EAST MEETS WEST

The fascinating blend of Chinese culture and western influence -- and what each culture accepts from the other 

One of the most fascinating aspects of traveling abroad as an American is to see first hand the influence of American culture in those places.

My first overseas trip was Germany 3 years ago, where I turned on the TV and saw Danny DeVito overdubbed with a tepid, completely mismatched voice.  In Brazil, half the content on TV and movies was American programming in English with Portuguese subtitles.

These were moderately surprising to me, mostly because I just hadn't thought about it before.  But it certainly is no stretch to expect a great deal of cross-cultural influence between North America and Europe and South America.

But Asia is completely on the other side of the world.  And whereas huge portions of North and South American culture come from Europe, and much of Europe speaks fluent English and the same alphabet, the east is a different animal.  China is home to the oldest culture on earth, so I was not prepared for the pervasive westernization of Chinese culture, even in a rural farm community.  Western influence is visible everywhere in China.

What the West imports from the East:

Electronics

Shoes, fabrics, clothing

Martial Arts

Chinese food

Hard working university students

Eastern religion

Karaoke

 

What the East imports from the West:

Software, Music and Hollywood (mostly pirated)

Pop stars (ie Celene Dion and Lionel Ritchie)

Democratic ideology

CNN

Western fashions / styles

Education

Cigarettes

 

What's so interesting is what passes between the two cultures with little resistance.  I think the key to understanding why is in how things are packaged.

In China, people buy bottled water because tap water makes you sick.

In the states, tap water won't make you sick.  So why do people pay money for bottled water anyway?

It's the packaging.  if it's packaged the same way as all the other $1 soft drinks, it must be worth $1.  It becomes just another soft drink choice.

I think American culture sells in China because it's attractively packaged.

Even in a family and community oriented culture, individualism has strong appeal.  50 years ago chinese citizens wore government issue Mao uniforms; Saturday night in Shigo, at a gathering of locals in a tiny rural farm community, two people there sported Nike jackets.

The rythms of western pop, the rebellion of rock & roll, and the romance of the silver screen all appeal to fundamental human desires, especially when packaged in cellophane and presented as a fantasy which may actually exist in that faraway land, the United States.

Now I’m going to criticize some aspects of both cultures – how each is vulnerable to the others’ ills.  I promise to be equally candid with both sides.  (If anyone is offended by this, you’re too sensitive!)

First, it’s difficult for Asians watching American movies that Hollywood is, in reality, a battlefield of unmitigated greed and the carcases of failed relationships.  While movies portray stories of happily-ever-after, the same actors and actresses are notorious for their inability to find satisfying love, as the tabloids illustrate every day.  Hollywood will do nothing to preserve the loyal bonds of the Asian family, nor will it bring them happiness.

Similarly, during the last 20 years, America has been remarkably open to the ingress of eastern religion.  Americans cynically doubt the historicity and sincerity of its own religious belief systems, and eagerly point out evils which have been perpetrated “in the name of God.”  Conversely, many westerners, without question, rational analysis, or criticism, accept eastern mysticism.

Here’s an example:  A few years ago, Dr. Deepak Chopra, the well known author and speaker, was featured by PBS public television during their fund raising drive, and anyone who donated $150 or more received complimentary Deepak Chopra tapes from PBS.

Categorically, Mr. Chopra is an Eastern Mysticism Televangelist who emphasizes health, wealth, and personal fulfillment.

Had a WESTERN televangelist – i.e. Jim & Tammy Bakker, Robert Schuller or Jimmy Swaggart been featured, they would have been laughed off the show, and PBS would have received truckloads of hate mail and irate phone calls.  Chopra was well received.

Why?

Is the east healthier, wealthier or more personally fulfilled than the West?  Did Mr. Chopra demonstrate that his teachings are more logical, more provable, or more validated by modern medicine?

I doubt it.  In fact, to be frank, some of the teachings of Hinduism are directly attributable to the hundreds of millions of “untouchables,” who are sentenced to a lifetime of poverty and disease under India’s caste system.

The PBS audience accepted Mr. Chopra just as readily as the Chinese make pirated copies of American films.

So how does Mr. Chopra package his health, wealth, and personal fulfillment with eastern religion?  How does he make it acceptable to Americans?

First, remember that all Americans have been exposed to western religion and televangelists.  Even if they have never investigated it in any depth, they at least know what it is.

Eastern religion is new.  It’s half a world away.  It’s just as exotic as a rural farm country in Yunnan province, China is to me.  By its very nature, it defies normal western analysis, at least on the surface.   And for the person who has tried everything in pursuit of health, wealth and personal fulfillment, it offers a refreshing alternative.  Mysticism DOES sell in an analytical world.

Finally, Chopra does not package himself as a “Televangelist,” even though that is essentially what he is.  He packages himself as a doctor, a motivational and inspirational speaker, as an advocate of inner peace and alternative medicine.

Similarly, while Americans have been slowly banishing cigarette smoking from public life, smoking is in full force in China, population 1.2 billion.  Nearly every Chinese man I met was a smoker , and a s a matter of fact, smoking is just as “in” in China as it is “out” in America.  It is rare to sit down for a conversation or meal and not be offered a cigarette.

How are cigarettes packaged?  I will defer to Dr. Knoll, the best professor I ever had in college, for the answer to this question.  He stood in front of a room of 100 university freshmen and held up a Marlboro ad in a magazine.

“What is this ad selling?” he asked the class.

“Cigarettes,” one student replied.

“No.  That’s not what they’re selling.”

“What is this ad selling?” he repeated.

Silence.

“This ad is not selling cigarettes,” Dr. Knoll explained.  “This ad is selling the wild west.”

And of course it was true.  It was selling adventure, manhood, independence and blazing sunsets.  And what you got was an over priced, addictive cancer stick.

Packaging is everything.

While I was in Hong Kong, I was invited to lunch by three ladies from Kowloon City – Kwan, Bobo and Yanica – and subsequently invited to visit their church.

The service was in Cantonese, including the hymns – which were familiar American hymns but with Chinese words.  In this case, packaging is working against the culture, not with it – the church was established with not only a new belief system, but a new music and culture as well.

In my humble opinion, Christianity is counter-cultural enough without the added burden of changing neutral elements within the culture at the same time.

If I were starting a church in a foreign culture, I would find as many elements within that culture that I could harmonize with.  If I did not directly borrow existing melodies, I would at least draw from familiar chord structures and cadences.  Changing the core of someone’s belief system is remarkably difficult, and any help you can get from the existing structure is welcome.

Whatever it is that you sell, you need to identify the elements which harmonize with the culture of your audience, the elements which work against it, and those which are neutral – and which can be brought to your advantage with sufficient care.

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My trip to Asia - the whole story