The Voice: Summer 2001

The Voice

Cultural understanding takes work

Mike Vanden Bosch

    By now, we may be tired of trading words with China, but perhaps you'll allow me my two bits worth. I don't claim to be an expert on China and certainly not on the mind-set of Chinese government officials. But in the two summers I spent in China, I have gotten to know a couple of Chinese gentlemen, and they taught me a few things about Chinese thinking.
    First, about this matter of apology, let me tell you a short anecdote. As the team leader of a group of American teachers on Hainan Island in 1997, I got to know the Chinese director quite well. We went out for tea in the afternoons a couple of times a week, and he talked frankly with me of his experiences during the cultural revolution. One morning, just to make conversation, I said to him,”Well, Mr. Feng, how's it going today?” Mr. Feng gave me a “hrrumph” to indicate “not well,” so I asked, “What's the matter?”
    “Wife problems,” he said, and told me that he and his wife had gotten into a serious argument about his giving money to help a former student. After I heard him explain their dispute, I thought their argument had grown bigger than it should have, so I offered him some fatherly American advice. I said, “Mr. Feng, why don't you just apologize to your wife, tell her she's right, and get it over with.” “Huh,” Mr. Feng replied in a tone of disgust. “That's an English idea.”
    I got his point quickly. First, Chinese men are not quick to apologize, especially not to their wives. Second, the Chinese do not want people from other countries to patronize them. Though we had become good friends, Mr. Feng interpreted my comment as an American's slightly condescending advice.
    To translate this to our current dispute with China regarding our airplanes flying near their shore, our government can and should take a stand when we are right, but the moment we begin to sound like a teacher lecturing to her student, the Chinese do not hear what we say; they hear the tone, the attitude as much as the content of the words. Of course, most Americans think we are superior in many ways to the Chinese, but the Chinese have been hurt by Western nations throughout their history and do not take kindly to any hint of condescension on the part of American officials.
    Secondly, remember the exchanges between the two countries have been largely in writing, which must then be translated into the other's language. Now I am sure the governments of both countries have very qualified interpreters. But in 1997, I bought birthday cards for my eight grandchildren. Wanting to know what the Chinese script on the cards meant, I went to the best Chinese student in my class and asked her to translate the Chinese script into English. Though she had been teaching English in Chinese middle schools for several years, none of the translations into English made any sense to me-and these were translations from a person who wanted to do a good job, who was very conscientious in her translating. Translating from Chinese or from English to Chinese is a tricky business. We should be very slow to let any spat between our two countries heat up until we are absolutely sure we understand each other.    
    Third, we must remember that even the translators are looking at printed words, not at a human face or listening to the tone of voice. In English we have dozens of ways of apologizing. We could say, “I apologize.” That seems fairly straightforward, but if I said those words to my wife, I could say the words with an audible sigh of disgust and a rolling of my eyes that would undercut the literal meaning of the words completely.    Or I could say, “I'm sorry” or “I'm very sorry." In personal apologies, this would sound more sincere to most Americans than “I apologize,” though the literal meaning is quite close. But again, unless we see the face, hear the tone, perhaps with an emotional crack in the voice or, in contrast, with a hint of derision in the voice, we won't know exactly what the speaker means by his words.
    I hope you begin to see the point. All the parsing of meanings is quite meaningless. What is most important is, first, to respect the other culture. The Chinese, too, are human beings created in God's image. Cartoonists should resist the impulse to dehumanize citizens from a foreign culture with crude lampoons. Such cartoons contribute nothing to the discussion, much to international mistrust, and serve no one.
    Second, journalists should resist the temptation to push our government officials to take either tougher or weaker stands. Our government has a hard enough time keeping the peace without having to deal with citizens stirred by journalists into irrational anger at another country whose ordinary citizens want peace as much as we do. Journalists and we ordinary citizens should be patient and let diplomacy wend its ponderous way to a peaceful solution to any misunderstanding. May God save us from leaders preening like roosters for a fight and from journalists who want to make instead of report the news.

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