Sunday, March 13

Communication Between Parent and Child Across Three Cultures: A Case Study

Upon studying the ways Americans, English, and Chinese communicate, I have come to a conclusion that one single message can mean so many things when spoken differently. Let's face it, Americans and English  speak different Englishes. A single "How do you do" will prompt an American to say "Fine" when she should've answered with the same "How do you do."

Likewise, a single "What's up?" will prompt an English to answer, "The sky, perhaps" when all one needs to say is "Not much." In America, people aren't really interested in "what is up" per se, or how you're really doing. You don't have to spill out everything that happened to you that day. In other words, when an American says "What's up?" or "How're ya doin'?" just answer, "Not much." It is unlikely that an American will sit and listen to your complaints should you ever answer, "Oh, I've had a crappy day." Along the same line, "How do you do" in English is not really a question; it's a statement that should've been answered with the same statement. It's a common English greeting, not an expression of interest.

Now, the Chinese are a complete opposite. When a Chinese says "Ni hao (How are you?)" you should answer, "Ni hao" and nothing else. Never mind divulging everything that has happened to you thus far that day, it's just going to fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, a man from Beijing will greet you with "Chi guo le ma?" meaning "Have you eaten?" which seems like an odd way to greet someone, but that's how it's done in Northern China. You greet a person by asking if he has already eaten, and he will answer back with "Yes, I have, thank you." Again, you don't want to answer, "No, I haven't" because you may put your greeter in a difficult position--to feed you!

Here's an illustration on how Americans, English, and Chinese tell their child that she is overweight (I chose a difficult subject to tackle due to its sensitivity):

The Americans
Parent: Britney, you look great in that dress. 
Child: Thanks, Mom. 
Parent: Looks like you've grown. That dress seems a little tight on you.
Child: Really? We just got it last week, remember?
Parent: You sure? Well, doesn't matter. We'll get you another one that fits. You know what they say about cotton: it shrinks. How about a shopping spree just you and me today? 
Child: Cool. 
Parent: Hey, I was just thinking about how I am so out of shape. So I got myself a gym membership. I got you one, too, so we can go together. I need company. You game?
Child: Count me in, Mom!

Conclusion: As you can see, the American parent does not really tell her daughter directly that she's overweight. Instead, she tackled the subject with much courtesy and diplomacy. The result is quite astounding; the daughter is willing to go on a healthy regimen without feeling bad about her physical state.

The English
Parent: Sybil, dear, what have you been chomping lately?
Child: Nothing, Mother, just the usual cakes and crumpets. Why do you ask?
Parent: I think you're looking quite rotund lately. Lose the chubs, dear, for your sake and that of your future husband.
Child: Mother, you know fairly well that I've always had my baby fat. 
Parent: Baby fat, my foot! Sybil, I'm being very civil about your weight here, goodness knows what other people are going to say. The last thing I want to hear from your notorious Aunt Mable is that you're fatter than ever. I don't think that's what you want to hear either, do you?
Child: I can't believe we're actually having this conversation.
Parent: Well, we are, dear. So get used to it. Obesity is one thing Americans are good at, not us English. I suggest you do something about it. 
Child: I suppose. 
Parent: Well then, get on with it, and make the English proud. 

Conclusion: The English's approach is stark, yet witty with a hint of sarcasm and patriotism. There's no time to be nice; the message needs to be straight and forward. Notice, the notion that Americans are less superior is often brought up. In other words, English pride reigns supreme in every English conversation no matter the length and importance. And they always love to compare themselves with Americans. A conundrum, really.

The Chinese
Parent: Ah Mei, you now fat! You better lose weight fast.
Child: Thank you for teaching me to look good, Mother.
Parent: I say you fat because I love you. I want you to be beautiful and healthy. Fat no good. You just fat now. 
Child: Mother, I stop eating now.
Parent: You make me proud. Your ancestors are proud, too. Look at Lisa, she very thin, very pretty, all men like. She weighs 75 lbs. You are 100 lbs. Must lose 30 lbs in a week. I know you can do it.
Child: I will only fruits and drink tea. I will exercise 10 hours a day. I will hide in my room until I become beautiful so I won't embarrass family and ancestors. 
Parent: Fat no good, Ah Mei. Fat no good. I am bad mother to even let you go fat.
Child: Mother, it is my fault to eat so much noodles and roast pork. I will make you proud. Promise.

Conclusion: The Chinese is even more direct that the English minus the sarcasm and wit. If you are fat, you are fat. And achieving perfection is the key to life. The parent strives to make her ancestors proud, to carry the family name with her head held high. The daughter understands the parent's burden and will do anything to make that happen no matter the difficulty. Filial piety and complete submission are important and crucial.  

(I should be writing my closing here, but I really don't need to. The examples above speak for themselves. Do write with your comments, I'd love to hear them all.)      


Diana said...

Love it. :-) Give us more; it's quite entertaining.

Christopher said...

Definitely! Glad you enjoyed it.

Esther Lee said...

haiyo.. I don't think it applies to all Americans, English or Chinese.. different families will have a different way of teaching their kids right? LOL