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Defining (and Defying) Cultural Values

When I think about the values that were instilled in me as a child, I think about all of the ways in which I was influenced by others- by verbal reminders, by observations, by stories, and by experience. “Honesty is the best policy,” my parents always said. “Finish what you start.” “Always try your hardest.” My parents modeled values for me, too; both my mother and my father are tremendously hard-working individuals, and their diligence and persistence impacted me even as a small child. They taught me the value of being mindful of my money- and saving, saving, saving. Here I am, twenty-one years old, and frugality is central to my decision-making on a daily basis. How many evenings of my childhood did I spend sitting on my grandfather’s lap, listening to him read to me from Aesop’s Fables while we ate Fig Newtons? How many times did I hear my elementary school teachers say things like “You can be whatever you want to be”? I was praised for individuality and punished for laziness; I was pushed to be excellent in whatever I did. These are the values that shaped my behavior and thoughts as a young American woman.

In my Seminar on Living and Learning in Nanjing, we identified Chinese cultural values like relationships, family, harmony, prosperity, face, and hierarchy. Then we talked about American values like self-reliance, control, following the rules, equality, capitalism, and others. Each of these values has a negative side as well; for example, self-reliance can turn into self-centeredness, and prosperity can lead to greediness. Some of the values may be more realized than others, and some are more of an ideal to aspire to.

I sat down with my Chinese roommate to ask her about her personal upbringing and her opinion on Chinese cultural values. What did her parents teach her as a child? What does she think are some of the key components of Chinese cultural values, and how do those values shape her behavior?

“The most important thing is family,” she told me. Eventually she will move back to her hometown, find work, and take care of her parents and grandparents. She mentioned that because of this, she won’t be able to live in a big city and realize her career dreams, but family is more important. Caring for one’s parents and grandparents is common here, and for people who are only children (of which there are many) the burden of care for two parents and four grandparents rests on their shoulders. Values can overlap, too. When I asked her if her parents told her stories before bed as a small child, she said yes, and began telling me the first story that came to her mind. “This story teaches us to be honest.” It was a story about a boy who would tell his neighbors that a wolf was coming, and then after a while nobody believed him, and- yes, it was The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and we had an “aha!” moment together. I like to think that at some point during our childhoods, we were on opposite sides of the world listening to this same story- she in her house in Changzhou, me in my grandfather’s lap, connected by a simple fable. In her version, however, the story ended with the boy being killed by the wolf, and the second lesson to be learned was that sometimes people should be given second chances.

I was curious to find out what her perceptions of American values are, as well. Individualism, independence, and taking risks to get more profits are the three things that she named. I generally agree with (and expected) the first two. Risk taking? I hadn’t thought of that. She elaborated by saying that in China, people will often choose a less risky solution to solve a problem, even if the outcome will be less advantageous. Americans, she said, will choose the option with less concern for risk.

After all of our talking, me taking notes, and reading about different cultural values, I think I’m more unclear than I was before on what, exactly, “cultural values” in China and America are. The reason I say this is because what she said made me think: are my own values American? Despite what I’ve read, what is a true “American value” anyway, and how salient does it have to be to be considered a value, and how on earth can I reasonably lump all Americans together into one package and stamp a list of values on top of it? America is certainly not homogenous; we’ve got regional differences, diverse ethnic variations, an array of religious beliefs, and socio-economic factors that all impact what our values are as individuals and as groups. Is it fair to assign these labels to a nation’s culture?

Following that, how quick have I been to assign labels to Chinese culture? China: a country with 1.3 billion people and an incredibly diverse population. I think we underestimate how varied this nation really is, and how varied any culture’s values can be.

I’ll come right out and say it, in case you haven’t already guessed: I’m a list person. Lists make me happy. I thought that if I could have a neat little bullet pointed list of Chinese cultural values, then I could begin to understand the ways in which behavior is shaped and what makes this place tick. But now I’m hesitant to rely on these identified values. Making generalizations about a culture can be misleading, but on the other hand, I understand how it can be helpful look at situations from the perspective of a different culture and frame one’s thinking around that.

Maybe the list shouldn’t be written in pen, but in pencil, and it should definitely come with a disclaimer.



my room mate and me


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I really enjoyed reading your post. I was hoping to get involved in a Chinese Bible Study while I am in Nanjing. Do you know how I could get involved with one?

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