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. 😛


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