View Full Version : Chinese & Japanese share same attitude towards Westerners

Jan 19, 2010, 06:25
I was reading China Cuckoo, by Mark Kitto (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/184529940X?ie=UTF8&tag=eupedia-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN= 184529940X) and chuckled while reading this passage on pp. 85-86.

The banquet started quietly. I forced myself to smile as I listened to foreigner friendly clichés for the thousandth time, addressed to me with patronizing grins. 'Do you miss Western food?' 'Do you like Chinese food?' 'Can you cook it?' 'You use chopsticks well.' 'Your Chinese is good.' And so on and so on. I replied exactly as I had a thousand times at hundreds of other banquets, summoning as genuine a smile as possible from somewhere deep within my patience. 'No, yes, no, thank you, thank you.'

The Chinese are very much like the Japanese in their attitude to foreigners, which means that there is be a common root to this attitude.

Chinese and Japanese cultures are related through the traditional values of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and a little bit through the language. However, Communist China did all it could to get rid of the old Confucian and religious values.

Consequently, this common attitude of the Chinese and Japanese is not so much a cultural similarity, but something more deeply rooted in East Asian civilisation. It is not impossible that this common mindset be rooted in genetics, and therefore in the character and cognitive functions of East Asians.

If there is one thing that genetics has taught us about East Asians in recent years, it is that the Japanese are surprisingly close to the Han Chinese, Manchurians and Koreans. In fact, the Han Chinese are genetically closer to the Japanese than to ethnic minorities of South-West China, like the Miao-Yao. Hans, Koreans and Japanese are also closer genetically than Europeans are between each others, even within a same country like France or Britain.

I would like to investigate here the similarities in the way East Asians think of themselves in relation to Westerners, and evaluate whether there could be a possible genetic root to this East Asian mindset that transgress cultural boundaries.

Jan 26, 2010, 19:53
Still from China Cuckoo. Mark Kitto explains about his plans to open a coffee shop for foreigners in Moganshan. He is looking for an ideal place to start his business. (p.242) :

Our foreign clientele would be looking down on the passers-by, not the other way round. This was incredibly important.
A bonus attraction for Chinese tourists at popular destinations across the country is the opportunity to watch foreigners. And we're not talking about people watching from a café.
'Look, laowai!' passers-by shout with glee at the tops of their voices to friends and children; especially children, the way parents do at the zoo.
It can get on your nerves.
But there was no doubt that our customers would be driven mad when every few minutes another fifty gawping Chinese tourists in baseball caps would peer over the stone balustrade and scream with delight as if they had found the pandas.

Laowai (老外) is a Chinese equivalent of gaijin (there are others, like waiguoren).

Amazing similarity between East Asians, isn't it ? The Thai do the same too (their word for Westerners is farang). It makes you wonder if (or rather 'how') Mongoloid brains work differently from Caucasian ones.

Sep 23, 2010, 21:59
Peter Hessler gives another account of the way the Chinese behave around Westerners in River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0719564808?ie=UTF8&tag=eupedia-21&link_code=as3&camp=2506&creative=9298&creativeASIN=0719564808).

And Fuling was a frightening place because people had seen so few outsiders. If I ate at a restaurant or bought something from a store, a crowd would quickly gather, often as many as thirty people, spilling out into the street. Most of the attention was innocent curiosity, but it made the embarrassment of my bad Chinese all the worse - I'd try to communicate with the owner, and people would laugh and talk among themselves, and in my nervousness I would speak even worse Mandarin. When I walked down the street, people constantly turned and shouted at me. Often they screamed waiguoren or laowai, both of which simply meant "foreigner". Again, these phrases often weren't intentionally insulting, but intentions mattered less and less with every day that these words were screamed at me. Another favorite was "hello", a meaningless, mocking version of the word that was strung out into a long "hah-loooo!" This word was so closely associated with foreigners that sometimes the people used it instead of waiguoren - they'd say, "Look, here come two hellos!" And often in Fuling they shouted other less innocent terms - yangguizi, or "foreign devil"; da bizi, "big nose" - although it wasn't until later that I understood what these phrases meant.

The stresses piled up every time I went into town: the confusion and embarrassment of the language, the shouts and stares, the mocking calls. It was even worse for Adam, who was tall and blond; at least I had the advantage of being darked-haired and only slightly bigger than the locals.

Even though Japan and rural Sichuan are polar extremes when it comes to economic development and exposure to the outside world, the spontaneous reaction prompted by the sight of a Westerner is remarkably similar, be it the need to stare and openly call them by a term meaning "outsider", or the questions about the local food and the use of chopsticks. This is definitely not the way Westerners comport themselves towards Asian visitors, even in rural areas.

Though a Gaijin won't draw a crowd in central Tokyo, he or she might in the suburbs or in the countryside (especially children and teenagers). It would be worth investigating if there isn't a innate (i.e. genetic) predisposition among East Asians to react in that way to people who look distinctly different. I have noticed the same phenomenon in Korea and Thailand, for instance, but it was less obvious in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines or Cambodia (all of which are more genetically distant from the Han Chinese), where Westerners are met with more indifference, or at least not very differently from Latin America or the Middle East.

Sep 24, 2010, 20:21
Another similarity between the Chinese and the Japanese is the uniformity of society and the ultra-conformism inculcated through the education system. Peter Hessler makes an interesting observation about national taboos in China (pp 169-173).

"You know what happened in the Opium Wars", I said. "At that time, China wasn't a very powerful nation, and it wasn't difficult for the foreign countries to defeat the Chinese armies. As a result, many foreigners belived that the Chinese people were weak. This idea changed later, of course, but at that time it was a common prejudice."
After I spoke there was silence and the student stared at their desks. That was always what happened when you broke a taboo - there was an instant hush and you found yourself looking at forty-five circles of black hair as students dropped their heads. They had done the same thing a week earlier, during another discussion on racism, when I had said gently that I thought racism and xenophobia were problems everywhere, even in China.
"There is no prejudice or racism in China", Wendy said quickly, and I could see that she was offended. She was one of the best students, as well as one of the most patriotic.
"I don't think it's that simple," I said. "Why is it that people often shout at Mr. Meier and me when we go to Fuling City?"
"They are being friendly," Wendy said. "They just want to talk with you, but they aren't educated. They aren't trying to be rude."
"Sometimes I've had children throw things at me," I said. "That doesn't seem very friendly."
"They are only children!"
"But their parents just laughed and did nothing to stop them," I said. "I'm not saying that this is such a terrible thing, but I don't think racism and bad behavior toward foreigners are issues only in America. These problems could be improved in China as well."
The students dropped their heads and there was an uncomfortable silence. I realized that this was something we couldn't talk about, and quickly changed the subject back to "Désirée's Baby" and American racism.


I could not mention xenophobia without their becoming defensive, which told me that they identified more with the random Chinese harasser on the street than they did with the waiguoren teacher. And there were still far too many moments when they dropped their heads in discomfort. This was something I came to loathe - the great head bow. Whenever that happened, I realized that I was not teaching forty-five individual students with forty-five individual ideas. I was teaching a group, and a group like that was a mob, even if it was silent and passive. And always I was a waiguoren standing alone at the front of the class.

I experienced the same phenomenon in Japan. There are specific topics about which over 90% of the Japanese seem to hold the exact same opinion or (often mistaken) ideas, as if they had been brainwashed since their early childhood, or, like Peter Hessler puts it, as if the group thought as one. This is what prompted me to write an article listing these national prejudices or misconceptions about Westerners (http://www.wa-pedia.com/gaijin/misconceptions_prejudices.shtml). Surprisingly enough, many of the national misconceptions found in Japan are mirrored in China. It's quite amazing considering the little cultural interaction between the two countries over the last century. It is as if they stemmed from a much deeper level, going back to the common roots of East Asian cultures, or perhaps even the way East Asians are wired to see the world.

But it's not just opinions and ideas that are shared by the Japanese and the Chinese. It's a whole attitude. For example, Peter Hessler writes (p. 186) "It always made the Chinese happy when waiguoren said they didn't understand China". This is just as true of the Japanese. I think this is also why Westerners are constantly questioned about their ability to speak Japanese/Chinese and praised or ridiculed for their usage of chopsticks. East Asians are self-concerned to a point that Westerners can hardly imagine. China, Japan and Korea are cultures of appearances, where honour, shame and the way people perceive you are paramount. These are societies where "face" and "image" are everything, where people are continually concerned about what others think of them. That's why it is easy for them to single out some distinctive customs (e.g. chopsticks) and make such a fuss about it because they feel different from the rest of the world, and deep inside them that makes them nervous and uncomfortable. Anxiety and neuroticism are genetically inherited traits, and East Asians have a higher incidence of these traits than about any other racial group. I am sure that this has affected the way the local "culture of appearances" developed.

The "culture of appearances" is directly related to the sempiternal dichotomy of the Yin and Yang. It is expressed in such concepts as honne versus tatemae, insiders versus outsiders, Us versus Them. It is this dualistic mindset that renders East Asians so prone to use terms such as gaijin or waiguoren (the Western Yang cultures, as opposed to the Yin cultures of East Asia). This Yin-Yang mentality leads them to constantly look for ways to oppose their ethnico-cultural group to the rest of the world, rather than seek to find out similarities between themselves and people from other countries, or to compare differences at an interpersonal level. What's more, Yin-Yang cultures are always collectivist - societies where the group harmony and homogeneity primes over individual diversity. Ultimately, collectivism also correlates with societies where people tend to be anxious and lack self-confidence, while individualism, on the contrary, requires a certain strength of character and aloofness.

Understanding all this, it is not difficult to see why East Asians react the way they do towards foreigners.

Sep 26, 2010, 01:13
Here is a third element that play a role in the uniformity of opinions and the statements that Westerners hear again and again in Japan and China : rote memorisation. The Chinese, Korean and Japanese education systems all make disproportionate use of rote memory. Instead of emphasizing comprehension and critical thinking, these systems prioritise learning by repetition and reproducing exactly what has been taught by the teacher or textbook. Peter Hessler explains that his students often copy each others' assignments to the point of plagiarism, but that this is not seen as a problem in China, where people are expected to follow the example exactly. Criticising or doubting what the teacher says, even when he or she is obviously wrong, is unthinkable. Creative thinking is also discouraged. Debates are virtually inexistent as people are supposed to follow the group's opinion. This is just as true in Japan as in China, though the political brainwashing goes far deeper in China.

In this context, it is easier to understand why one would hear the same "prefabricated opinions" over and over again. This is true for the strange but persistent opinions that I have mentioned on this forums, like "Japan is a small country" or "few countries besides Japan have four seasons".

Here is an illustrations of the common beliefs of the Chinese from River Town (p. 234-5) :

Perhaps the strangest part of the Chinese fascination with Hitler was that simultaneously they had a deep respect for the Jewish people. Jews were the next best thing to the Chinese - they were an extremely intelligent race, as one could tell from the examples of Einstein and Marx. In Xi'an, I had studied with an Israeli student, and the teachers and workers had made an enormous fuss over him. Everybody was impressed by his intelligence, despite the fact that he was not particularly bright and a horrible student of Chinese. But he was Jewish, and all Jews were intelligent; everybody knew that and so they overlooked the reality of his particular case. It was the same as my blue eyes*.
Ideas of this sort were standard and completely predictable, and the longer I lived in China the more I realized that in this sense the country wasn't as complicated as outsiders often said. Foreigners always talked about how difficult it was to understand China, and often this was true, but there were also many ways in which the people's ideas were remarkably uniform and predictable. There were buttons that you could push - Hitler, Jews, the Japanese, the Opium Wars, Tibetans, Taiwan- and 90 percent of the time you could predict the precise reaction, including specific phrases that people would use.

I feel the same way about the Japanese. One of the things that tended to get on my nerves after a few years in Japan was that people's answers on a number of subjects were so predictable. I felt like nobody had their own opinion. What disappointed me most is the way some mistaken ideas or oversimplistic stereotypes were so widespread. This is especially hard for someone like me who likes debating on touchy issues and hearing thought-provoking ideas and true but politically incorrect opinions. Conversing with a typical, predictable East Asian is rarely intellectually rewarding. One has to look for the rare exceptions. This said, it isn't because Westerners are more outspoken in their opinions that they are necessarily more intelligent. At least a person using his or her critical sense gives the feeling that he or she is reflecting, and not just repeating pre-made opinions. But the Chinese way has the merit to dissimulate the speaker's rational acuity, and let one wonder if the uttered idea or belief is just a façade or not.

* Peter Hessler's blue eyes are actually brown, but the Chinese liked to omit that fact just because he is a Westerner (and Westerners are supposed to have blue eyes).

Sep 27, 2010, 15:46
Here is another passage from River Town (p.282) that illustrates collectivism in China.

Everything was further complicated by the influence of traditional collective thinking. The longer I lived in Fuling, the more I was struck by the view of the individual - in my opinion, this was the biggest difference between what I had known in the West and what I saw in Sichuan. For people in Fuling, the sense of self seemed largely external; you were identified by the way that others viewed you. That had always been the goal of Confucianism, which defined the individual's place strictly in relation to the people around her: she was somebody's daughter, somebody else's wife, somebody else's mother; and its role had its specific obligations. This was an excellent way to preserve social harmony, but once that harmony was broken, the lack of self-identity made it difficult to put things back together again.

Sep 29, 2010, 21:15
When group harmony meddles with national education

The culture of group harmony is something that bring the Japanese and Chinese close together. In Communist China, as is to be expected, teachers have virtually no freedom to teach what they want in class, or choose their teaching materials, or give their own interpretations. They must stick to the official textbook and teach exactly what is written. Their own expertise, knowledge and experience of the subject is irrelevant. This makes me wonder why they need a degree at all to teach.

In Western countries, good teachers are expected choose their textbooks and reading materials, perhaps even create their own syllabus, come up with their own exercises and teaching methods, and adapt the curriculum to their students' level (which may vary from one class to another, or between schools) and social background whenever that is possible or necessary.

It is common knowledge, I think, that the Chinese education system consists of a single, rigid, politically approved and politically charged curriculum. When I first came to Japan, I was surprised to find out that it was basically the same in the country of the rising sun. I had the opportunity to teach Japanese primary/elementary and secondary/high school students at a juku (cram school). I only taught for a month in replacement to another teacher, but that was enough to see how the system worked. I was asked to teach 6 years old to write the Western alphabet. I taught them the alphabet in cursive writing, as I had learned as a child. But when my supervisor came to class to see how I was doing, she quickly scolded me for teaching cursive writing. I was told to write letters exactly like in a book. In other words they wanted me to write in printed characters, which is apparently the way they teach the alphabet in Japan. I explained that nobody wrote like that and that the handwritten alphabet was different from the printed one, and that pupils should learn to read both but write only in cursive. She called the director, who repeated the same thing, insisting that it was in the official curriculum and that it was the only thing that could be taught.

I had already complained before that their English textbooks for high schoolers were terrible and full of expressions that were never used in real life. I proposed to replace them by better ones from Cambridge that I brought with me to show them, but they flatly refused. As for the alphabet, the director curtly told me that if I didn't teach kids to write printed characters they would have to find another teacher. I didn't really care about the job; it was more a favour I was doing them, so I quit. I couldn't believe that they would be so narrow-minded in their pedagogy. I made a point to remark that it was little wonder that most Japanese couldn't read the handwriting of Westerners and spoke unnatural English. After that experience I decided never to work for schools in Japan anymore.