Understanding Cultural Difference: Language, Authenticity, Examination and Reproduction in China and the US

I have been mulling over cultural differences and I want to try to puzzle through some of it here. This post is hazy because I am trying to figure all this out. I am hoping that I can come back to all this more systemically as I put it together.

Broadly speaking, I have observed that Chinese culture emphasizes memorization and recitation/replication while I believe that American culture emphasizes individuality and creative application. Let me give a few examples which, I hope demonstrate how fundamental these differences really are.

1. Often the focus here is on copying, repetition and mastering the styles and skills as opposed to what I would suggest is a more laissez-faire approach in the US in which the emphasis is on the product, not drilling the fundamentals. This is visible in the kindergarten here in Guangzhou where the kids get much more art education than in the US, but the way that the education works is that the kids are told what to draw (e.g. fish) and how to draw it (e.g. a big triangle and then some little triangles for fins). You see the same thing with physical activity. The kids get moving much more than kids in the States (next year I am going to very grumpy about this with the folks in Montpelier) but they are told how they will spend the time (e.g. each child in the class is given a basketball and they spend the entire 15 minutes working on dribbling. Rare surfacing of other activity with the ball is stopped by the teacher).

2. I think folks in the US are preoccupied with "authenticity" while in China the emphasis is on quality reproduction. I put authenticity in quotes because I have come to see this as a wholly culturally constructed attribute without material base. Here’s what I am talking about. Here in China I like it when I happen into an old run-down neighborhood like Xiao Zhou Art Village. I can touch the old walls and walk in the same old lanes that people have walked in for a thousand years. It is old and probably not a particularly comfortable neighborhood to live in but I am enthralled. I don’t like it when I go on a hutong (traditional Chinese walled-house) tour in Beijing to see a completely remodeled, restored and redecorated hutong that was preserved for tourism while the rest of the area was leveled for new development. The tour guide talks about the meticulous labor that went into restoring the place and how most people cannot tell which tiles and panels are original and which are not. I ask who used to live there, who built it and when, etc. but that information is not known. I feel I have been cheated because the place lacks "authenticity" (historicity, originality, specificness) but really I am trapped in the mindset I have imported from the US that leads me to imagine that it matters that the art village is real and the hutong is a real fake even though I cannot tell the difference.

3. The Chinese education and employment systems relies heavily upon examinations while the US systems place more emphasis on "fit" (personality, skills and strengths). I was surprised to learn that Chinese graduate students applying for jobs both in private and government institutions take written exams as part of the application process. Performance on these examinations is the most important aspect of your application. Meanwhile in the US, not only are exams uncommon (especially in the private sector) but your academic performance may ultimately not count for much, particularly when compared with things like where you were educated, who you and your parents know, etc. China is more meritocratic than the US but I do question to nature of the criteria used to establish merit.

4. I think comparing the writing systems in the US and China really highlights what I am trying to get at here. In the US we have an alphabet with 26 letters. You need to memorize the letters and you’ve got the basics of the written language. Of course there are irregular pronunciations verb declensions, etc, but once your got the letters (and some combinations like ph & ght) you are well on the way to sounding out any word. Furthermore, you can create a word yourself and the pronunciation can be fairly obvious to people encountering it for the first time. Chinese has 38,000 characters. While these characters often contain other characters within them (for example the character for woman is part of the characters for sister, aunt, mother, grandmother), this incorporation provides no information on how to say the word or the specific meaning of the character (although it does make it easier to remember once you know it is there). The only way to learn it is through explicit instruction and memorization both of how to say the word and how to write the character. In my mind these differences in language and language acquisition point to fundamental differences in the approach to teaching/learning and the assessment of competence.

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