By Dianne Hofner and Wei Wei
"I like watching Hollywood movies… the lifestyle they depict is so different from the one I have that I get totally attracted to it. If I use one word to describe that kind of lifestyle, it is independence. In those movies,
American students begin doing part-time jobs at a very early age and continue to do so until they finish college and step into society. They seldom ask their parents for money. When they want something, they work to earn the money for it. I want to be independent, too. But I don't have time to work. Besides, my parents don't encourage me to work. They give me enough money and ask me to concentrate on my studies, as most other Chinese parents do."
"It seems to me that American college students don’t spend much time studying. They finish their assignments really quickly and spend the rest of the time drinking or partying with their friends. They are lazy students and crazy players. I can’t tell exactly why I have such an impression. I guess it’s mostly from the movies, TV series, or magazines; I have watched or read them."
What is a typical Chinese view of Americans And, what do those perceptions tell us about ourselves, whether we are Chinese, American, or another nationality?
A common image of American college students in the minds of many Chinese is that they are financially independent and academically lazy, as indicated in the two quotations above. Does that tell us anything about Chinese-American relations?
Perceptions are one of the ways in which we experience the world around us. They influence how we behave, and they serve as windows into our deeper values, beliefs and assumptions. Misperceptions frequently lead to misunderstanding, frustration, or even conflicts. If we want to communicate effectively with people from a different culture, it is important to get to know their perceptions, attitudes and values. It is also important to reflect on our own perceptions and values, and to realize that the ways in which we see the world are not necessarily shared.
A recent study of 150 Chinese college students (The Role of Media, Self-Perception and Perception of "the Other" in Intergroup Relations — A Research on Chinese College Students' Perceptions of American College Students) asked them to write five words that first come to mind when they think of US Americans. The ten most common Chinese perceptions of Americans were: creative, independent, open, free, passionate, lazy, lively, active, idle, and vigorous.
Do these echo your own perceptions? Or, are they different? What are the sources of our perceptions? One source is, of course, the media — movies or magazines like this one that you are reading. Media are especially important in image formation between China and the U.S., because geographical distance makes other types of cultural knowledge acquisition (travel and interpersonal communication) difficult or infrequent. To a certain extent, the media shape, unconsciously, the way people think about foreign cultures with which they have little contact.
Study results indicate that while the Internet is considered by Chinese college students the most popular media source to obtain information concerning Americans, English-language movies and TV series are considered the most influential and credible media sources. Although the images they get from the media are stereotyped, it is helpful to keep these stereotypes in mind when we communicate with Chinese, because that's how they perceive Americans, and they will act or react on the basis of their perceptions.
Beyond popular media, cultural values and assumptions also play a role in determining how we perceive other people. Let's take the example we used above, that Chinese perceive American students to be financially independent and academically lazy. Why would this be? Would Dutch students perceive Americans in this way Would Senegalese? Our perceptions of others often times say more about us than they do about the others.
Cultural Detective® China explains that one of the core Chinese values is "prosperity: the goal of all who are willing to work hard and take chances."It would therefore seem obvious that, because many Chinese value prosperity, they would notice it fairly quickly in others, and they would value any hard work put in to obtain it. Likewise, they would naturally notice any lack of the hard work that they expect to see.
Because Chinese also value family and relationships, the American students' self-reliance probably strikes them as unusual and, in this case, remarkable. "The grass is always greener" can be a true aphorism in cross-cultural communication. Behavior that is so different from our own can seem admirable and bring out an inner longing to break free of societal norms.
Take a few moments to think about your own perceptions of Chinese and Americans. What can these perceptions tell you about your own values, beliefs, and assumptions? In what ways are you a unique individual, and in what way are you a "cultural being," influenced by the norms of your nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, or professional training?