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Town & Gown
February 6, 2001

Cultural Differences Between Town & Gown
Reflect Cultural Differences Between U.S. And China

by Elliott Lauderdale

"We don't care what they do up North in Chattanooga."

A previous column in this space addressed the problems of rigor and relevance in the problem-solving process found in Town/Gown relationships. Simply put, we in the university require ourselves to be more rigorous, while our friends in the community and in business emphasize the need to solve problems immediately. We have something of a cultural conflict that can be summarized by the following exchange: " Have you considered the studies on peer mediation with elementary students done at ... by...?" "We don't have time to read about, evaluate, and consider every program out there. Our situation and history are different than theirs."

My experience in Taipei, Taiwan taught me that the cultural misunderstanding between Town and Gown finds reflection in the cultural misunderstanding found between Americans and Taiwanese.

There is a wonderful Chinese traditional expression or cheng yu that I use in my research methods and proposal development class, in which the listener is asked to consider the sky from the bottom of a well. Those of us who try to understand different cultures can become enthralled by the peculiarities of local color and not understand their actual meaning. For instance, my U.S. social science friends often have difficulty seeing that this ancient Chinese expression alludes to the fact that people often mistake the image of the sky they get from the bottom of a well for the entire sky, despite the similarity of this expression to Plato's cave in the Western tradition. Most Americans do not expect to hear an ancient expression in the middle of a discussion on action research, even though it is habitual for the Chinese to use such ancient expressions to make a point.

The confusion here is more than jet lag that I experienced as a result of sixteen hours flying back from my wife's laboratory in Taipei, Taiwan, or the difference of understanding between two people from two different cultures even after many years of marriage. Part of the confusion is genuine and requires a serious effort to understand. I spent several years living in and studying China and Chinese, but I am still amazed at the deep cultural misunderstanding due to cultural differences. In my work as an interdisciplinary adult educator and one-time area-Chinese specialist, I often find myself floating between diverse cultures and sub-cultures. Sometimes these travels between the cultures offer some insight into the misunderstandings.

Because the readers of The Harbinger have been treated to letters from Nanjing and Russia, I decided to reflect on some of my favorite examples of cultural misunderstandings and differences that reappear to me as I re-learn Mobile and Chinese cultures. I hope our readers, foreign correspondents, and editors will join in the discussion of understanding cultural differences and finding ways to use the insight learned to solve problems in the community.

An excellent example of cultural difference is the way the Chinese and the Americans view the power of water and modesty.

In both Mobile and Taiwan I live close to large bodies of water and experience torrential rain. What we call hurricanes here are Taifung or taipoons in Taiwan. Taibei in the north of Taiwan is at a latitude slightly farther south than Mobile. Taiwan averages 98 inches of rain a year. Both places are close to salt water and fishing. The most densely populated portions of Taibei are close to the rice culture with the careful control of water in rice paddies. The historian Wittfogel once suggested that Americans learn something about how the Chinese manipulate the flow of water. The precarious balance and the limits of our power to manipulate water flow are everywhere evident in Taiwan, as they are to our neighbors in New Orleans. Unlike our flat and meandering topography, Taiwan is a young volcanic island whose mountains rapidly collect the powerful rain, and the broad engineered rivers and dykes remind the sunny-day visitor of recent typhoons. One can see the stain of floodwaters that covered the first floor of buildings above a flood canal capable of handling water fifty feet above its normal water level. Moving down the mountainside to the riverside path, one sees how each square meter of water is directed to the canal by way of vegetable fields squeezed among the crowds of fourteen-story apartment buildings. Most balconies as well as the tops of apartment buildings are opportunities to replace the green space displaced by population pressure as families, generations from the farm, cultivate vegetables, orchids, bonsai, loufa, shrubs. The battle to maintain the balance is precarious. In Mobile we assume the availability of potable water. Many Mobilians may not even know that the definition of the word "potable" or realize how fragile our supply of drinking water is.

The recent increase in wealth in Taiwan is astounding, but the increasing disparities of income do not approach the level found in the U.S. Both there and here, the poor live in the least sanitary and most polluted areas. Neither place is far from areas like the country near Shanghai or Long Island where our technology cannot get the taste of petroleum out of the drinking water.

Like in the U.S., the Chinese are rapidly destroying their environment, despite a strong cultural tradition of respect for the environment. Chinese paintings often show a small group or a solitary scholar in a pavilion writing or drinking tea. Mountains or the sea dwarfs the human presence. During our visit we attended a mime performance of the two-thousand-plus-year-old book, Classic of the Mountains and Seas, in a turn-of-the-century teahouse. This first Chinese travelogue discusses the relations between our own bodies and our planet. The Chinese religion Taoism emphasizes the importance of maintaining a modest natural balance.

Speaking with a close friend with deep ties to the South confirmed my impressions of etiquette of modesty that eschews confrontation or excessive boasting. He said, "Self-effacing is appropriately tasteful."

The Chinese appear to take self-effacement to an extreme. When I did my research in China I learned to pay careful attention whenever someone said he is not a scientist, because they were likely a member of the academy of science. I had lunch with a microbiologist in Taibei recently who denies knowing much about the "One China" issue until I pursued the idea. By the time our discussion was over he shared a newspaper article that he had published on the issue that week.

All the English words for the concept of self-effacement appear inadequate to describe simple politeness to a Chinese person. If there are no words, how can we understand the basis of everyday human interaction? Both self-effacement and self-abnegation imply some weakness by the Americans that is not assumed by the Chinese.

Below is an example of an exchange with a person in Taibei that illustrates the cultural difference.

I am addicted to swimming, so while in Taiwan I went to Taipei American School to train. In the next lane a swimmer was timing himself.

I said: "You're working hard."

He said: "I can't swim."

"Great breast stroke."

"It's terrible; you're a good swimmer."

"The guard tells me you're a triathlete."

"What talk?" (The Chinese expression "nar de hua" is translated literally "Where's talk?"

In a violation of rules I said: "I do triathlons, but cannot run."

In a somewhat awkward silence, I said: "I really hate running; it takes me ten minutes to run a mile. You're a well-known runner."

"Where? Where?" [This is an abbreviation of the phrase above: "Nali?"]

"No, the guard told me."

Finally, a little American-style frankness: "Well I did run 100 kilometers."

"Wow. That two marathons."

"Two and a half." [By this time we were familiar enough to dispense with self-deprecating modest remarks.]

"Sorry. You're nuts. I cannot imagine doing half a marathon."


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