I just read one of the strangest and most outspoken posts yet on the current debate about Taiwan and cultural “misunderstandings” and the Falun Gong now floating around our regional blogosphere. I mean, this is really strong stuff.

In regard to “Understanding China”:

What do you think is so special about your so-called culture (5000 years) that makes it impossible for a white-faced, big-nosed, hairy barbarian to understand? Plenty of foreigners understand China, you just mistake their complaints for misunderstandings. I think a lot of Chinese behaviour is stupid, racist, ignorant, and backward. I understand it, but I don’t like it. When I say the concept of face is dumb, and you say, “You just don’t understand Chinese culture,” you’re actually saying that you don’t understand the words coming out of my mouth. I didn’t say, “I don’t understand this interesting, ancient, exotic, inscrutible concept of face, could you please educate me?” The underlying assumption seems to be that if the rest of the world could just understand China, we would all see that they’ve been right all along. Like green tea against cancer, an understanding of China could break down all barriers to world peace.

Can you tell us how you really feel, Brad?

I don’t agree by any means with all that Brad says, especially how it is impossible to change anyone’s mind on anything related to China. (Hell, my own mind got changed, and fairly quickly, after witnessing the CCP’s sins during the SARS debacle.) But he has an excellent point when it comes to those who would argue the onus is always on the Westerner to “understand” the Chinese, and that the Chinese are absolved of any responsibility to meet us half-way, let alone to understand us.

So I repeat, I don’t agree with all that Brad says. But I’m glad I read it. He definitely got me thinking, and from a purely stylistic perspective, I am impressed.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

most of his post is quite cynical. but i do agree that a lot of chinese use “you don’t understand my culture” as an excuse to avoid admitting their problems. i got that from my recent debates with yi chen and hailey. it really surprised me. mark twain said “don’t let your education get in the way of your learning.” the impression i got recently is many chinese are quite close minded being educated in china and under that environment.

December 9, 2003 @ 5:27 am | Comment

Agree w/ dodo except one. Many a times it wasn’t about “avoid admitting their problems” but a lack of education in CRITICAL THINKING for most Chinese, not able to think out of the squares. I had numerous “debates” w/ mainlanders. I was saying I disliked China and there was always someone ready to jump on me far too quickly and said I did not appreciate my own culture. Even after making clear to them that I love the culture, the people but it is the Party that I had a thing with!!! These people could not separate the two! the Country=the Party, the Party=the Country. But sorry, I see the two as two entities!

P.S. to dodo: appreciate your AA site. was going to write. 🙂

December 9, 2003 @ 7:16 am | Comment

This is a charge I am constantly having to fight — that I hate “China” just because I criticize its government. Trying to explain that I hate the CCP because I love China is a difficult argument to make.

December 9, 2003 @ 7:58 am | Comment

While I respect the discussion going on here, I have no comment yet. I do, however, need to know of a good source for discussions or readings on “face.” It’s really a provocative idea for me, and I’m wondering where I can learn more about its history and cultural use across china.

December 9, 2003 @ 8:35 am | Comment

You’re undoubtedly right that there are a lot of Chinese who will defend China fiercely against any criticism from a foreigner. It’s hardly a phenomenon limited to the Chinese. Within China quite a lot of argument and debate is permitted … but an unforgiveable crime is to talk to the foreign media about it. Don’t wash your dirty linen in public, etc. So a lot of those Chinese who respond in this way are doing so because you don’t belong to “the family” … they’d happily debate problems with a fellow countryman … but not with an outsider. Of course there are always pigheaded patriots … in every country.

IMO I think the Koreans are a lot more subject to this than the Chinese. I’ve seen some Chinese respond to a cynical comment about corruption in the government (spoken by a westerner) with a grin and the comment “you know a lot about China!”

December 9, 2003 @ 9:33 am | Comment

Perhaps the inability to separate party from govt is a problem that afflicts all Chinese, even the diaspora ;P You’re just as likely to find that behaviour in Singapore – then again, maybe the common denominator is that both countries are scornful of critical thinking and aren’t able to “think out of the squares” (as an earlier reader commented).

What about the extreme right that thinks every Bushwhacker is necessarily anti-American?

December 9, 2003 @ 9:45 am | Comment

Many comments above already reflect my thoughts.

However, while I do understand the “face” issue, I strongly oppose the:

“You don’t understand the Chinese [culture]”, or “It is our culture and our way of doing things”, etc. etc.

Since 1986/87, I have been in and around China, including living in different parts of China for two years [at that time].

Furthermore, after those two years, I have been living in Hong Kong and even my wife is Hong Kong Chinese [therefore, now half my family is Chinese as well].

I have put in a lot of effort to understand every aspect of Chinese culture, tradition, history, and in the process even mastered Mandarin as well as Cantonese, alongside reading and writing the Chinese language.

YET, despite all this, even now, many people [including business partners, friends, and even in-laws] never hesitate to comment that:

“You will not understand, because you are not a [born] Chinese”.

At times, I have really snapped back [and quite rudely] that it is not me who doesn’t understand, but it is you who most times pretend to be blind and ignorant and in the face of change or challenge hide behind cultural or historical excuses.

And about the “westerners = outsiders”, well, Imperialism has long since ended [or almost ended] and only immature children keep repeating about what happened in the past.

Past is past and bygones are bygones. If a “country” wants to have equal footing on world stage, then first of all the people must realize that others need equal treatment as well.

And 5 or 6,000 year history doesn’t mean we were barbarians or descended from alien spaceships.

We were around as well or so says evolution.


December 9, 2003 @ 10:12 am | Comment

To Chinese Not from mainland

thank you for mentioning AA. i get constant bashing from submissions but i still firmly believe in its cause.

December 9, 2003 @ 11:29 am | Comment

i found this article published in 1997 that talks about what you are talking about.

i find it extremely interesting. i agree with some of the points he makes altho i think he fails to realize that the excuse is not just used by the government but regular citizens as well. that’s why democracy will move at a slow pace in many asian countries. democracy and economy may not have direct relationship as he argues, but democracy and education does. if you don’t understand democracy, you would not want it. education is related to economy. so indirectly democracy probably does connect to economy. he argues singapore isn’t yet democratic although it’s highly economically developed. i’m not sure how true that is. since you are in singapore, i’d hope to hear more about it from you.

December 9, 2003 @ 12:12 pm | Comment

That’s an intriguing article — thanks Dodo. The argument that Asian countries “aren’t ready for democracy” is a weak one in the case of Singapore where, as the article notes, the economy is developed and the people well educated. (I agree that some poorer countries are not ready for democracy, but that does not mean such countries should be ruled by brutal totalitarian governments; far from it.)

As I wrote in an essay on Singapore shortly upon arriving here, its political situation is to my knowledge utterly unique. Yes, there’s a dictatorship, but it does manage to give people nearly all of the freedoms they crave, and it is opening up more and more (although that’s due mainly to the sinking economy, not to any new-found open-heartedness on Lee Kuan Yew’s part). It’s imperfect and often unfair, and the potential for abuse is high. But all in all, I have to give Singapore high marks for at least making it all work and for giving its people far more freedoms than most others in Asia enjoy.

That said, it’s still the most boringl place on the planet, even if you’re now allowed to dance on the bar.

December 9, 2003 @ 12:55 pm | Comment

Hi Ron
I presume your comment And about the “westerners = outsiders”, well, Imperialism has long since ended [or almost ended] and only immature children keep repeating about what happened in the past. is directed at my comment? If it is, I just can’t see the relevance. Westerners are outsiders, no two ways about it … because they’re not Chinese. Imperialism doesn’t have anything to do with it.

I think a lot of these posts are missing a pretty crucial point … they are looking at the exact words that are used, rather than looking at the intended meaning behind those words. If you translate “you can’t understand because you’re not Chinese” to “I don’t want to talk about it with you because you’re not one of us” it puts the whole problem in a different light.

I think all westerners learn pretty quickly after spending some time in asia that they will be fawned upon and worshipped … but they will never belong, they will always be “one of them”, and never “one of us.” This is a pretty crucial difference between China and the west … while first generation immigrants face a big challenge to fit in, they can be pretty confident that their children will grow up as “one of us” … but in China, it doesn’t matter if you were born in China, speak and read fluent Chinese, are married to a Chinese … you’ll always be treated like barbarian royalty if you’re white (and something less if your skin colour is darker). It’s nice to be treated like royalty … people want to be with you, just because it’s cool to be seen with a prince and everything that goes with it … and most important of all for men, women will be more interested in you (and that can sure be an addictive drug. I once heard it refered to as “yellow fever” by an American I chatted to in Beijing). However …. you’ll always be a barbarian … and that can be really tough, especially for long-term residents.

Unfortunately, I think that this has a corrosive influence on the social skills of many westerners who spend too long living in Asia. They grow used to the fact that they can throw their weight around, and generally act like jerks, because local people make extra allowance for them because they’re white. There is altogether too much truth to the cliche of the loud pushy foreigner who spends his time complaining and disturbing others. If they behaved like that in their home country people would tell them to go to hell, and if Chinese people in China tried to behave like that they’d be put in their place in no time … but not if you’re a white in asia. Every white has to work hard in initial encounters to overcome this expectation/prejudice, and yes, it is a prejudice … but it’s also a creeping disease that infects expats and needs to be guarded against. Then there are the people who were jerks in their home country and fall in love with life in asia because they can get away with it … the standard “FiLtH” as they used to be refered to in Hong Kong … “Failed in London, try Hongkong.”

Hmmm … I seem to have wondered well off topic by now … but oh well … and … well, much as I hate to do it, I think I need to add another please don’t jump down my throat footnote. I am NOT saying that all whites in asia are jerks. I am also NOT defending the Chinese custom/habit/culture or whatever you want to call it that excludes outsiders. I just think that a lot of people misunderstand the problem and its cause.

December 9, 2003 @ 3:49 pm | Comment

Li En, thanks a lot for that footnote to your comment; it made all the difference. My imediate impulse is to defend my American comrades (just as the Chinese person’s immediate impulse is to defend his/her country) but I have to admit I’ve seen some real asshole expats, albeit more in Hong Kong than in Singapore. And yes, it’s very easy for a Westerner to become spoiled in Asia, where he’s somebody special. How can I ever go back to being a nobody?

As you mentioned, it really is a shame that so how many Chinese see things in terms of race. In my Chinese class in Shanghai there was an ABC who spoke no Chinese at all, he was pure American. Yet when he tried to get a job teaching English, he was told by one school that the students would not accept being taught English by a teacher who was Chinese! It had to be a white person. Their sole criteria were light skin and round eyes. Never mind if he spoke the Queen’s English.

I realize this is purely anecdotal and there are probably exceptions. But our classroom teacher told us it was absolutely to be expected, “that’s just the way Chinese people are.”

December 9, 2003 @ 4:54 pm | Comment


I woke up this morning and opened my mail to find almost as many real messages as spam. So far, almost all of the comments here and at Peking Duck have been positive, but I want to clarify a couple…

December 9, 2003 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

Sometimes, I think their English and your Chinese are not good enough to have a continuous, in-depth discussion. It is quite frustrating if they can’t convey their message precisely and easily, so they might just give up “educating” you.

December 9, 2003 @ 10:40 pm | Comment

richard, thanks for commenting about singapore. maybe democracy then is not the absolute path asia must take. what works in asia is more important than what deems to be the right by westerners.

December 10, 2003 @ 1:46 am | Comment

of course, dodo. The notion that we can spread western-style democracy anywhere we want is absurd. Even though westerners are usually right about such things. (Just kidding.)

December 10, 2003 @ 5:17 pm | Comment

I haven’t been told that I don’t understand the Chinese in the instances in which I agree with them. The only time they tell me I don’t understand is when I disagree. Wonder why.

December 10, 2003 @ 6:10 pm | Comment

Well, if you agree with them, they can just nod. What really matters is when you guys don’t agree. In this case, the Chinese has to find facts, organize his thoughts, and present his views to you. Believe me, it is not easy to have a convincing, persuasive and eloquent arguments if you don’t have a good command of the language. I am not saying they are right or wrong. I just wanted to provide one explanation why you seem to have encountered so many “you don’t understand Chinese…”

December 11, 2003 @ 1:27 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.