Not only is it our experiences in life that shape who we are, it is also the culture in which we are brought up. For it is our culture that affects the way we think, how we react to things and others, and our perception of things. This shapes our values and also our goals in life. This also applies to Easterners who live in the West and vice versa.
For even if you were to grow up in another country and culture and learn how to interact socially within that culture, you will still not have an understanding of the family interaction and intimate culture, simply because you have never been privy to it. Therefore, when it’s a question of even dating someone from another culture, be aware of differences that could lead to conflict later on.
Penny was from a Chinese background and grew up in Australia. Andrew and Penny met and got on very well together. As they got closer and more familiar with each other, Penny started to relax and began to interact with Andrew more like how she would with her own family. This was when the problems started.
It has been the long-held view by many Westerners that, since the Chinese do not as a rule say “thank you”, they are not very polite as a people and culture. The truth is that being polite is a very important part of Chinese social interaction with each other, it’s just that their concept of “politeness” works in an entirely different way. Their interaction is based on mutual understanding and action, rather than on verbal communication as the Western engagement is.
This has its roots in the previously mentioned concept of yin and yang, or balance, and this is a foundation of Chinese society in one form or another. If you were to take or accept something, then you also need to return something of equal value. Otherwise, nature will do it anyway, in the form of you suffering some misfortune in order to achieve balance. Therefore it’s in your best interest to “payback” on your own terms by doing something in return. A verbal “thank you” is a good thing to say but not the most important thing. Everything is just understood and nothing needs to be said.
When you are giving, the recipient also gives back and that’s all about being polite. This is also the reason why many Western men say they love Asian women because they are so “giving”, without really understanding that this is how the culture is, and the expectation is that they also give back just as much, albeit in a different way or form, so balance is achieved and the expectation of politeness is fulfilled. This is only a very brief and superficial summary of the philosophy, but to do it justice is way beyond the scope of this Article.
As Penny and Andrew progressed from dating to having a relationship, Penny stopped saying the normal “thank you”, in line with how she communicated with her own family members, for she started to see Andrew as family. Andrew didn’t understand why she stopped saying “thank you” and started feeling Penny wasn’t as nice to him anymore even though she was still polite to others. And he also felt she was ordering him about.
Penny was none the wiser, but she did all the wonderful things for him like take care of him when he was ill and cook for him often, and Andrew enjoyed that and liked that she was a “giving” person.
However, when Andrew returned from an overseas work trip, Penny wasn’t happy as not only did he not bring her back something, but he also didn’t even ask her if she would like anything. Another thing that made her cross was that, even though he worked at a cosmetics company he never even thought to ask if she would like anything when he could get them free, especially since she did so much for him unasked.
To Penny, everything she did for Andrew was what a partner naturally should do and she expected Andrew to do the same, and she was angry that he didn’t. He should have been mature enough to know what needed to be done, but he was just so rude and didn’t! Penny felt that he was just so selfish and sat back accepting everything she did for him without reciprocating. Basically, he was a taker, without giving anything back. Andrew didn’t understand what was expected of him, and couldn’t understand how she can be so giving (which he enjoyed), but couldn’t do something simple like say “thank you”. After all, he was polite to her by always saying “thank you”, why couldn’t she say it in return?
Just as Penny perceived politeness with family members as reciprocating in kind, words alone such as a “thanks you” from Andrew meant nothing without the action to back them up. To her, Andrew should have shown his appreciation for what she had done for her by doing something in return, and the obvious thing was to ask her if she needed anything when he was in a position to provide it easily.
To her, Andrew was rude, immature and selfish, while Andrew being a Westerner had no idea that’s how the Eastern family interaction worked, and that underneath it all, Penny regarded him as close as a family member.
This is a significant issue of culture clash because it arises when the relationship is close, and it’s one not easily overcome by trying by explaining to the other partner, as they would have no common frame of reference in order to grasp the concepts, and understand why they act in the way they do.
The differences are far more than skin-deep, and having more superficial things in common like the same interests isn’t enough to bridge those differences. When cross-cultural couples use the usual spiel about how much they have in common, with the same interests, like the same movies and music, this means that they haven’t encountered the real challenges yet.
These different approaches and perceptions of how you interact in personal relationships go even beyond the usual expected problems of what their family and society would think, as these are issues between the couple themselves.