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East versus West

I’m a Chinese American. To American eyes, I’m Chinese; but if I go back to China, I’m legally an American.

I’m living in two cultures. I eat half Chinese food and half American food. I speak half Chinese and half English. I enjoy the two different cultures, which makes my life more colorful.

Here are interesting phenomena I’d like to share with you. In this article, when I say “Chinese,” I mean people in China, not Chinese-Americans.

What I say might not be 100% right, but I’m sure it’s at least 70% right: it applies to 70% of such people and situations. If you read it and think some things are not true, you may belong to or be familiar with the other 30%.


Eating’s an adventure!

Eat or drink soup? Chinese people like clear soup. They actually “drink” soup. A mother usually cooks chicken or pork soup, with special mushrooms, for her family. It takes 4 to 5 hours to cook, and the soup’s considered very good for you.

Not many people in China have American-Chinese “egg-drop soup” or “hot & sour soup,” which I’d never seen before I came to the U.S.

American soups are too thick to drink. The way Americans have their soup is more like eating a soup.

Eager to serve Visiting Chinese friends at their homes? As soon as you sit down, you’re automatically served with hot tea, fruits, and whatever snacks they have. They even peel apples and oranges for you. If the time’s right, they’ll persuade you to stay for lunch or dinner. Then the housewife will disappear into the kitchen, and in no time a table full of beautiful dishes magically waits for you.

Drinks When offered a drink, a Chinese guest often says, “Oh, thank you so much, but don’t bother.” An American guest is more relaxed and says, “Coke would be fine.”

Eating more Chinese try to make their guests eat more, even if the guests say they’re full. Chinese often help their guests to the food, like a server. Americans let guests decide for themselves what to eat and when to stop.

At a Chinese banquet, food keeps coming to the table. You find yourself already full, but dishes after dishes are still coming. So be careful not to eat too fast and get full too soon!

Even at a grand American wedding banquet, just 7, 8, or 9 courses are served, unless it’s a buffet.

Passing food When eating, Americans pass food around, with a big plate in front of each person. Chinese share foods from a few dishes in the middle of the table, with a small bowl of rice in front of each person.

Salt & pepper Americans often shake salt and pepper onto their food before even tasting the food. Chinese never add salt or pepper to their food at the table, unless the cook did a bad job.

Chinese food is tastier. American food is more natural.

Utensils Americans lick their thumbs after eating something like donuts or cake. Sometimes they use their thumbs to help the fork push food in the end.

Chinese sometimes hold up the bowl to the mouth and use chopsticks or a spoon to help shovel the food into their mouths.

Peeling Many Chinese peel apples, pears, and peaches. Some even peel grapes. But they normally don’t throw out chicken and pork skins.

Many Americans don’t eat chicken skin, pork skin, or salmon skin but eat lots of fruit skin.

Slaughter An American home doesn’t have to slaughter chicken or fish. At the table, Americans are scared to see fish with heads on.

Most Chinese families needed one brave guy to slaughter chickens until recent years. Now ready-to-cook chickens are available in a supermarket, but people complain those chickens don’t taste good enough.


To understand a society, look at how it socializes.

Kind words Americans say “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “sorry” a hundred times a day. A Chinese couple doesn’t say “thank you” when passing food to each other.

Helpfulness If your car breaks down on a highway or you’re lost in a strange city, you’re more likely to get help from an American than a Chinese. But if you must borrow money urgently or need a place to stay for a few days, go to your Chinese friends.

Inside out Americans are more outgoing. They like to greet people. They’re more likely to talk to strangers and more easily make friends. A typical Chinese prefers to be quiet before strangers.

Back door In China, there’s a “back door” for power-related people to get a good job, promotion, business, and escape the law. Small businesses owners try to befriend tax officials or policemen for “benefits.” Businesses spend lots of money for power-related social relationship.

In America, friendships are more personal than “beneficial.” “Back doors” are not common.

Gifts It’s not rare for a Chinese to spend 20% or 50% of a month’s wage for a wedding gift. If you receive 2 or 3 wedding invitations in a month, you feel you’ll go broke. But people still give generously, because they think smaller gifts can’t show their feelings — and if you spend less than others, you’ll “lose face.” American friends are content to give and receive small gifts.

When American friends go to a restaurant, they can pay bills separately, a rarity in China.

Never give a clock or green hat as a gift to a Chinese. In Chinese, the word “clock” is pronounced zhong — and so is the word “end” or “funeral.” Old people are especially scared of receiving that. As for wearing a green hat, it means “cuckold” (a man whose wife is sleeping with a different man).

Social drinking In America, a bigger percentage of people drink alcohol than in China. Pubs, bars, lounges, and alcohol have a secret strong attraction to American teenagers. College students under 21 can’t wait to go to a bar like their older schoolmates. The more you want to forbid something, the stronger desire it may arise.

China has no law against minors drinking alcohol, though it’s never encouraged. Parents can send a young kid to buy a bottle of wine (or cigarettes) for them. At a family reunion party when I was little, my parents dipped a chopstick into a glass of wine and then let me taste it, just for fun. But that taste made me dislike alcohol for the rest of my whole life.

Chinese men make lots of noise when they drink. At parties, they clamor to make somebody else drink — for congratulations, health, friendship, respect, good wishes, the punishment of being late, or no reason. The more you can make somebody drink, the better. That becomes the most popular social activity.

Waiting lines Americans patiently wait in lines for banking, boarding, and eating. In China, you can see people shove ahead to board a bus — and young guys cut in line for tickets.

Handling foreigners Chinese are very friendly to foreigners and treat them as guests.

In America, strange-looking people might not be foreigners. You can’t tell foreigners by their looks. But some Americans don’t have good feelings toward “foreigners.”

Lawsuits In America, “everybody sues everybody.” People buy expensive home insurance for fear someone will fall at the door and sue. Some people get very rich by suing big companies.

Chinese think that’s ridiculous and dishonest. The cost of “everybody sues everybody” is Americans pay too much for insurance and medical care.

A Chinese saying is:

Forgive if you can.

Traditionally, Chinese sue just criminals, but now they’re starting to learn American’s way and become smarter.

Family versus world

Which is more important: your family or the world?

Chinese parents Chinese parents pay college tuition for their kids, even if doing so puts the parents in poverty or heavy debt. Parents don’t mind working 80 hours a week to buy a kid a computer or piano. Often you’ll see a bright young man get a doctor’s degree but still not know how to cook rice.

When they’re old, Chinese parents are taken good care of, often living with their kids.

Chinese social circles Lending money to a relative or close friend is interest-free. Sometimes the money is even a gift. Relatives and friends form a strong social circle for a Chinese person. A Chinese saying is:

You depend on your parents at home, friends outside.

Getting jobs, promotions, and customers can depend on how strong your social circle is. A person may cheat or do something illegal just for the sake of a relative or friend. A Chinese may feel less responsible to the rest of the world; a cynical Chinese saying is:

Shovel your own snow in front of your house.

Worry not about the frost on others’ roofs.

American extended feelings Americans tend to have weaker family ties, even if family is the most important thing to them. Some kids must work hard for tuition or to pay back their loans. Old folks live lonely. Borrowing money from a brother, you might have to worry about the interest.

But Americans tend to have more extended feelings. They pay lots of tax to help the poor and schools, rather than buy their lonely old mothers expensive gifts. They’re especially nice to the handicapped and retarded. They treat their pets like their children. They donate money to African kids. They spend huge sums of money on international affairs, to fight for other countries and build other countries. They’re proud of working as the international police.


China’s schools are quite different from America’s.

China’s mountainous burden China’s educational reformers say “Give back kids’ childhood” and “Study while having fun,” but middle-school students in China still study 8-10 hours a day, including morning reading and evening homework.

12th-grade students study more than 12 hours a day, to pass the nationwide college entrance examinations. During their junior and senior years, kids stay up late after midnight every night: no TV, no movies, almost no sports, no dating, no shopping, no parties, no household chores, nothing but studying. Some kids get sick; all think it’s a miserable life. But they realize they must do it to get into a good college or even just a mediocre one. Their parents watch this happen — with painful hearts but high expectations. Schools and teachers get high praise and great reputations if their students get enrolled in great colleges.

July 7, 8, and 9 are the 3 days when the nationwide college examinations are held. Kids say as soon as that ends, they’ll throw away all their books and sleep 3 days and 3 nights and then have parties 3 days and 3 nights.

When they finally get into college, they never can study as hard as in high school, and they can’t believe they were able to go through it. They’re scared even to think of it.

Goofing off? American high school students don’t need to study so hard to enter a college. They can always get into some sort of college if they can afford the tuition.

High-school seniors still have time to work in McDonald’s or date girls. Many kids already get admitted to a college while still seniors. If they really wish, they can begin college courses early.

In America, you can be a happy kid even if you don’t do well in school. In China, you get too much pressure from parents and teachers; you can hardly be happy if you’re not doing well.

Chinese-American parents complain that American schools throw the burden of moral education onto the parents’ shoulders. In China, schools watch student behavior more carefully.

Hours In China, typical elementary-school kids have 5 hours of class a day: 9AM to noon, then 2PM to 4PM. They get a 2-hour lunch break, when they can eat from their own lunchboxes (or at home if they live nearby). At night they have 1 hour of homework. 6th-grade students study harder and longer, to enter a good middle school. Kids aren’t allowed to watch much TV except during weekends.

American students have less homework. Schools start earlier and end at 2PM. Kids have just 30 minutes for lunch.

Classrooms In America, students go to different classroom for different teachers. Each classroom is decorated according to the subject and the teacher’s style.

In China, students stay in the same classroom while different teachers come to teach them. The only different rooms to go to are the music classroom, the science lab, and the gym or playground for P.E.

Control In China, teachers have more control of the class. Students are required to keep quiet while their teacher talks.

American students are more active in class. They discuss more. They can even walk around.

In America, teachers try to make their lessons easy and fun. Teachers tend to make students feel good. They encourage more than criticize. Getting an A is pretty easy if students work at it.

In China, teachers are stricter. They always try to let you know you still have far to go to reach the goal. It’s hard to get an A, even you work very hard. In the 2nd grade, students are already learning multiplication and division. Chinese textbooks are among the hardest in the world.

Insulting the poor students? Some classes in China post final total scores and ranks on the wall, so the students all know their classmates’ ranks.

Once or twice a semester, all the parents have a group meeting with the teacher. Parents sit in their kids’ seats and see the posted ranks. Some feel proud. Some get embarrassed & shamed and beat the kids when they get home.

American schools think it’s against human rights to post student ranks. An American student may say, “You have no right to insult me just because I’m not smart enough in something.”

In China, students have extracurricular math groups where teachers teach more advanced math. Math competitions and other science competitions are held for cities, provinces, and nationwide. Chinese students often win 1st place in international “math Olympic” competitions.

American teaching emphasizes problem-solving strategies. Chinese style is to feed students as many facts as possible.

Life experience American students get lots of work experience before graduating from college. They feel more confident to deal with the competitive job market. They feel more at ease getting along with bosses, fellow workers, and customers. They’re outgoing, good at discussing things, solving problems, expressing their ideas, and using machines & computers.

Before the 21st century, most Chinese students never got any work experience before college graduation (except in rural areas, where kids worked from a very young age to help on the farm). Chinese students in U.S colleges are often among top students and always aim at higher degrees, but they’re still nervous about competition.

American students are more sports-loving. Chinese students are more book-loving. Very few Chinese students know how to play baseball or surf.

American students have cared little about what’s going on in the rest of the world (except after 9/11). They may not know where Iraq or Hong Kong is. Chinese students are the opposite: they know the name of France’s foreign minister and the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s newest American movie.

Student dating

Traditionally in China, parents don’t let teenage students date. If dating happens, teachers and parents go all out to stop it. They argue that dating will harm a kid’s studying and eventually destroy the kid’s future. But in recent years, things have been getting looser.

In America, most kids aged 16 & up have some sort of experience dating. Teachers and parents don’t want to invade their privacy. Schools even give students birth-control pills. All a mother can do is to warn her daughter not to get pregnant.

In an American shopping mall, I came across a woman I knew with two kids. She introduced her 15-year-old daughter to me, then introduced the boy as her daughter’s “boyfriend.” I thought the boy was the girl’s younger brother.

In China, if teenagers want to date, they usually date secretly. Since most good kids don’t date, kids feel guilty if they do.

In America, a schoolgirl may feel bad if she has no boyfriend. She might wonder, “Is something wrong with me? Why do other girls have boyfriends while I don’t? Am I unattractive?”

How parents handle kids

Your opinion of life depends on how your parents treat you.

Saying “love” Chinese people feel embarrassed to say “I love you.” That’s why Chinese parents and kids hardly ever say “I love you” to each other, and they seldom hug each other when kids grow up.

Many American parents and kids say “I love you” almost every day.

Investing in kids Chinese parents eagerly pay for a kid’s college education, computer, and piano. Some parents even buy a house for a kid’s wedding present.

American independence American parents raise kids to be independent and responsible.

I saw a 2-year-old American boy in a raincoat walking in the rain, followed by his mom. The boy splashed a lot of water, as he stepped hard into the little pond of water on the cement ground. His mom just watched and followed. When he fell, he looked back at his mom, but she just said “get up.”

When American kids grow up, they sometimes pay rent to their parents if they live in their parents’ property. Some parents pay their kids to do house chores.

Chinese worry Chinese parents worry about their kids, endlessly.

Do the kids get A or B in school? What kind of friends are they hanging out with? Are they good enough to get into a good high school and then a good college? Are they bad enough to be secretly dating in school?

When finally kids graduate from college and get good jobs, then parents worry whether the kids are dating enough and when the kids can get married.

Here’s an ancient Chinese saying:

Everything is low compared to education.

Parents hope their son will become a “dragon” and their daughter a “phoenix” (meaning “outstanding”).

American parents let kids choose what to do and what kind of schools to attend. The kids’ futures are in their own hands.

Spoiling? Many Chinese parents shelter their kids from doing any household chores. They spoil kids in everyday life.

But Chinese parents believe ancient Chinese philosophy:

An uneducated son is his father’s fault.

An undisciplined student is the teacher’s fault.

That’s why many Chinese parents are strict about their kids’ early education, beginning at age 3 (in reading, arithmetic, art, musical instruments, ballet, and computer), making the kid’s life either promising or miserable.

In America, children are spoiled differently. Parents don’t force their kids to do much. Parents can’t beat kids, even if for drugs. From their early years, kids get a good sense of freedom. But since parents leave kids alone, some kids play hooky, some don’t work hard at school, and some get sexually involved and pregnant. (Exception: my American neighbors, Flo & Gene Fitzgerald, are very strict. Flo stayed home until her two kids graduated from high school, to take care of them and watch them. Now their son’s an M.I.T. professor and world-renowned scientist & entrepreneur, and their daughter’s a very good schoolteacher.)

Chinese has a saying similar to the American one, “spare the rod, spoil the child.” But most Chinese parents today don’t beat their kids as in the old days. If they do, it’s because they “hate if the iron doesn’t become steel.” Chinese don’t think “parents beating their kids” is abusive.

Serious dating and marriage

Up through the 1970’s, the typical Chinese girl would marry the first man she dated. If a girl dated 3 boys, she’d get a bad reputation. Hardly any man and woman lived together without marriage.

From the 1990’s on, things have changed a lot. Now there’s not much difference between China and the U.S. You see girls and boys live together as “girlfriend and boyfriend,” without marriage. “Out-of-marriage relationships” and “third relationships” have appeared.

Singles There are more singles in America than in China.

If a Chinese man or woman is still single at age 30, the parents and other relatives get very worried. Friends and relatives go all out to help introduce somebody to this person.

Americans don’t worry much about their single relatives. They think single people may enjoy that lifestyle.

Personal ads Chinese dating ads concentrate on education, job, salary, property, looks, and height. (The Chinese prefer tall people.)

American’s concentrate on looks, personality, hobbies, and weight. (Americans prefer skinny people.)

Now more and more Chinese are dating through the Internet, “chat” through the Internet, and send messages through cell phones.

Divorce America’s divorce rate is much higher than China’s. Chinese couples are more likely to put up with a marriage even if it’s unhappy. Americans aren’t willing to suffer from an unhappy marriage: they keep just happy marriages.

A divorced Chinese couple doesn’t pay lawyers to decide child visitation rights. The couple just talks and decides for itself. Americans spent money on lawyers for everything!

Crazy sex Americans are usually good at obeying laws. They pay taxes, behave themselves in public, and act helpful and friendly. But for sex, even some very good Americans try crazy things (which seem strange to the Chinese!), such as the 1960’s sexual freedom, today’s bondage & domination, and nudist beaches. I heard this comment:

American culture is a culture of sex.

Chinese culture is a culture of food and gambling.

Americans have strip bars. Chinese nightclubs have “3-companion girls” instead (a companion for drink, singing, and dance).

Prostitutes are forbidden in both countries. But secret ones are always there.

Extra wives In China now, some rich people and officials illegally live with a second “wife,” sometimes even a third “wife” or more. Some even have kids with those extra “wives.”

No normal American woman is willing to be an illegal “wife” to a married man, even if he’s rich.


How do you relate, if you’re Chinese?

Your in-laws If you’re Chinese, you call your mother-in-law “Mom” and your father-in-law “Dad.” You’d feel awkward and disrespectful to call them by their first names as Americans do.

Indirect expression Chinese express feelings indirectly. Example:

A girl is sick and hopes her boyfriend come see her. But on the phone she says, “I’m all right. You don’t have to come.” Later, she gets upset because her boyfriend didn’t come to see her.

Who pays? In America, a boyfriend and girlfriend share rent, utilities, and food cost. But they buy presents for each other to show they care for each other.

In China, a man’s supposed to take care of his girlfriend. When dating, a Chinese man often spends lots of money for restaurant and presents. A good girl’s supposed to be proud and well-treated. If a girl chips in half of the rent to live with a man, she’s considered a desperately lowly cheap date.

Old people

A good old Chinese tradition is to respect the old and love the young. Three generations often live together. If an old person lives alone, people take pity and think the children are unkind.

In America, old people usually choose to live by themselves, even though their children love them dearly.

Retirement age In China, men are traditionally retired at age 60 (professional) or 55 (non-professional); women are retired at 55 (professional) or 50 (non-professional).

But now people are retired even earlier. Some get laid off with part of their wages before the age of retirement.

In America everybody’s legal retiring age is 65 or 62.

Chinese activity In a Chinese city’s parks in the early morning, you see old people doing exercises (such as chi-kong air exercises, tai-chi exercises, playing with swords, and dancing). In the late afternoon and evening, some old folks do group dancing parks and inexpensive nightclubs. Some go to an “Elder’s College” or “Elder Association” to learn art, dancing, cooking, gardening, calligraphy, and photography.

That’s just in the cities. In rural areas, old people usually don’t have retirement income, so they depend on their children and live a less cultured life than their city counterparts. Just recently have some rural areas started getting retirement systems.

American activity Some Americans choose to keep working part time after age 65. They’re active and energetic. Some have volunteer jobs. Elder communities often have parties, seminars, and club activities. Some elderly people like to travel. Some drive cars even in their 80’s and 90’s.

Who looks younger? From babyhood until turning 40, Chinese people look younger than Americans. But after turning 55, Chinese look older than Americans. An 80-old Chinese guy looks much older than an 80-year-old American guy.

Other differences

The Chinese use language differently and have a different sense of “variety.”

Names Americans have too many people called “Michael,” “Peter,” and “Mary.” (Americans are called by their first names.)

Chinese have too many people called “Wang,” “Chen,” and “Zhang.” Chinese are called by their last names, like “Xiao Wang” (which means “little Wang”) or “Lao Zhang” (which means “old Zhang”).

Calendar Americans use words such as “Monday,” “Tuesday,” “January,” and “February.” Chinese use numbers such as “Day 1,” “Day 2,” “Month 1,” and “Month 2.” Just “Day 7” has a name, also meaning Sunday.

Chinese use two different calendars. The main one is the same as the American. The other is the “lunar calendar.” China’s most important holiday is Chinese New Year Day, which is the first day of the lunar calendar.

Backwards Old-style Chinese books are written in vertical columns, from right to left, backwards. To decipher addresses on American envelopes, Americans read from bottom to top, upside-down.

Music Chinese has a simple music notation (besides the professional notation used by Westerners). The simple music notation use numbers for notes: 1 for do, 2 for re, 3 for mi, 4 for fa, 5 for so, 6 for la, and 7 for ti.

For a higher octave, put a dot above the number. For a lower octave, put a dot below the number.

Homogeneity All small American cities look the same, having the same shopping malls with same stores. Streets are lined by the same restaurant chains.

In China, every city is different!