Cross-cultural harmony, cross-cultural marriage: Can foreigners ever really “understand China”?

The question of mutual cross-cultural understanding — generally and in marriage — came up this week in two separate places. Cindy wrote about culture shock and cross-cultural understanding in marriage (as part of her on-going series about cross-cultural marriage — linked below). In a blogger interview we did for a China travel website they asked if we thought foreigners could ever really “understand China.” I love the way both articles tackle the same general theme from two very different angles.

First, here’s an excerpt from Cindy’s Our Unique Bond #4 (I really hope you’ll go read the whole thing on her blog; it’s fantastic and I cut out some of the best parts here):

Culture shock is the pruning process. It’s the Good Friday before Easter Sunday. It’s the dark night before the dawn. It’s the pain before the gain. But let me be clear on one thing: though culture shock is inevitably painful, it is not inevitable. We experience culture shock only if and when we actually desire to engage with another culture in a meaningful way. I personally know couples who marry cross culturally who don’t make an effort to engage in their spouse’s culture and I suspect they don’t have culture shock issues in their marriage. Just as an expat can live in another culture and exist purely in an expat bubble without engaging local culture, they too, won’t encounter culture shock issues.

And here I break the bad news to people considering cross culture marriages. Gulp. In my humble opinion, you WILL have to make sacrifices and be ready to lose aspects of your culture if you want to make your marriage work. […] There are parts of my Chinese self, that I can never fully share and relate, with J. Though I try with every effort throughout our marriage. I believe it is ultimately healthy for the relationship to recognize and come to accept this. If you find yourself in a cross cultural relationship, you will have to decide the things you value in your relationship is worth the cost. In my case, I saw a character I admired, a common vision for life, and a deep friendship that bonded us even despite cultural differences.
[…]
Easier said than done. But it is worth doing. Please don’t be the kind of couple who just is content with living life according to one spouse’s culture. You are robbing yourself of the gift of being in a cross cultural marriage. J and I have learned so much about each other, and it has provided us with the invaluable skill of being able to encounter people who are very different from us with respect. And we hope to pass this on to our children to help them navigate themselves in our increasingly diverse yet interconnected world.

Here’s one of my answers from the travel website (China Blogger Spotlight: Getting intercultural with Joel and Jessica from China Hope Live):

Do you think [China/Chinese culture] is something a foreigner can ever truly understand?
Yes and no — it depends what you mean by “truly understand.” I definitely think it’s possible for people from vastly different cultures, like East Asian and Euro-American cultures, to have a deep and satisfying mutual understanding. We can also learn lots about ourselves and our own cultures through the perspectives of people from other cultures. Chinese people have the opportunity, to see things about Canadian culture and society (for example) that Canadians can’t see because Canadians are in their own culture and therefore they are too close to see some things. And the same works in reverse: outsiders in China can see things about Chinese culture and society that Chinese people can’t see because Chinese people don’t have an outsider’s perspective on their own culture. So there’s lots we can learn from one another, not just about one another’s cultures, but also about our own cultures.

Sometimes when people say “understand China” what they really mean is “accept and agree with whatever ‘China’ says or does.” Sometimes when these people hear a foreigner express a “non-Chinese opinion” (especially about sensitive topics), they disregard the foreigner by saying “they just don’t understand China” or “they’re just using foreign thinking to understand China.” I think that kind of attitude and thinking is basically nonsense, and it doesn’t promote mutual understanding. “Understanding” and “thinking and feeling the same” are not the same thing.

The differences between Chinese and Euro-American cultures are very, very deep; often I think people don’t realize how different we really are. Cultural differences are fascinating. However, I think the things we have in common are even deeper, more profound, and more important that our differences. I really believe that it’s possible for Chinese and lÇŽowàis (老外s) to have solidarity that is stronger and more meaningful than our differences.

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