China Power

Bridging the Sino-U.S. Divide

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China Power

Bridging the Sino-U.S. Divide

Do American and Chinese students see the world differently? Maybe, but there are ways to bring them together.

I want to thank Kevin Slaten for taking the time to respond to an article I had written discussing how Chinese undergraduates are failing to fit in on American campuses, and the possible consequences of this growing mismatch. I also applaud his efforts at Ohio State University to address this issue by creating and running a program to bring Chinese and American students together for their mutual benefit.

Kevin felt that he was arguing with certain sentiments expressed in my article, and I’m sorry he felt that way because I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that he conveyed in his article: that we could and should do more to ensure cross-cultural understanding on U.S. campuses, and doing so would have many positive effects for Sino-American relations. I wrote my article in response to the New York Times article “The China Conundrum,” which suggested that Chinese don’t fit in because they don’t speak English.

I strongly believe that the issue isn’t language, but the mode of thinking. To understand the differences in perspective between Chinese and Americans, read this passage from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon

“There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles.  One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units.  The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community – which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible.”

To see how this difference manifests itself, consider the issue of how Chinese agents fake essays, recommendation letters, and transcripts for Chinese students who apply to the United States. Americans think it’s wrong because they practice anti-vivisection morality, and focus on the immorality of dishonesty, cheating, and fraud. But Chinese don’t think it’s wrong because they practice vivisection morality, and focus on the utility: everyone benefits, after all. 

We at Peking University High School International Division teach our Chinese students dishonesty, cheating, and fraud are wrong. They believe it, but if forced to explain why, they’ll explain that cheating may help in the short-term, but will hurt in the long-term: they have problems understanding that there’s something inherently wrong with lying.

To overcome this and to help our students better adapt to the United States and to new cultures, we focus on teaching them empathy, the importance of which both Kevin and I can agree with. Teaching empathy (which is essentially to teach the validity of different modes of thinking) is the cornerstone of our program, and to that end we teach Western literature (traditionally the best way to teach empathy) as well as theater and writing, have organized a one-week canoeing trip in the U.S., and are in the process of planning a two-week service learning project to Botswana.

Of course, even American students could benefit from learning empathy. Instead of viewing Chinese students as a particular problem on the American campus, we can imagine them into a powerful teaching resource to build cross-cultural understanding.  Both Chinese and American students need to learn to reach out to each other.    

To start this process, I suggest U.S. colleges and universities organize mandatory week-long camping trips that pair Chinese with American students. In the wilderness, they would learn to focus on their similarities, and this bonding would be a great way for Chinese students to start their American adventure.