Friday, January 17, 2014

Why don't Chinese hang out with other people?

(Below is a highly condensed version of a draft article.)

One of the comment complaints about Chinese students in the US are that they only hang out with themselves, and that they aren't interested in other peoples. Variations of this complaint abound online. I personally recall seeing such comments mentioned in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Danwei, and China Law Blog. Are these complaints fair?

On one hand, it is unfair (and possibly xenophobic) to blame Chinese or any other international student group for spending more time with themselves than with other student groups. People naturally incline toward people of similar interests. Probably hardest to cross are lines between peoples with different ideologies. Do you often see LGBT student groups hosting friendly social events with conservative evangelical Christian groups? Different cultural and linguistic backgrounds create ideological differences that are likewise difficult to bridge. And it's simply more comfortable to spend time with people you can converse with more easily.

On the other hand, Chinese are and will continue to be closely connected in ways that are difficult for Americans to understand, and vice versa. The Chinese view of friendship carries with it obligations and duties that would make most Americans uncomfortable. They might even conclude that Chinese friendships are superficial and selfish. (Indeed, even the words obligation and duty in English carry negative connotations.) In contrast, the lack of these obligations in US friendships likewise cause Chinese to often conclude that US friendships are superficial and selfish.

Fundamentally, this is the difference between individualistic and collectivist worldviews. American friendships vary based on time and place because Americans fundamentally believe that to survive they must take care of themselves and cannot (or should not) rely on anyone else. Chinese friendships remain regardless of time and place, as Chinese believe that survival requires the help of the group; the individual must rely on the group just the group relies on him or her.

Chinese culture has always been family and clan focused. In modern society, the clan extends to classmates and colleagues. In time of national adversity or when abroad, the clan includes all Chinese. Why do Chinese so easily group together when abroad? All things being equal, why don't they reach out and make new non-Chinese friends at university, just like all the US students? In a sense, while we see new Chinese students in the US as new individuals in a sea of new individuals, they see the other Chinese as friends they simply haven't met yet: "brothers from other mothers."

What to do? Should concerned administrators sit back and do nothing? What about concerned students?

Don't give up. Engage Chinese students. Invite them to take part in activities. Remember that in the absence of strong group culture (e.g. classmates with whom students take all or most classes together), although most Chinese want these friendships with US students, they are uncertain how to make and maintain such friendships. You can bridge the gap.

Oh, and be ready for what may seem like unreasonable requests. It means they want your friendship.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @MatthewTShowman

No comments:

Post a Comment