From Mutual Learning to Mutual Understanding by Hong Cheng

Confucius once said, “A gentleman gets along with others, but does not necessarily agree with them.” If China and the U.S. were people, then they are the gentlemen mentioned by Confucius.

Misunderstandings between people result from a lack of knowledge about one another, so if we want to get along with someone, we must understand him or her first. This is what is happening among Chinese and American people now. In order to achieve understanding, we need to begin to learn from each other. With so many areas to explore, such as cultural traditions, attitudes towards various careers, and roles of age groups, at which point should we start?

Let’s start with cultural differences. Not only am I deeply intrigued by divergences in cultures, I also have a foreigner’s perspective of the U.S., and there are many differences in my eyes!

The first difference is the food. According to my two-months’ experience in U.S., the most common and popular restaurants here offer hamburgers, pizza, hotdogs, spaghetti, deep fried foods, and salad. One finds themselves repeating repeat these foods day after day if they don’t cook for themselves. On the contrary, the various types of Chinese food astonish people from all over the world. In China we have thousands of local cuisines available in every city, such as Guangdong cuisine, Shandong cuisine, Sicuan cuisine, Huaiyang cuisine, Hunan cuisine, Beijing cuisine, Shanghai cuisine, Palace cuisine, Vegetarian cuisine, Medical cuisine and so on. If you have enough time and money, you can try a different dish every day without repeating in a year.

The second difference is the attitude toward labor. According to Mencius, “He who rules lives by mental perplexity. He who is ruled lives by physical labor.” Thus we Chinese don’t value labor very much, which is why blue-collar worker salaries are so low in China. But things are distinctly different in the U.S., everything related to physical labor is expensive. Let’s take hairdressing and maintenance for example. In China, I pay the barber $5 to cut my hair, but here I need to pay at least $30. This is why some international students choose to cut hair for each other. Another example is maintenance. When we moved into our apartment we found that our locks didn’t work, so we called the maintenance man. Everything went well until we saw the bill. The total cost was $120! This would be fine, but to our surprise, $70 was paid for the maintenance man’s labor! From then on, I came to understand why so many Americans are generalists, with a wide array of common knowledge being applied in their daily life.

The third example is about elder people’s energy. In my opinion, American people are energetic; whether they are young or old. When we went to the Bluegrass festival in downtown Raleigh, it was my first time seeing so many elderly folks in a music festival and I was surprised to see them dance as energetically as young people. This rarely happens in China, where we for the most part behave according to our age. In Chinese culture an elder should stay home with his or her grandchildren instead of going out and attending young people’s activities. Personally speaking, I prefer American elders’ attitude toward life and I believe many Chinese people think this too. Hence more and more Chinese elders are beginning to participate in young people’s activities. In fact, no one can really define what activities belong to young people and what activities belong to elder people, right?

Above is my take on American and Chinese cultural differences in food, labor and age-based roles in society. If we can begin to look honestly and authentically at the differences between us, we can know more about the commonalities, and we can gradually and finally achieve mutual understanding. I like an American saying very much, “United we stand, divided we fall”. I think this is the best description about the relationship between Chinese and American people.




Hong Cheng