Culture Shocked (2)

I guess no one reads blogposts that are not about the five comment-required topics, but in case you happen to, please refer to my previous post for context and the first story.

I was a hall advisor in my senior year at Bryn Mawr. Before the semester started we had a hall advisor training, and in one of the sessions we talked about past cases the dorm leadership teams came through.

One of them talked about dealing with students from a different cultural background.

She was a customs person, and at Bryn Mawr customs people are a very important part of the dorm leadership; they help freshmen adjust into traditions, college life, and serve as a valuable resource to them throughout their years at Bryn Mawr.

During the move-in week the year she served as a customs person, there was a dispute between two students on her floor. The two lived in a double room, and one of them was Chinese. The Chinese student arrived on campus first, claimed the bigger room of the double, and when the other student came, she wanted the bigger room as well.

The custom person quoted the Chinese student: “In China there is a saying that the person who arrives first owns the success.” She explains the dispute between the two students and the Chinese student’s refusal of a settlement with this Chinese belief.

The thing is, I happened to know this Chinese student in the story. We actually came from the same city in China. When we went out for lunch the other day, she told me about the same story, but from her point of view.

The two students talked to each other on Facebook before the move-in week, and they agreed on the room assignment prior to their arrival. After the Chinese student moved in, all by herself, the other student showed up, changed her mind and wanted the bigger room. This student came with both her parents. The custom person taking care of that hall was of the same ethnic origin as the this student (sorry I don’t remember which). It was the Chinese student’s first few days in America and she wasn’t that fluent with English.

She felt isolated and insecure; they made an agreement beforehand; and she had already put all the furniture in place and room décor on. That’s why she refused to switch room. And in the end, she gave in; they switched room anyways.

That Chinese saying? No such thing. It doesn’t exist. The closest thing to “the person who arrives first owns the success” I could think of is 先到先得, which is a direct translation to “first come first served”.

I told the story to the hall advisor cohort. The director of the training concluded: “We are not here to judge who was right or who was wrong; the important thing is that we try to put ourselves in other people’s shoes when coming into situations like this.”

I agreed. The Chinese student could be biased. The customs person could be biased. I’m certainly biased in retelling the story. We should definitely consider the situation from both perspectives.

But I’m not satisfied. No.

You can’t just attribute someone’s behavior that you don’t quite understand to their culture. You can’t just think someone is rude, unreasonable, incomprehensive, and refuse to further understand what they are saying and just go ahead and explain that with your false interpretation of their culture. You can’t just be like there is a Chinese saying, and this is why she was stubborn and refused to communicate. No.

Cultural relativism is great. You have to understand other people’s beliefs based on their own culture and not judge them against your own criteria. But you are not Franz Boas. You are not a particularly civilized American anthropologist observing the life of jungle men. Oh these people cannibalize because there is a jungle saying that sponsors this barbarian behavior. We live in this modernized, and by modernized I mean westernized, society, and we share some common beliefs. Not everything should be attributed to cultural differences. And in this everyone tries to be politically correct higher education circle, don’t cover up your bias or stereotypes with cultural relativism.

Change in Higher Ed

One thing I believe should change in (American) university is tuition; although I don’t know how feasible it is. The other day I was on Facebook, and my high school teacher from the States posted that he finally paid off his student loan, after like twenty years.

I’m privileged enough that my parents paid for my tuition. As an international student, if I don’t have proof of funding for my college education, be it internal (from me myself or from my family) or external (from a grant or scholarship), I won’t be issued an I-20, or permission to study in United States. This country initially made of immigrants seems to have great fear of foreigners trying to stay here illegally.

As an international student, it is also illegal for me to work outside of campus, and obviously on campus work is not profitable enough for me to be financially independent. I graduated college one year early because I felt bad spending their money as an adult and didn’t want to rely on them any more.

Even now I look back on how much my parents put on my education, I still feel ridiculous. Higher education is important and it changed a lot of aspects of my life, but is it worth so much money? If I was back at age 15 and making the decision of attending an international high school to prepare myself for studying abroad or a traditional high school, I will 100% chose the latter. This “debt” to my parents also affected a lot of my life decisions – I can’t be unemployed or do jobs that make little money but important (like high school teachers); they’ve spent 2 million yuan on me. I have to do things that make it worth.

When MOOCs first came out I thought it would be the future of higher ed. I mean, a lot of universities are doing their own online classes. Under this quarantine classes are forced to transform into an online format, and some of them are working just fine. If in the end one is enrolled in college and taking most classes online anyways, what is the point of paying so much tuition?

But turns out MOOCs are not working that well. Coursera provides paid, verified certificate for course completion, but probably not a lot of companies acknowledge that. The intro classes are fine, but hardly any advanced level classes. One needs to actually work in a lab for some science classes. Face-to-face communication between the professor and students are important for seminars. There is still a long way to go for MOOCs.

As far as I know Virginia Tech is not issuing refunds of spring tuition to students, because “instructional costs have gone up after the university moved nearly 6,000 of its classes online“. Business Insider outlined a bright future of higher ed: “it’s (tuition) only going to get worse.”


Culture Shocked (1)

I attended an international high school in China whose purpose is to send students abroad for college, and I thought I was well prepared for any collision between the upcoming four years of American college life and my values constructed through my past 18 years of living in China.

Of course I was wrong. But really I wasn’t shocked by how bold, modern, or liberal this American culture is, but what a horrible mess the Americans interpret the Chinese culture into.

TL;DR: don’t use cultural difference to cover up for your racist shit.

The first culture shock I experienced was during the summer break of my freshman year. I applied to do some research work in the summer, and before that I would have to do some research ethics training with other summer science research fellows.

To get things straight: cheating is big in China. A few relevant examples for you: there are no SAT test centers in China because of *systematic* cheating. Prior to the year I took SAT some of my friends’ scores were either delayed or canceled due to people cheating in the same month. In my year, I heard of at least two of my classmates buying answers for their SAT and that got them into decent American colleges.

Therefore, this research misconduct training started with the instructor giving case studies to us in which some names are clearly Chinese. She also continued with her interpretation of Chinese culture in a pretentiously understanding way: I know in China plagiarism is a tradition, but when doing research here you must not plagiarize or manipulate your data.

I immediately understood what she was talking about, and immediately realized she was wrong. “In China plagiarism is a tradition” – nope, first, that wasn’t plagiarism; second, that was a literary tradition, not a tradition.

In classic Chinese literature, poets quote their predecessors without including any reference or providing any context, and that’s called 用典 (I don’t know the exact translation, but some dictionaries give me the word “allusion” if that helps you understand); these poets don’t, at all, credit themselves for the quotations, and fellow poets and scholars read just as much as they do to know that the quotations came from someone else.

典故, or allusion, could originate from mythology, historical events, a paraphrase of someone else’s poems or essays, or sometimes a word-to-word copy and paste, etc. The last case I mentioned might be where “in China plagiarism is a tradition” comes from; but no, this interpretation is wrong. This form of 用典 is totally different from dishonesty or violation of academic ethics: first, the poets don’t claim that as their original idea; second, in fact, later scholars making annotations and comments of literature would always point out where the 典故 comes from.

Here is a quick example. My favorite poet 李贺 in Tang Dynasty wrote “衰兰送客咸阳道,天若有情天亦老”; In Song Dynasty 石曼卿 modified it to “天若有情天亦老,月如无恨月长圆”; 欧阳修, a famous politician and poet in Song Dynasty quoted this line in his poem as “伤怀离抱,天若有情天亦老,此意如何,细似轻丝渺似波”; 贺铸 again in Song Dynasty: “不知我辈,可是蓬蒿人 (this line is from the greatest Chinese poet of all time, 李白),衰兰送客咸阳道。天若有情天亦老”. Skipping numerous cases in between, right to the People’s Republic of China in 1949, 毛泽东 or Chairman Mao, quoted this line in his poem as “天若有情天亦老,人间正道是沧桑”. In all cases the original meaning has been slightly or drastically changed. Sorry that if you don’t know Chinese you won’t be understanding any of these poems, but here’s my point: 用典 as a tradition in Chinese literature, is different from “in China plagiarism is a tradition.” Very different. Nothing to do with my classmate cheating in their SAT, or researchers committing misconduct in their studies.

I don’t think the instructor of that research ethics training is being blatantly racist though. In this higher ed setting, anything politically correct is on the surface maintained correct. She probably doesn’t think she is racist, at all. It was more like taking cultural relativism too far: plagiarism is not right in United States. People in China practice plagiarism, a lot. Shouldn’t be judging Chinese behavior against American standard. Trying to find a root of this plagiarism in Chinese culture. Plagiarism is a tradition in China. But here you are in United States, stop cheating.

But that IS racism, the very meaning of racism – one race is superior than the other. The cheating Chinese and in this land of America in which plagiarism is strictly prohibited.

I have another example but as I write this down I gets so sick of it so I will save it for a later blogpost. If anyone’s reading it (it’s not an assigned topic so I doubt any) sorry for this abrupt ending. 😛