Yang: Blending Cultural Spices

Blending Cultural Spices

By ELENA YANG
Los Alamos

I certainly need an antidote to my recent columns, which were marked by too much negativity. And since I haven’t come across anything terribly exciting in my usual haunts, I’ll share a personal story. 

Sometime after I received my PhD, I was invited by Simmons College to give a talk on diversity, detailed topic to be my own design. I decided to focus on “what it’s like to be a female immigrant in this country.”  The organizer was concerned that this seemed a well-trodden topic, until I gave them my main points, whereupon they welcomed this different perspective. After all, it was about diversity, which to me is always about thought worlds. 

The talk was scheduled for early evening. I arrived early afternoon. After checking out the seminar room and talking with my hosts, I had plenty of time to spare. I decided to treat myself to a trip to the Art Museum. Armed with information for a taxi, I leisurely went through the museum. When I was ready to head back to the college and called the taxi company, I was told that given the traffic hour, they couldn’t predict when I might get a taxi … probably more than ½ hour. The public transit was jam packed, and I wasn’t sure which stop I’d have to get off.

I started walking and asked at least a handful of people for directions. After the fourth response being the same “It’s a long walk,” I was about to kick someone. Even though I wasn’t in heels, I was wearing dressy shoes and a long march was not feasible.  

While frantically thinking of other alternatives, I left messages left and right with the College that I might be late (cell phones were not yet ubiquitous). 

Out of sheer desperation, I approached a standing car on the opposite of the museum, with a female driver, with a plea, “I am a guest speaker at Simmons College, but I am stranded here without any means to reach the campus in time.  Would you mind giving me a ride, and I’ll compensate you?” The woman was clearly taken aback and strongly declined. I even showed her the content of my tote bag to assure her my lack of violent means. However, in a US metropolitan city, I understood her extreme reluctance, so I began to retreat. Just as I stepped back, she began to move her belongings on the passenger seat to the back.  And the ice broke; I could have kissed her hand.

Here were the main points of my seminar:

1. Chinese are taught to not stick out like a sore thumb. Be modest, and don’t draw attention to yourself. Yet, being a minority in this country and in most professional workplaces (at least then), most Chinese individuals would automatically be a “sore thumb,” commanding attention. 

2. Chinese culture emphasizes the collective. In fact, our language is telling. 人, ren, means people. We don’t have a direct word for “individual.” Instead, we add the “unit of one” in front of 人,個人, ge ren, to convey the notion of “individual.” This is key to understanding the cultural psyche. Every individual is defined by his/her networks of family, relations, and friends; without these networks, the person is to be pitied at best, distrusted or rejected at worst. 

3. What this individual-network nexus means is that Chinese rely on networks for just about everything, especially for solving problems, overcoming dilemmas or obstacles, or resolving conflicts. Cold calls are only for desperate persons.

In lieu of my seminar topic and thesis, you can see the irony of my side trip in Boston. I made a grand entrance to the seminar, 5 minutes late. I was the speaker and already by default the center of attention, but that entrance (with people worrying about my safety) totally nullified my point #1. I had no network to call for help while circling around the Art Museum. And finally, I made a cold call; I certainly was desperate. To cap it all, the lovely woman who gave me a ride was not American-born; she came from Dominican Republic. 

My audience was impeccably kind and warmly received my talk. Many in the audience were either Chinese immigrants or American born Chinese. And several came up to me, after the talk, to thank me for verbalizing their feelings. 

Truth be told, I was never a typical Chinese even when I was in my birthplace, Taiwan. I just happened to manage to stick out like a thumb, although without being sore, most of the time. My talk actually made me more aware of the beauty of being an immigrant in this country: I can “choose” elements from different cultures to create who I am. I’ve always thought that America’s “melting pot” is not so much about melting various cultures into homogeneity. Rather, it is more about letting every individual “meld” various cultures within herself/himself. In such a context, the concept of “culture” transcends boundaries, be they national, professional, organizational or almost anything else you can think of. Spices in life, or food, make for interesting taste. Don’t you think?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

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