An Acute Case of Disorientation: An Asian-American Angle

By Alan Tien

April 2021

“Be proud you’re Chinese. We have 5000 years of history, and America only 200,” my mother admonishes me in one breath, and then, incongruously in the next breath, she reminds me, “Teacher says you’re handicapped (as in mentally) speaking Chinese at home.” I’m a stranger in my own birthland. Thirty years later, in ostensibly my “true” homeland, China, I’m still an outsider, a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). We Asian-Americans are the hyphenated race, culturally aware of both sides but not fully accepted by either. We are the diagonal mediator between the two orthogonal axes. Sometimes our oddity makes us stand out (the backhanded compliment, “Your English is so good,” expressed in amazement by either axes), but more often than not, we’re an acute angle in a right-angle world. No wonder we’re disoriented.

However, during this time of division, where the consequences of misunderstanding and misinterpretation are more serious than ever in our interconnected world, we can be the cultural Rosetta touchstone.

My father explained how the Chinese and American cultures are not opposites, which might paradoxically allow for greater comprehension, but are orthogonal to each other. His Exhibit A is how the two cultures address an envelope. The US envelope is set horizontally whereas the China envelope is set vertically, matching the way the two written languages are orientated: English from left to right, top to bottom, and Chinese from top to bottom, right to left.

This simple example captures the fractal pattern of tangential thought between East and West.

The written language is an obvious difference: Chinese having to memorize a symbol for each word, whereas English words are constructed from a small base set of letters. Needing to recognize “only” 2000–3000 characters to read the newspaper[1], Chinese (and Arabic, Korean, and Japanese) are classified as Category V, “languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers,” according to the United States government agency FSI (Foreign Service Institute)[2]. No duh. Try memorizing a hundred characters as an adult and see how long before the revolving door of your memory makes you give up.

As challenging as the written language is, the oral part of Chinese is insidiously even more difficult. Besides a few exceptional polyglots, most of us will speak with an accent if we learn a foreign language after elementary school. This is not an issue with our tongues or vocal cords; it’s our ears. We literally can’t hear the difference in the “phonemes,” as the language part of our brain solidifies around the sounds of our native language[3]. I remember waiting for the school bus to save me from further embarrassment as my classmates tried pronouncing my Chinese middle name, “Yu-chung.” The difficult-to-pronounce “yu” devolved into caveman pantomimes and gorilla grunts of “ooh ooh ahh ahh.” My 10-year-old brain couldn’t understand that it wasn’t the fault of my white friends that they literally couldn’t pronounce the Chinese word because they couldn’t hear the difference between how I said it and their attempts. Later in life, I heard the Americans used this linguistic blind spot as passcodes against the Japanese in World War II:

Code names like “lollipop” and “polliwog” were used for voice and radio transmissions. The Japanese could not properly pronounce the “L’s.”[4]

Whereas other “Romance languages” like French, Italian and Spanish[5] are relatively easy to learn for English speakers (Category I in the FSI classification) because their phonemes are similar to English, Chinese not only has different phonemes, but they’re inflected with “tones,” four in Mandarin and a bewildering nine tones in Cantonese. Thus, the sound “ma” has four different meanings in Mandarin, depending on the tone: 1. mother, 2. numb, 3. horse, and 4. to yell at. Never mind that the inflected word can also be a homonym, and thus the meaning must be construed from the context. Even though my auditory tracks allowed me to hear the tones, my lack of practice in speech muddled my tones so taxi drivers in Shanghai couldn’t understand the pronunciation of my home street. Two words times four tones equal eight permutations that I run through before the driver says, “Ohh, ZheJiang Lu! Why didn’t you say so?” OMG! To the tone-deaf American ear, I just repeated “ZheJiang” eight times in a sing-songy voice until the right combo hit.

It’s not just the obfuscation of the language though. That’s just the surface-level, obvious difference providing hours of entertainment for white friends. There are endless variations of the envelope example demonstrating the orthogonality of East and West thought. Another simple example is how we list the cardinal points of a compass. In English, we say, “North, South, East, West.” It’s obvious that’s the way it should be ordered, right? Well, the Chinese start with “East” and go clockwise, “South, West, North.” Maybe we can compromise and go clockwise starting with “North”?

American social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett explored this “Geography of Thought” much deeper[6]. He stumbled upon the issue that many of the Western psychological studies were based on white college students. When he expanded his research to include Asian subjects, he came to the conclusion that “human cognition is not everywhere the same,” that Asians and Westerners “have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years.” The “Aquarium Experiment” is my favorite in the book[7]. Look at this picture for five seconds and then close your eyes and describe it:

“Aquarium Experiment”

What did you say? Most Americans note the 3 big fish, the big subjects in the foreground. They usually mention precious little else. But what did the Japanese participants tend to notice? The background setting — the bubbles, kelp, even the direction of the sunlight. In fact, they sometimes didn’t mention the fish at all. To an American, that’s astounding, even obtuse. How can you miss the main point? But to the Japanese, context is everything. Americans are so direct, can I suggest, lacking subtlety? The referenced article labels the two frameworks as individualistic (tough rugged American cowboy) versus Asian “collectivists” (first word association for me is the Borg). Hmm, that does seem to explain the US anti-mask response to coronavirus compared to Asia’s masking up for the benefit of society as a whole.

But in the business world, this difference in the geography of thought translates to a whole lot of business ventures getting lost. Hard-nosed American executives exit their business-class transpacific flight and expect to walk into a boardroom to sign a contract with their Chinese counterparts. They ask simple questions and expect direct answers, but instead get round-about, circular discussions that seem to be at best tangential to the topic. And just as jetlag is hitting hard, they are swept into a never-ending banquet of exotic — and sometimes frightening — delicacies, all chased down by the paint-stripping alcohol baijiu[8]. This dance is part of the Chinese business courtship to determine if they can trust you. The nebulous relationship is more important than the contract, more valuable than gold. Francis Fukuyama describes in his book Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity that different societies have different levels of trust. In his scale, the US is a “high trust” society where people follow the rule of law. They trust institutions and organizations, even if they don’t have a personal relationship with them, because they believe rules and regulations will back them. However, in a “low trust” society like China, people only trust family and close friends. The further the distance from the core family unit, the greater the distrust.

During my expat assignment in China, I wish my company PayPal, and our parent company, eBay, understood this fundamental disparity of trust. To some degree, we lost in China because of this failure. In the US and Europe, PayPal thrived on a “direct pay” model: the buyer paid the seller, through PayPal, and the seller sent the goods. If there was a problem, the buyer could file a complaint with PayPal to get his or her money back. This model assumes a “high trust society” where the vast majority of the people followed the rules. In fact, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, claims that eBay is a vast social experiment that proves people are good, since fraud is much less than 1% of the transactions. However, he failed to notice what Nesbitt realized — that this experiment was run in the Western frame of reference. Once moved to a “low trust society” like China, this basic assumption didn’t work anymore. Buyers did not trust the sellers, nor did they trust the intermediate platform would make good on their guarantee. In China, the “direct pay” model failed miserably, losing to “escrow,” where the 3rd party middleman held the funds until the buyer approved the receipt and quality of the goods.

Why didn’t buyers trust the sellers? Because they knew what they would do themselves. In a “low trust society,” it’s ok to screw others as long as you’re helping your family. A logical extension of that belief is nepotism. One of the many business books I read in preparation for my expat assignment in China recounted a Western exec proudly proclaiming that he wouldn’t allow his own son to work in his company as an example of his unbiased hiring principles, whereas his shocked Chinese business partner viewed him as a “heartless father” for violating the Confucian principle of family first.

Once I was on the ground in China, further examples of how differently we view the world came to light. In the US, on Monday mornings, the standard question in the office is, “What did you do this weekend?” This is your opportunity to brag about your weekend warrior exploits, how much more fun you had than your peers. When I asked the same question to my Chinese colleagues, however, I got a very different response. “I painted the walls of our nursery in preparation for our baby.” I would respond, “Oh that’s great, but did you do anything fun?” and they would look at me funny. Fun was not something they sought for or valued in their free time. Obviously, this is changing with the new materialistic, Westernized generation, but only a decade ago, people bragged about how hard they worked, what they accomplished during their free time.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this difference of values in Outliers, in the fascinating chapter 8 about rice versus wheat cultures. In the Western wheat-dominated cultures, you only had to really work hard during two times of the year — planting season and harvesting season. The rest of the time was relatively undemanding, allowing for greater individualistic expression. However, rice paddies require constant tending and cooperation. For example, ensuring the field is completely flat helps with yield since if it were angled, then the water would be too high for part of the field and too low for another part. Hard work materially affects output. In other words, you could literally see the seeds of your labor. He went on to argue that this cultural background, in addition to Chinese numbering system being more conducive to learning, aided Asians to be better at math than Western students. As a Caucasian-consultant once said to me in Chicago, “Your Orientals are much better at math!” Whether my rice-based heritage helped or not, I cannot say, but I do know that my mom’s hectoring had a huge impact. While my white classmates were anointed as geniuses by their parents for getting a B+, when I came home with a 97 on my test, an A+ mind you, my mom demanded, “Where are the other 3 points?”

Chinese believe in the virtue of hard work (and no play, it’s ok to be a dull boy). In fact, they accept that you should only be compensated if you’re doing work. While talking to my masseuse or hairdresser in Shanghai, I was shocked by their long hours, routinely 12+ hours, 6 or 7 days a week, living and working at their business location, and only getting paid when they had a customer. When I asked if they got paid if no customers came in that day, they laughed at my naivete; why would they be paid if they didn’t do any labor? There is no concept of minimum wage. My worldview flipped. The “socialist” country China was much more capitalistic than our supposedly capitalistic US.

China is, in fact, much more than the US in many other ways. Walking around the streets is a full-contact sport in any China city. All your senses are engaged as you are jostled by swarming crowds, your ears assaulted by honking horns and hollering hawkers, your nose flooded with the wafting of awful offal, and your eyes besieged by swerving scooters and flickering neon signs. Like Spinal Tap, the dial is turned up to eleven, but not just for sound but all sensations, at all times, day or night. When you return to the US, you wonder where is everyone, why everything is so quiet, how do you get a nice hot bowl of noodles at 2am? And the digital landscape parallels reality. While US websites UI (user-interface) design dictates simplicity and clarity, Asian websites jam-pack every available pixel with flashing and blinking content. When Google first ran their usability studies in China, the researchers asked the participants what they were doing, since they just sat there looking at the search bar. “Waiting for the rest of the page to load,” the patient users responded.

We Asian Americans are lost, like the invisible content that will never load. Americans don’t see us as they go about their business; we blend in with the background. Asians don’t see us either; we’re too white now. My best friend told me a story about his good-looking Asian American friend, who was used to being the center of attention and turning heads, but when he went to a New York club, he felt strange, disoriented even. He finally put his finger on it: “They look right through me, as if I’m not here.” We’re a ghost in both Asian and American society. But it’s time we step out of the shadows and find our voice, because the world like never before needs us, the bridge to connect two orthogonal views, the Asian-American angle.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/chinese/real_chinese/mini_guides/characters/characters_howmany.shtml#:~:text=Altogether%20there%20are%20over%2050%2C000,able%20to%20read%20a%20newspaper.

[2] https://www.openculture.com/2017/11/a-map-showing-how-much-time-it-takes-to-learn-foreign-languages-from-easiest-to-hardest.html

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11007/#:~:text=The%20ability%20to%20perceive%20these,about%20age%207%20or%208.

[4] My Friends and Heroes: One Veteran’s Quest to Share America’s Living History, By Allen F. Hooker

[5] Meaning a group of related languages derived from Latin, not more romantic sounding. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Romance-languages

[6] The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why by Richard E. Nisbett

[7] https://showusyourtemper.com/the-aquarium-experiment-what-you-see-is-your-reality/#!prettyPhoto/0/

[8] If ever offered baijiu, lie, beg, dump the drink under the table to avoid drinking it. https://thediplomat.com/2015/06/why-does-chinese-alcohol-taste-so-awful/#:~:text=Judged%20by%20that%20standard%2C%20baijiu,baijiu's%20closer%20cousin%2C%20Korean%20soju.

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