China Power

Are Chinese That Different?

Chinese students might have their differences with their American counterparts. But they’ve more in common.

By Kevin Slaten for

Those of us who have had the fortune to experience both American and Chinese cultures, in conversations with others, tend to emphasize the differences between them. This is simply because the differences are novel and interesting. But the fact of the matter is that the common circumstances American and Chinese people share outnumber the discrepancies between their cultures. Food markets look and feel different; everyone still has to eat. Politicians gain power differently; no one wants their rights violated. Weddings are different; love is eternally universal.

In the same way, classrooms in China and America are different, but young people everywhere still need to prepare themselves to become a contributing part of their society. Jiang Xuejin and I have been discussing how to bridge the differences between Chinese and American education systems. I thank him for his willingness to keep up our dialogue as well as offering some good advice on increasing Chinese and American student interaction. He and I are in accordance about the end goal; that is, members of both cultures need more understanding of the other’s culture.

But despite the same goal, I think we might differ on our view of the reality we face. Chinese and Americans view the world differently in some ways, but Jiang seems to think that the cultures are so fundamentally different so as to create a moral chasm that must be overcome. However, the differences aren’t so acute.

For example, he sites Arthur Koestler’s idea that there are two poles in ethics, with China belonging to one and Americans to the other.  It might be true philosophically that there are two poles, but no culture belongs to one of the poles. They all lie somewhere in-between. Chinese students might cheat, but so do American students.  It’s human nature to try to survive when put under pressure.

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And therein lays the key to Chinese students’ cheating. Much of it is the pressure put on these students to perform and get high marks. Learning is less important than the grade at the top of a test. The system puts tremendous pressure on these students to perform on these tests; their entire future rides on it. This pressure to perform is what results in groups of Chinese students working together to increase their scores on essays, tests, etc.

American students do the same thing. It might be less prevalent because test scores don’t solely determine your potential for getting an opportunity to attend college. But it still happens daily in schools across the United States. If you ask an American student why they cheated, the answer will be similar to their Chinese counterpart: “I didn’t want to fail.” They were under pressure to perform. It’s the environment, not the morality of the students.

Yet this is where we should all thank Jiang Xuejin for his work. By giving Chinese students at his school an environment more suitable for creative and independent learning, he’s helping to bridge the gap every day. For those of us living between both Chinese and American cultures, it’s our duty to do the same. Perhaps we’re not all in a position to do it professionally, but in conversations with others, it’s worth trying to find commonalities between American and Chinese cultures. There are discrepancies, but the things Chinese and American people share – especially students – outnumber their differences.

Kevin Slaten is a master’s degree candidate in the Ohio State University’s Chinese Flagship Program. He has previously worked in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and served as a Fulbright Grantee in Taiwan. His work has appeared in publication including Foreign Policy, the South China Morning Postand Real Clear World. He blogs at