Recently while training a group of young Asian Australians on cross-cultural communication skills, I was jolted out of my brain when one of them asked this question:
“How is it that when I (“I” is a Vietnamese Australian in his 20s) talk to my students’ parents (Asian Australians), I feel uncomfortable, kinda of awkward?”
My on-the-spot reply to Steven and the class:
“This is because your unconscious culture is Vietnamese, shaped by the Confucianistic ethic which your Vietnamese parents had acquired, and in turn passed onto to you and shaped your own unconscious culture. It is a hierarchical culture. Meanwhile, you were brought up in Australia. The predominating culture of Australia is egalitarian. The hierarchical culture (derived from your family Confucianistic ethic) conflicts with the egalitarian culture of Australia which is derived from the Tall Poppy Syndrome as well as the Christian principle: In the eyes of God, all men are created equal.
Therefore when communicating with your Asian Australian customers, you are indecisive as to whether you should treat them in a hierarchical or egalitarian way. If you revert to the Vietnamese child in your unconscious, the hierarchical way would direct you to behave more formally as you are younger than your Asian Australian customers. However, the Australian adult in you is also pushing you to behave more informally and treating these customers as your equals. Hence the Vietnamese child and the adult Australian in you are having a little struggle in your unconscious”.
This Q & A with Steven and his colleagues leads me to contemplate on the Us and Them dilemma confronting all of us Asian Australians no matter which ethnic background we come from: Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, etc. When we talk about Us, who do we mean ? By the same token, when White Anglo Australians use the word “we”or “us”, who do they mean? The other day, some Chinese Australians were discussing this question and one of them said: “When people in Australia use the word “Australian”, they mean White Anglo Australians. Asians don’t use the word “Asian” to refer to ourselves. We usually say Chinese or Vietnamese.”
All these words and ideas are food for further thought indeed especially now when there is so much talk about diversity and inclusion and multi-culturalism, “that we are many but we are one” as the song goes.
An interesting comparison between what I call Western marriages and Chinese marriages in China. I use the term western very loosely to include those in Australia, NZ, UK, USA and Canada for example. I can speak about these countries because I know the marriage and divorce statistics. And of course I can speak about China. China is my specialised study for many years and I was born into a Chinese family. In modern China divorce is common. Since 1978, it is even more common. What are the factors for this high rate of divorce? The factors are to do with dual careers, pressure from in law's, high cost of living, and so on. Much the same as in western societies.
However, in spite of these similarities. the divorce rate is still lower in China. This is because of a number of Chinese women especially in the older age group say in their fifties and sixties did not see that infidelities is their husbands cause a marital breakdown. No, they tell me, when a husband goes off to another woman's bed, it is OK as long as he continues to support his primary family and their children. I am not surprised when these women tell me this. In Chinese culture marriage had been polygamous meaning a man can have more one wife unlike in western societies where monogamy is practised. Deep within the Chinese psyche is still the acceptance of polygamy as a custom. Although Chinese wives, like all wives anywhere, experience jealousy and unhappiness when theeir husbands go prancing off to other women, they often swallow the bitterness and put up with their husbands' concubines or mistresses. Mu own mother had to do this. She took my father's concubine into our home and we children had to call second mother (yee ma in Cantonese). We were told to show due respect. How many of us can welcome our husband's mistresses into our home? I often wonder about that. Can I? Could I ? Well, until we are put to the test, this is a challenging question. My mother's advice to me was: always kill his mistress with kindness. Hmm old Confucian wisdom which could work. In my mother's case, it did. Second mother felt an obligation to leave my father in the face of my mother's kindness to her.My mother reclaimed my father and lived unhappily after.
Dr Moni Lai Storz
I am a cross cultural consultant, writer and specialist in Chinese and other Asian business cultures. I train and educate people on how to navigate and manage Asian business cultures, and give them the how to's regarding doing business in Asia.