In 2007, over spring break, I was blessed enough to travel across the world to China on a music tour with my high school band. When we first got off our 14 our plane flight everyone could tell right away that this experience was going to be vastly different than anyone could have ever imagined. The physical setting in Beijing, China was very populated, polluted, and had a very fast past like that of New York City. We performed at several various locations throughout China including a performance on the Great Wall. But one specific performance we had, definitely stood out above the rest. We played at a high school in Beijing and were the first group to perform.
After, we were sat in the audience with some students from the local high school. We were sat every other seat so the Chinese students could sit in between us. We were given plenty of time to talk and get to know these students and asked lots of questions about their culture, as did they to us. These students were just as nervous and curious, as we were to see how the other side of the world functioned. Some of the students I talked to were very hard to understand from their heavy accents, as I’m sure we were hard to understand as well.
A young girl that I spoke to, I had asked what she did for fun and she quickly replied by telling me that she only had enough free time to have fun during their summer vacations because she spends every extra hour of her time studying for school. She then continued to tell me about how China was so populated that being accepted into a college was near impossible and that practically everyone gets straight A’s because of the high competition with all the other students her age in Beijing.
A friend of hers over heard our conversation and quickly jumped in to agree with her friend. They told me that students who do not do well in school are usually dedicated to either musical instruments, sport activities, martial arts, or something else that they may get a scholarship for or make a career without a college degree. The two young girls continued to tell me that there was such a huge weight on their shoulders because if they did not do well in school it would bring dishonor and would shame their family name.
I compared what they were telling me to how American’s treat education. When I told them that we rarely ever had a lot of homework, usually we spend out time just hanging out with friends or seeing movies on the weekends. They were completely taken back because it was such a farfetched idea to just hang out on the weekends because they spend the weekends catching up on homework they received over the week. This was however, only one huge difference that I noticed between our two cultures.
“Culture is a complex system of symbolic resources, world views, values, and norms of appropriate enactment” says Dr. Morgan in his Principles and Practice in Human Communication book on page 132. Dr. Morgan also mentions “symbolic resources represent the “stuff” of culture in this discursive perspective.” Symbols are what, we as human beings, use to understand the world; they are “anything that stands for something else.” There are two different types of symbols; arbitrariness and conventionality. Arbitrariness means that something is depicted to stand for something else with no particular reason as to why.
An example of an arbitrariness symbol would be a diamond ring; it is only a sparkly rock and also represents a much bigger picture; the commitment of a marriage. Conventionality on the other hand means that groups of people all believe a certain symbol stands for a certain concept. An example of a conventionality symbol could be a cross representing your faith and standing for the belief in God. The resource part of “symbolic resources” just means a resource that people can use. Dr. Morgan uses an example in his book of water. “People throughout the world need to use water in order to survive [so] . . . societal institutions . . . ensure the availability of water and its distribution.”
Different cultural groups may interpret different meanings from another cultural group’s symbolic resource. If an American, for example, was to go up to a Chinese man and say, “Give me five” and then held out his hand to receive a “high-five,” the Chinese man may be completely confused and may say, “five of what?” Worldviews, values and norms are also parts that make up different cultural groups. Worldviews may differ from culture to culture, based on the perception the culture has of the world. Values can also differ in different cultural groups. For example, the Hispanic culture values family and that is why most grandparents live at home with their children or the entire family lives very close to each other whereas other cultures may often move across the country to follow their individual dreams.
When I went to China, the students that I talked to seemed to value education more than the average American teenager did. It was a social norm in their culture to stay at home all weekend and work on their studies until late at night. It was also completely out of their norm when I told them that American teenagers usually did not have a lot to do for their schoolwork on the weekends and spent their time more on leisure. Culture was not, however, the only difference we shared between our cultures, for we also differed in worldviews.
China’s worldview would be described in Morgan’s textbook as “Mastery-Adaptive.” Basically, what that asks is if the culture shapes its environment to fit the people’s specific needs or if they adapt to what the environment offers for the individual. China, I would say, does a little of both. They shaped the environment to fit their specific needs in the beginning. For example, they were in a war and built the Great Wall of China to keep people from crossing their borders. The Chinese also built palaces for royalty, homes for the civilians and made power plants to suit their personal specific needs for electricity. However, they are now forced to adapt to the environment as it is now. Their environment is very populated and polluted. They now have a law in place that each family is to have only one child.
I learned in China that if a family has more than one child it is considered a curse; they are taxed way more than other families and in some dramatic cases their friends and families actually disown them. If a woman were to give birth to twins however, it would be considered a great blessing and the family is then eligible for tax breaks and other various government privileges. I would have to say the America is more of an individualism-collectivism.
The individualism-collectivism is a matter of self worth. It asks the question, “Who am I” and makes you question whether you are a unique individual most importantly or a member of a group of people that make up the country. In America we are created equal under the law but value each individual and admire qualities most of the time that separate you from everyone else. So being a citizen of the United States, it is a constant question that everyone tries to answer, “Who am I?” Culture can be defined several different ways, as it should be.
Every culture is different in one way or another, so how do you define all cultures with one definition? There are a lot of vastly different values, worldviews, traditions, and ways of life in China compared to America. Differences that stretch from different symbols like the flag that symbolizes their country, to government laws and punishments and how they are enforced. The Chinese students that I spoke to were completely taken back at just how much “free time” we had because it simply was not the norm for their culture. I learned a lot about different cultures and the importance of being aware of such cultures. I also believe it is important to travel the world as much as you can so you can get a taste personally of how other cultures function.
Morgan, E, ; G. Armfield, ; E. Lindsey. (2007). Principles and Practice in Human Communication A Reader and Workbook. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.