Saturday, May 2, 2009

Chinese vs. American Culture

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University
I've been asked to lecture at a Chinese high school in Xiamen about the differences between Chinese and American culture, so below, and in a few following blogs, will be some rough drafts of my thoughts so far.
Any suggestions or additions? Please add them in the comments! I have a week to pull this together...

Differences between Chinese & American Culture

The longer I live in China, the more I realize that the difference between Chinese culture and American culture is—everything! From use of color to how we cook, from body language to body space, we are not just separate cultures but different planets. But fortunately, most of this is on the social level. Individually, we are very similar indeed, with the same needs, hopes, and fears as any other peoples on the planet. So I believe that the day will come when East does meet West—though it may not be in my lifetime.

There are so many issues in which we differ, so for this talk I will focus on just a few that many of us would assume are universal, such as views on body space and privacy, importance of family and patriotism, value of education and view of teachers, use of time and history, use of color, cooking and dining, and a little about Chinese and American humor. Of course, I may not be the right one to write this. My wife Susan Marie says I have no culture whatsoever. She’s probably right—but at least I have class. In fact, I have 12 hours of class a week in the MBA Program. Personally, I never expected to have so many classes in a classless society.

Part 1. Chinese & American Cooking & Dining
“With English cooking you boil the chicken, throw away the water and eat the chicken. With Chinese cooking you boil the chicken, throw away the carcass and drink the soup.” Anonymous

“One should eat to live, not live to eat.” Moliere

“Moliere never ate Chinese food.”
Bill Brown

I once joked that Adam and Eve could not have been Chinese because if they’d been Chinese, Eve would have tossed the apple and eaten the snake. But an Overseas Chinese friend said, “Not true! If she’d been Chinese, she’d have sold the apple, and then eaten the snake.”

Chinese seem to live for food, and spend much of their day preparing or eating dishes that are a feast for both palate and eyes—and things I never could have imagined people would eat. I eventually learned that Chinese eat anything edible, and if it isn’t edible, they call it medicine and ingest it anyway.

In N.W. Fujian they boast about noodles made from the flour of a very poisonous tuber. “Takes 18 steps to make it safe,” my host told me. I asked him how many people died on steps 1 to 17.

And birds nests! Just who thought of crawling up the side of a cliff into a cave to steal bird’s nest made of solidified swallow spit—and then cooking it? And in China I think I’ve eaten every part of a chicken, cow or pig except the meat itself. Chinese will fuss over a tiny morsel of meat that’s smaller than some of the bits I fish out of my mouth with a toothpick after the meal. If they do give you meat, it’s chopped up small—and chock full of sharp little bones. Personally, I think it’s all a front, carried out on a national level, and after foreign guests leave the room, the Chinese bring out the steaks and chops (and probably knives and forks as well).

The hardest thing to get used to is how long Chinese take to eat. At one of our first three-hour 20-course meals in China, my oldest son, who was only five, said, “This is certainly not fast food—it’s slow food.” For Chinese, meals are a social event. For Americans, meals are a pitstop for refueling. Quite often, we just swallow our meal whole and then chew it later.