Gish Jen on the Profound Differences Between Chinese and American Culture
Culture Shock, Interdependence, and Surviving Yonkers...
Several years ago, the Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen came across the story of a Chinese teenager who applied to the elite Milton Academy in Massachusetts. The girl had top-notch test scores and great essays, and her interview on Skype showed a profound command of English. She was accepted to Milton.
A few months later, representatives from Milton picked up what they thought was their stellar foreign student. The Chinese girl they met at the local airport spoke halting, substandard English. It turned out that the girl they were picking up was the sister of the great student, sent in her place.
Jen uses the Milton story to open her new book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, which explores the major differences in Chinese and American culture and worldviews, from the interdependence in Chinese culture and the proud individualism of Americans.
“I’ve been going to China for many years,” said Jen in a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass., of the four decades she’s been traveling to China. “When I arrive, I am always amazed at how Chinese China is. I am also struck with how baffled the long-term observers can be by China.”
“People say to me, ‘Don’t you think China is changing? Shanghai is so modern,’” she said. “The Chinese wear their Nikes, they drink lattes at Starbucks, but the Chinese are not like us and it is the height of hubris to imagine that they are like us, or will become like us.”
In her compelling new book, Jen sets out explain the differences between the “big pit” individualism of Americans, where the needs of the person are put first, and the “flexi-self” interdependence of the Chinese, where the intense obligations to family and then society are given priority, by mixing compelling anecdotes with academic studies exploring the differences.
“I bring in the academic studies because you can make lot of assertions and describe and describe, but without the studies, it seems very anecdotal,” said Jen. “I have the anecdotes, but then tie them to the larger, established truths.”
Jen plunges into the Starbucks study in Shanghai, where an American academic took 100 Starbucks throughout the city, and in each one pushed chairs together, blocking some of the aisles. “The researcher arranged the chairs so they were very close together, and he watched to see how many people would move them,” said Jen. “The chairs were placed so they were really in the way. In America, customers would have moved them.”
In the end, only 1.9 percent of the Chinese moved the chairs. “This was the most cosmopolitan city in China,” said Jen. ”It shows a big difference. I spoke with this sophisticated Shanghai journalist about the chair experiment, and she started laughing and said, ‘Of course they wouldn’t move the chairs!’”
Gish Jen’s parents are Chinese immigrants. Her father survived World War II, going to college classes held in caves to escape the Japanese bombings. He came to the US as a civil engineer and eventually worked on the atomic bomb program. Her mother gave up her graduate school dreams to become a schoolteacher. The family was very traditional, and as Jen writes in her new book, they were a “first-son-comes-first” family and also had the attitude that “No one wants to marry a smart girl.”
Jen rejected her family’s interdependent view. “I was the rebel and broke very dramatically from my family,” she said. “I became a writer when people like me did not become writers. My parents could not have been more opposed. I broke with the whole thing—I did not speak Chinese. It was a completely Western program. I became a novelist, which is the most individualist thing you can be.”
After she finished Harvard, Jen went to Stanford Business School, but dropped out in 1981 to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her mother stopped speaking to her, though they did reconcile after about 18 months.
It was only after Jen published her first novel Typical American in 1991 and was the subject of a large profile in The World Journal, a major Chinese-language newspaper, that her parents realized their daughter was a success.
Jen, 61, has written four novels and a book of short stories called Who’s Irish? She’s also the author of Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self, which was from a series of lectures Jen gave at Harvard in 2012, which helped inspire the new book.
Family roots can be hard to pull out. “There is a huge part of me that is still interdependent,” said Jen. “I can see how my book is resonating with people like Yo-Yo Ma, people who are so Western. We drink our lattes, but there is an interdependent part that persists.”
“My a-ha moment on my interdependence came when I had my first child,” said Jen. “I was in a mothers’ group. The kids were like six weeks old. The other mothers put their kids on the floor. I couldn’t put my kid down. They went around the room, asking what the mothers wanted for their kids. They said they wanted them to be independent. Independent? These kids can’t hold their heads up. I said I wanted my kid to be happy.”
“Many Americans have a strain of interdependence in them, but mine is more pronounced, because it comes from China and my parents are immigrants,”” she said. “You can see the interdependence in second, third and fourth generations. It really persists.”
Jen recounted how a Greek-American acquaintance sheepishly admitted that he lived with several generations of his extended family. “He feels like it is not that American,” she said. “Why is it un-American if it is true of so many families?”
According to a study Jen references, 85 percent of the countries in the world lean towards being socially interdependent, including China, Japan and Korea, South Asian countries like India and Pakistan, many African countries, large swaths of South America and historically Catholic European countries like Spain and Ireland. In the United States, rates of interdependence are high among certain subgroups like firemen, and the broader working class in general.
In the book, Jen offers the example of her sophisticated middle-aged brothers, who still visit their 91-year-old mother almost every day. “My brothers are ambi-dependent,” said Jen, straddling individual American traits and the interdependent immigrant culture.
Jen writes about the Dafen Oil Painting Village in southern China, where artists churn out copies of paintings by Van Gogh, Klimt, Picasso and many others. Do you want “The Starry Night” to be extra large? No problem. The interdependent village of artists finish each others’ paintings when needed.
“The Dafen painters would not meet my criteria for art,” said Jen. “I feel sorry for them because I see them as in between. In other ways, I don’t feel sorry for them. Many of them are completely happy with who they are.”
Jen offers amusing stories of interdependence and cooperation. There is a Chinese painter who is best friends with another artist who forges his paintings. When the forger runs into financial trouble, the real painter signs the forgeries to make them more valuable, helping him out.
In a bizarre twist, Chinese police officers develop close relationships with the dissidents they are sent out to police: officers enquire about sick parents and even offer to help find the dissidents jobs if needed, while they continue to monitor them.
Jen recounts losing her keys while flying kites with her children in Tiananmen Square, a massive public space. Seeing her panic, a kite vendor approaches her, and through a chain reaction of help with other competing vendors, the keys are located and returned. The pivotal figure of help turns out to a blind vendor. All offers of tips are refused, but satisfaction at the community response is evident.
For Chinese immigrants who come to the “big pit” individual culture of America, life can be emotionally taxing.
“A lot people who come from China find America very hard,” said Jen. “As we can’t imagine how different their lives are, they can’t imagine how different America is. They know it is richer and everybody drives everywhere, but the psychic landscape is so different. They can’t begin to imagine.”
Born in New York, Jen was initially raised just north, in Yonkers, which could be pretty tough. ‘The kids would throw snowballs at us that had rocks in them,” she said. “I was so happy when we moved to Scarsdale, for the snowballs didn’t have rocks in them.”
Even in Scarsdale, the Jen family experienced the casual racism and bigotry of 1960s New York.
“There I was in fifth grade, in Scarsdale, New York, in an incredibly liberal, sophisticated community,” said Jen. “I can tell you that I was asked almost every day if my father ran a laundry. Of course I knew it was offensive. They had never seen anyone like me. They didn’t ask that of me by the time I was in high school.”
“My brother was beaten up every single day,” she said. “He was being beaten up so relentlessly that my parents sent him for judo lessons.”
“There’s a way in which it didn’t damage me as much as it could if my background had been more individualistic,” said Jen. “I got it, but I didn’t focus on it. There were so many other things to worry about. It was one more thing.”
“It’s an interdependent view of the whole life,” she noted. “Why do you get an education? The answer is, ‘If I don’t get that M.D., I’m always going to be beaten to a pulp.’”
“My brother survived this time, as did myself and my sister,” she said. “It is not okay. It’s a big, dark cloud, but there may be a silver lining. Once you are bullied a few times, you are aware. You are prepared to deal with the world.”
Unfortunately, Jen noted, the bullying of Asian kids still goes on in schools. “Bullying is not a thing of the past,” she said. “I don’t make light of it.”
The relationship between an individualistic “big pit” view and the “interdependent “flexi-self” can be quite fluid, changing over time. In the book, Jen refers to the family history of her Korean-American friend Jeannie Suk, now a Harvard Law professor and a contributor to the New Yorker.
The Suk family was living a miserable, impoverished existence in Korea, with too many relatives living in the family apartment. Jeannie Suk’s grandmother demanded that Jeannie’s mother turn over her meager wages. The mother refused. Jeannie’s family then broke the larger family obligations and moved to New York, to pursue a better life.
“The same mother who’d been individualistic in Korea made the interdependent decision to send Jeannie to a miserable cram school, so she could pass the test to go to the elite Hunter College High School. Was the mother’s decision so bad? Jeannie wound up with many opportunities.”
“Now we come to the part where Jeannie wants to dance,” said Jen. Jeannie had been elevated to a prestigious ballet program. Jeannie’s mother, again being interdependent, refused to let her go.
“I want to throttle the mother who says no, you can’t dance,” said Jen. “If my daughter had wanted to be a ballerina, I would have taken the ‘big pit’ route and supported her. Of course, I am on Jeannie’s side. I wanted to be a novelist when everything was saying to me, ‘You cannot do that. Life is not about self. Do something practical!’”
“When you hear that the four girls who took the class Jeannie couldn’t take all got injured and no one went on to become ballerinas, you wonder if the mother was that wrong,” mused Jen. “Now Jeannie is a tenured professor, having a great time. Who knows what would have happened?”
“I feel that in America, to take such a hardline interdependent approach in a world that is so big-pit oriented, it makes for much misery for the child,” said Jen. “It is not really an option for most American parents. If the mother had done that in China, the child feels distress, but not as much as in America.”
Jen periodically teaches at NYU Shanghai, so she goes to China for weeks or months at a time. She also spends time with her extended Chinese family.
“In Shanghai, I understand the Chinese I work with, but they are not me,” she said. “I have a lot of sympathy for them. That’s why I am not hard on the Dafen artists.”
“My family in China is wonderful, but I don’t go to every family event,” said Jen. “It will take up every minute of your life, if you let it. I am big pit enough to say ‘I am not going with you, I am staying here to read the new Elena Ferrante novel.’ In China, I feel just how American I really am.”
“The idea of being kind is so important in China,” she said. “The family forms a really important network. It is the social safety net.”
Jen has high hopes for the book, that it will help Americans truly understand Chinese interdependence and its profound influence on family obligation and China’s social structure.
“Some of the research on China is new, but much of it has been out there,” Jen said. “I don’t think people have been able to use the research to help them see China as they should. This is a book that I hope will help change the world,” she said. “There has already been a flash with the early readers, where people go, ‘Oh, I see it now.’”