Monthly Archives: November 2007

Chinese Teacher Experiences Culture Shock…in Alabama

I saw this little item on a regional news website (first four paragraphs):

Chinese teacher has culture shock at Elberta school

ELBERTA, Ala. (AP) – A small school in south Baldwin County has become the only one in Alabama and the first Catholic elementary school in the country to be chosen for a guest teacher program designed to teach students Chinese.

The program at St. Benedict Catholic School brings in a guest Chinese teacher and is co-sponsored by the College Board and Hanban, China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International.

St. Benedict, which has 158 students in pre-kindergarten through eight grade, decided to add Chinese to its foreign language curriculum, augmenting a Spanish program that launched a few years ago.

The article goes on to describe the culture shock felt by the Chinese teacher, a Shanghai native.

While I feel for this fellow, who is indubitably confused as all hell, I have to appreciate the humor of this situation. There is nothing in this world that will fully prepare a Shanghai native for life in any village, town, or city in the United States. By the same token, there is nothing in this world that will fully prepare an American for life in most parts of Asia.

I wonder what, if any, sort of training the Chinese teacher had before he left for small town USA. I wonder what sort of training, if any, the school had in hosting a visiting Chinese teacher. Probably none.

What’s the problem, you may ask? What exactly are the differences between Chinese and American culture?

Start with this idea:


Nothing is the same. Food, style of dress, communication styles, value systems, religious beliefs, political environments…the list of differences is endless. Which is why, of course, I live in greater China. Still, even those of us who have sense of the differentness between the cultures of East and West are sometimes frustrated by the cultural differences we encounter.

My advice to both the teacher and the school: Patience, openness, and tolerance. Judgment and an overweening focus on cultural differences will make you miserable. Teacher Wang, think of your colleagues and students and their strange behavior as “ke ai (loveable),” and parents, teachers, and students at St. Benedict Catholic School, give Mr. Wang the gift of acceptance. Let him eat his fried fish and rice, drink his green tea, wear his slippers in the faculty lounge if he chooses to.

In closing, I quote the Principal of the school:

“We felt like children who have Chinese language are going to be able to write their own ticket when they get to college,” Principal Kendall McKee said.

I know that reporters typically aren’t able to communicate all of the thought and planning that precedes a decision to implement a Chinese language program in a school, but statements such as these concern me a bit.

Why? Because you’ve got to learn a language like Mandarin in the proper cultural context. You can’t just learn some vocabulary, tones, and sentence structure and expect to have any idea what is going on. Chinese is nothing like Spanish. Or French. Or German. There are huge cultural gaps here, and from a linguistic perspective, it would be easier for a native English speaker to learn all three of the aforementioned  languages than it will be to master Mandarin.

Is there a program in place to bring the students to China, or to make some effort to bring China to the students? What sorts of cultural activities are built into the language program? Does the principal himself know anything about Chinese culture? Does the Chinese teacher know how to communicate his own culture to the kids? I hope there’s more going on here than just a Chinese teacher spending a year teaching kids the difference between the tones and the first few hundred words in Mandarin. Otherwise, this project has the potential to turn out to be an exercise in waste and frustration for all involved.

I wish both sides well. I hope the news station reports on progress made on both sides in six months or so.

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Filed under Culture, Culture Shock, Language

The Hands-Off Manager Reviewed in the Shanghai Daily

The book I wrote about in this post was co-authored by my uncle, Duane Black.

It was reviewed Oct. 27 in Shanghai Daily at this link.

Shanghai Daily is one of two English newspapers in Shanghai. The other is the China Daily.

The writer gives the book a positive review, and elucidates many of the points from the book quite accurately.

Unfortunately, the reporter didn’t get the title right (she calls the book The Hands-Off Management), but we’ll take the review anyway.

This book really should be translated into simplified and traditional Mandarin and sold throughout greater China. Managers here need it–the younger, talented generation simply won’t put up with dogmatic, authoritarian manager types anymore. They walk.

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Filed under Books, Media, Personal

Taiwanese Investment in Vietnam

This is one of the more interesting phenomenons in East Asian investment. Recently in Taipei, I’ve run into more and more people who have friends or relatives working in Vietnam. A training client’s husband, a friend of my wifes, our interior decorator’s husband…all of them are working in Vietnam.

A quote from a Vietnam business forum:

As of August 22, 2007, Taiwan has invested roughly US$9.175 billion in 1,706 projects in Vietnam, ranking third among 79 countries and territories with investment capital in Vietnam. In the first eight months of 2007 alone, Taiwanese investors were licensed to invest US$600.5 million in 134 projects and allowed to increase US$279 million in 59 projects.

Several business investors I’ve spoken too have said that Vietnam is the next China; labor is cheaper, the workforce is well-educated and hard working, there are fewer government restrictions on investment.

If you’re considering an OEM relationship overseas, it might be worth giving Vietnam a look. Rule of thumb in manufacturing: Go where the Taiwanese go.

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Filed under Economics, Greater Asia, Taiwan

The Chinese Family

Traditional Chinese family values have been largely centered around the Confucian values of filial piety, ancestor worship, and doing one’s duty within the family. Fifty years ago in China and Taiwan, families were focused primarily on survival. The thought of riches never really entered into most people’s consciousnesses.

Obviously, things have changed. Money, loads of it, can be had by more Chinese people than ever before, and it’s changing (some people would use the word “warping” or “tainting”) traditional Chinese family values.

There has always been a money component to these relationships. Namely, parents are financially responsible for their children until their children earn enough money to take care of both themselves and their parents. Sometimes that doesn’t happen until the children are in their 30s or 40s; sometimes it never happens. Just today, my 26 year old nephew told me that, before he gets married, he’ll make sure he’s got enough income to support both his parents and his own family.

He was born in 1981. Traditional family values are alive and well.

Still, it seems that nowadays money plays an ever more prominent role in Chinese familial relationships. I’ve observed this myself several times, in various forms. For example, in the West, there are plenty of women (and men) who marry for money, or for whom money is a major consideration in deciding who to date and marry, but most people don’t speak openly about wanting to date or marry someone rich. In Taiwan and China, mothers advising their daughters to marry rich men is par for the course. The rich old toad-young hot babe relationships we laugh at in the United States are considered absolutely normal here. Groups of women (often with their boyfriends and husbands present) talk seriously about how important it is to find a man with plenty of money.

The Chinese are nothing if not extremely pragmatic, and what could be more pragmatic than having lots of money, especially now that it is so much more available?

From a 2004 Christian Science Monitor article:

At one level, the fight is between traditionalists and progressives. Many of the former feel that an avaricious new money culture will corrupt China and send it into uncharted waters. They see women becoming sex objects and couples devaluing each other. They see the years from 1950 to 1980 as a stable period of happiness, when moral values were predominant and families found meaning in serving the state.

“The opening up of the 1980s is only now showing itself in the way wives and husbands are chosen,” says Xia Xueluan, a professor at Beijing University. “Now, when a girl meets a boy the first question is, ‘Do you have a house? Do you have a car?’ This causes great strains in marriages, and on husbands, to produce income. I’m worried.”

The money culture and its impact on the family has become even more pervasive since then. In China, where most families have only one child, the pressure on that kid to succeed, to bring honor and riches to his family, is tremendous. Yahoo News reported today on the phenomenon of “extreme Chinese kids,” tykes who are pushed by their families into showing signs of greatness at as early an age as possible. From the report:

“There’s tremendous competition, a lot of pressure for kids to do well at something in China today. It’s something that parents can get pride out of and perhaps make money at,” said Grant Evans, a professor of anthropology at the University of Hong Kong.

Chinese media reports about the feats invariably quote bystanders who wonder whether such activities are dangerous or unhealthy.

But the criticism ends there; children’s rights are only just now starting to creep into the Chinese public consciousness.

The Chinese family is changing, there’s no doubt about that. Whether it is changing in positive directions or not is up to the individual to decide.

Business Application: If you’re doing business in greater China, bear in mind that the Judeo-Christian tradition of getting rich AND getting into Heaven that you probably grew up with doesn’t exist here. You’ll find plenty of ethical business people in greater China, but you may be surprised at how many people in business have no moral misgivings about making lots of money at your expense. Get references; oversee the work you farm out to overseas factories; take nothing for granted.

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Filed under Business, Culture, The Family