East Meets West: A Great Gulf Fixed?


You may have seen the recent East meets West infographic by Yang Liu that is making its rounds across the internet. As attractively designed and effectively communicative as any infographic that I’ve seen. Designed by a Chinese woman whose family moved to Germany when she was 14, the main panels of the infographic put various aspects of Chinese and German culture in juxtaposition to demonstrate ‘just how different the two cultures are.’

For example, one box is labeled ‘the boss’, and in the German side of the box, one stick figure is slightly taller than the others in a line of stick figures. Whereas in the Chinese side of the panel, the one stick figure is more than twice as tall as the rest in the line. The artist’s meaning is that in German eyes, an authority figure isn’t as far removed from his fellow man as a similar authority figure would be perceived in Chinese eyes.

But are these comparisons helpful? Notice two things. First, the fact that this chart has been shared so much implies that its message has resonated with many viewers. They at least believe that this is the case. Second, note that the comment section beneath the post containing the infographic is littered with charges of racism! To many, these comparisons amount to little more than stereotypes.

So, what do I think? Frankly, I think it’s nonsense.

While this chart’s presentation may be fresh, the ideas that it represents are terribly hackneyed. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times that people – both Westerners and Chinese – have tried to explain to me how Westerners are individualistic and Chinese are community-oriented (as the first panel of the infographic maintains). But all that proves is that this is what people think about what people think! And if a study of human psychology and sociology reveals anything, it is that the disconnect between perception and reality can be widespread and deeply ingrained!

It also needs to be mentioned that the selection of categories of the chart is a little muddled. Many of the categories have to do with people’s thinking. What do Chinese and German people feel about themselves, society, authority, problem-solving, or beauty. But then there are other panels that simply observe what people do: the type of their cuisine, the way they wait in line, or what elderly people do from day-to-day. When I say the infographic is nonsensical, I am referring primarily to the first set of categories: those that imagine great differences in the ways that Chinese people and Westerners view the world.

I have lived and interacted with Chinese people for a long time now. And I have yet to discover a single way in which Chinese thinking is categorically different from Western thinking. Not one. This does not mean that all Chinese people think exactly like all Western people. But that’s the very point! The greatest deception of this infographic and the perspective on culture that it represents is the notion that everyone in culture A thinks X and everyone in culture B thinks Y!

Well, they respond, they’re only generalizations. And I respond that it’s an inaccurate generalization! An accurate generalization is “the sun never shines in Seattle.” An inaccurate generalization is “the sun shines as often in Atlanta as it does in Seattle”! My point is that you are no more likely to meet an individualist in the United States than you are in China. Two Chinese people are no more likely to have a similarly complex self-expression than one Chinese person and one American! If you’re going to generalize, why not generalize about humanity? As a matter of fact, if the chart (the parts about people’s thinking, anyway) was about two sorts of humans, it would be quite helpful. As it’s about two cultures, however…

What would count as proof of a real difference in the way the average Chinese person thinks from the way the average Westerner thinks? It would seem to require a decision that most Chinese people make that is incomprehensible (not just different, but unintelligible) to the average Westerner. As a counter-example, for every story you’ve got about a Chinese person doing something to save face, I’ll give you an equally vivid example from Western society. It’s got to be more radically different than that.

I do believe in cultural differences, for the record, but in the sense of the second bunch of categories (what people do). What people do from one culture to another may vary greatly! The problem comes when we decide that these activities must derive from a difference in mindset. Do people in China eat rice because they conceive of themselves as being near the bottom of the food chain while Westerners eat steak because they conceive of themselves as being near the top of the food chain? No? Then what, pray tell, am I supposed to learn from the way they wait in line? Hasn’t time and chance happened to us all?

These second things are the stuff that missionaries must learn to adapt to. I have yet to meet a missionary who couldn’t adapt to the culture because of his radically different problem-solving approach or because of his radically different view of authority. I have met plenty, however, who couldn’t thrive in Chinese society because they didn’t learn the language, didn’t eat the food, didn’t like the transportation, didn’t care about the holidays, and didn’t adapt to city life.

Please don’t write me and tell me you’re a Chinese person and that I don’t understand Chinese culture. I have no doubt that you believe these differences between cultures exist. But that only proves that some Chinese people think this about themselves. Tell me a decision that many Chinese people make that would be incomprehensible to Westerners. That’s all that counts as proof.

For missionaries, remember that for the most part, people are people are people. You will get much further with cultural adaptation if you assume that Chinese people are mostly like Westerners. Treat them with the same respect and humility you’re used to exercising in your own culture. Focusing on the differences between the cultures is like trying to build a bridge at the widest part of a canyon. It’s very impressive when done well, but it’s the hardest way to accomplish the task. Much wiser to focus on the incredible degree of overlap between two cultures.

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