homage to Chinese culture, even to the extent of over looking obvious failings (if space permitted I could give you a list of these) whose hands are they playing into if not into the hand of the political leaders of China, leaders who have hijacked culture for political reasons. When Westerners come to China and pay homage to Chinese culture, out of business motivation, who is respecting Chinese people more more, those business individuals or me with my, what many will call, irascible ways. And what is Chinese Culture, I might ask, for after years of living in China, I see very little real Chinese culture on the streets. I see it theme parks and at tourist destination, and in media broadcast. But when I walk down the street I see very little real Chinese culture. What I do see is a lot of communist culture mixed with ‘wannabe’ America. In my experience, appreciation for Chinese culture in China most regularly results in a situation where I have to speak to Chinese people as if they were children. The politics of China often do not allow me to speak as equals to Chinese people. Is that respectful?One of the gravest mistakes and one of the manufacturers of so much so called soft power today is the political use of culture. In the words of F. W. Deklirk (I paraphrase) “in order to resolve many of the current ills of the world, all forms of political correctness need to be suspended.” Culture is simply not real. To quibble about the particular meanings of the various uses of a particular phrase within a language is bad enough, but to take this same quibbling attitude into relationships that cross cultures and to propose a valuation of that culture based on the regularity of similar phrases in that second culture . . . well it just give me a headache, on a day to day basis, to watch how people trip over themselves, tie themselves in knots trying to place a particular value on a culture based on a subjective assessment arrived at from their own cultural expectations – or worse yet, pretending a respect for that culture in any case where the underlying normal attitudes of humanity and decency do not exist. Wrong is just wrong and no amount of cultural appreciation is going to change that. It is just foolish, in my opinion, to discuss culture as we do. For heaven’s sake, let us be real and shame the devil. The Chinese people love each other to the exact same degree as do people from any other culture. That they are shy about expressing it, or that they reserve the use of, in Chinese, “I love you”, has nothing to do with  . . . well, anything. They, the Chinese, express their love with exactly the same regularity as do another people, but in their own way, and in their own way they understand that ‘love’ has been expressed, sincerely or not, with exactly the same regularity and to the same degree as would any people, anywhere. Discussing culture is to discussing reality what real economy is to virtual/marketed/paper economy. Real is real, and culture is not real. The task of defining what ‘real’ means can be left to another time . . . Quantum Mechanics and Information Theory are doing a good job at creating ‘real’ expression of what Real  really is . . . the only point I wish to make here, is that whatever ‘real’ might ultimately prove to be we are very well aware that there is something different between what we can touch, smell, here, taste, see and what an idea is – to wit, there is an extra layer of symbolic logic required so as to explain ideas. Not to pick on the Chinese but, the Chinese are often described as a humble people – but that is merely a cultural norm in China were no relationship is considered equal. First hand, the Chinese are often very passive aggressive, especially if one does not follow the cultural norms and, by digging deeper than is seen as polite in China, one ignores the old Chinese adage “no one would dare break a smiling face.” The Chinese are an incredible tactical people, this is part of their culture but only because others allow this to be so. The Chinese are a very pragmatic people, culturally, and so you can bet your bottom dollar that when you do, as I have often done, forge real and meaningful relationships with Chinese on a footing of real understanding among humans the Chinese have no problem dispensing with troublesome cultural appreciation. But it is up to others to be steadfastly human and to avoid being sycophantically politically correct. I cannot tell you how many offices I have worked in where, within earshot of the Chinese staff everything is so very politically correct and yet where-so-ever the average foreign staffers gather there is repeated the very same jokes about and expressions of amazement at ‘how the Chinese think.’Not to pick on the Americans but, Americans are often described as open minded, yes, perhaps, except with those who do not demonstrate open-mindedness. America, as a world leader, is making the same mistake as have made all world leaders since the time of the ancient Egyptians: all world leaders since the end of the Egyptian Empire have failed because they did not enact within their own border laws that would protect those affected by that world leaders culture and activities outside the domestic borders of that world leader. As a result of a similar failing, America – and other Western/Developed countries, the most recent world leaders, continue to ‘dump’ second rate culture into China . . . all the while allowing China to build up its soft power based on the politically motivated business-wise admiration for Chinese culture – allowing matters to unfold and themselves to be ‘immersed’ in the necessary adherence to Chinese culture in China so as to further those business goals. Meanwhile, this selling out on our own ‘culture’, or own best practices, creates a situation where the increasingly cultured Chinese are one day going to look back and say “hey, you knew this or that was wrong but you pretended appreciation in order to further your business goals.” Where then will go value of the good lessens taught to us by our good mothers.Culture has always been a political tool in China, from ancient times, through the end of the monarchy in China, through the cultural revolution, to today’s crop of English language broadcast from China, such as “Culture matters” (on ICS in Shanghai) “Cross Talk” and “Culture Express” (on English CCTV), to name but a few government sponsored cultural pushes. English is described as the tyrant of languages by Chinese leadership, which still has as a central tenant the limiting of foreign cultural influences in China; all the while, Mandarin, the nationalized official Chinese, has been pushed on the various cultures in China. Chinese culture has been used as an excuse, in my own personal experience, for the manner in which Chinese ignore aviation safety regulations about mobile communication use during take off, landing, and taxing and used to create a dangerously racist environment in my workplace . . . and I should smile at this, and find some way to be big about “different cultures in different lands are not simply the root of right and wrong but are just different.” Poppy cock. Culture often hides truly wrong behavior. Culture is used to excuse Hua Jun Tao’s rhetoric when he recently referred to “the Glory of the Chinese Race” during a speech in Taiwan – there is not such thing as a Chinese race, yet the naive viewpoint of one of the most powerful individuals in the world is permitted because of ‘cultural differences’. Very commonly, foreigners working in China, either themselves or their sponsor/employer, sign a contract – most are unaware of this, which includes a clause stipulating that the ‘foreigner’ will do nothing to embarrass the dignity of the Chinese People. How can one possibly know, up front, what might insult the dignity of anyone, unless one applies universal ideas about dignity and what is good behavior or not. My mother brought me up to be a good man and, thus, if I say something that insults your culture, it is just as likely that this feeling of insult comes from a weakness in your culture as might that insult come from a failure of mine to appreciate your culture. Such confusions will always remain if people go too far to appreciate culture such that they do not treat each other with human respect. In China, Chinese culture trumps the rule of law, laws which are, by and large, exactly the same as those in Western countries – the primary difference being the modal value by which those laws are applied: in the west we say “you must not/you must do such and such”; in China the same laws are applied as to say “you should not/you should do such and such.” Culture is not real and to the extent that we show sycophantic deference for culture, either in pretence or in fact, we do nothing for the sum total of understanding around the world. I am not a fan of globalization but I recognize the ills of globalization where this trend relates to culture, for what will result is merely an increased confusion of our international relationships. There is no such thing as a balanced view, of the world, or of any issue. Attempting to strike up a balanced view is for those who are afraid to say what they really think, o for those who have an ulterior motive. There is no such thing as a win/win outcome – that is game theory. And what of win/win outcomes in China? Well, if you and I -let’s say I am Chinese, resolve our negotiation such that an observer might see we have achieved a win/win situation and yet there is a way that you could have best me and you did not take that advantage . . . most Chinese will see this as a weakness, in despite of themselves . . . such is their culture that they recognize that the notion of win/win outcomes is a cultural idea and has nothing to do with the way the real world works. The implication of Deng Xiaoping’s decision to “open up and learn from the west” is that he knew, as long as a people live only within culture (the Chinese culture in that case) they do not live in the real world. International English is “an English which is understandable by the greatest number of people who do not share your culture.” Here it is clear that good cross cultural/international communication removes culture. Good communication, communication which is lasting and which deepens understanding, removes culture and does not pay homage to culture . . . and certainly does not pay homage to culture for business reasons. All of this talking, in recent years, about culture, culture this and culture that, is motivated more by business growth then by any real attempt at understanding. Ask any one in any culture, if it is important to love your mother and all peoples will say “yes”. Now give them your version of how best to love a mother – say, for example, “the best way to love your mother is, you must buy your mother fourteen flowers ever day”, and you will get many who disagree. Generally we all agree; it is the specifics that entangle us in needless debate and misunderstanding. There are only six stories in all the world. There are “Seven Songs that Made the World (I forget the author’s name at this time).When dealing with people of different cultures it is important to show you are a normal person who understands the six stories that build the world (or maybe there are ten stories but there are not very many stories), one of which is a love story . . . and all cultures will accept that my love story might equate with, and/or dovetail into, your friendship story, or with his ‘dying story’ or her ‘being born story’, or that other persons ‘war story’. All reasonable people will look to agree if given a chance. When we open our mouths to communicate it is our choice to focus on differences or not. The differences, should we choose to focus on them, are usually manufactured differences. If we take reality as 100% of all the is genetic in a person and all that is cultural in the world, and we subtract from that the 99.9%, which sciences tells us is the rate of sameness among all people, then what remains, .01%, is all the difference of DNA from one person to another and all the culture of those two individuals. It is our choice to focus on differences. Cat and dogs are, most surely different to some degree but most of what we perceive as difference between a cat and a dog come from our human perceptions of those two venerable animals. Focusing on differences is a marketing tool and if there is one things I know that is that culture is a market driven commodity. To me, this is a shameful situation and one that plays right into the hands of the poorest intentions and motivations of we humans . . . but we can’t help ourselves because we want the money and the business success that comes with being politically correct about culture. Bill Clinton is was who ‘repealed’ the historic ties that were made by western democracies between political reform and business investment in China, and elsewhere, where human freedoms were not up to the highest standards achieved. And the result of this is a sycophantic appreciation for cultural norms that we would not sanction in our own western countries. But we needed the growth potential offered by investment in countries which hither-to-for made us squeamish. But worse then all this is that we, westerners, come to countries like China and we do things here that we would not be permitted to do in our home countries – take for example the way Chinese managers of Western companies operating in China continue to pay managers huge performance bonuses, while, in the West, such management styles are, if not illegal as they are in some case, are generally considered weak and short sighted. Again, all world leaders since the end of the Egyptian Empire have failed because they did not enact within their own border laws that would protect those affected by that world leader’s culture and activities outside the domestic borders of that world leader. Too much, folks . . . too much focus on culture and not enough focus on what is real. A few parting words: culture has become the new tool of politics, it’s the battle ground of the new cold war – especially in East/West relationships; culture is the new sloppy tool of business; and, not to pick on the Chinese, but defending one’s right to do something in China that seems rude or unacceptable to foreigners is much the same as using culture as an excuse to be uncultured: culture is a lowest common denominator; “the term “culture,” which originally meant the cultivation of the soul or mind” (Wikipedia) has been bastardized to include the evolved behaviors of a society. Is there really a culturally specific meaning for “lady” or “gentleman”, though we might use different words? Is there really a culturally specific meaning of love, regardless of how we might bandy the word about or not. The British call female strangers “love”, my Chinese wife is uncomfortable with that . . . but that is her discomfort, the British guy who refers to her thus has done nothing wrong.