While archiving old files, I found this piece I wrote casually after reading the book “The Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why” (2003) by
Richard E. Nisbett in September 2003. I’m surprised at how much my own thoughts have changed since then. Below are three topics: first the quote from the book, then my thoughts in 2003, followed by my thoughts now.
Asians are in fact under greater compunction to appear modest (pg. 54) … the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self-improvement… (pg. 56)
2003 comment: Not much a new idea, there are endless examples for both sides. I’m sometimes still under such “compunction”. When talking about the macroeconomics final exam with a Canadian-born, we found out we had both taken microeconomics. Thinking of my 89% final mark, I said I didn’t do well on that course; he immediately responded that he did very well. My intuition told me at once that his mark was lower than mine.
2011 comment: I can’t remember referring to a 89% grade as not good, and I probably wouldn’t do the same now. A few months ago a Chinese lady who have lived in Europe for three years warned me that I might not like way people think in Europe, not knowing that I have been much westernized in Canada.
Western parents constantly require their children to do things on their own and ask them to make their own choices. ‘Would you like to go to bed now or would you like to have a snack first?’ The Asian parent makes the decision for the child on the assumption that the parent knows best what is good for the child. (pg. 58)
2003 comment: In a debate with a Canadian-born friend, he insisted that a decision made by a 20-year-old must be the best for himself/herself. But I told him I need consent from parents on important decisions I would make; my parents don’t always think what the kids think is best for themselves is the best; they want to help make decisions because they care about me. He said his parents care about him, but in a completely different way. We were seriously puzzled and found it extremely difficult to understand each other because neither of us read this book at the time.
2011 comment: Since that debate and after conducting some courageous experiments, I have discovered that a 20-year-old is quite capable of making decisions by himself/herself. It’s one of those things like falling and getting up again; one needs to practice decision-making in order to get good at it. Chinese 20-year-olds can surely use a little more trust from their parents and learn how to get up again from a fall.
Westerners teach their children to communicate their ideas clearly and to adopt a ‘transmitter’ orientation, that is, the speaker is responsible for uttering sentences that can be clearly understood by the hearer. … Asians, in contrast, teach their children a ‘receiver’ orientation. … If a child’s loud singing annoys an American parent, the parent would be likely just to tell the kid to pipe down. No ambiguity there. The Asian parent would be more likely to say, ‘How well you sing a song.’ At first the child might feel pleased, but it would likely dawn on the child that something else might have been meant and the child would try being quieter or not singing at all. (pg. 60)
2003 comment: The transmitter orientation is reflected in the way Canadian schools teach children how to write essays – it must be very easily understood. I never had to worry about that in Chinese schools. We got used to analyzing underlying ideas of articles and were encouraged to write essays that contained analogies and to use words with “hidden meanings”. Because everyone was taught the “receiver orientation”, the reader of such an essay was assumed to be able to infer the hidden meanings and to find the essay amusing. I even argued with my first English teacher in Canada that if everything were explicitly expressed, the essay wouldn’t be interesting at all; he didn’t think I making a valid point.
2011 comment: My 2003 comment is still valid as it was related more to a fact than an opinion or attitude. My own writing style has since become clear, concise, and straight-forward. I have even beat hundreds of other students and won an award for a report I wrote in my last year of university (2006) in Canada. The degree of assimilation is astounding.