American vs. Chinese: showing emotion & the China smile

I decided I would start a series of posts about general cultural differences I experience daily.  Obviously there are exceptions to these but the first one is spurred by an exchange I had with a new coworker the other day.

Culturally the Chinese are a very stoic people.  They do not show emotion easily and are rather uncomfortable with any overly emotional gestures, happy, sad, angry, love, relief, hurt, etc.  Americans on the other hand, whether the person would describe themselves as an “emotional” person or not (This is where I’m going to sidestep my soapbox about there being nothing wrong with having the capacity to feel deeply.) are very comfortable speaking their mind and displaying their opinion or attitude about any given situation within respectful (or sometimes disrespectful) parameters.

This week has been extremely difficult with my kids.  They have seemed to hit their stride in bad decision making.  I’ve been hoping it can be blamed on coming off of a week off school or the change in the weather or something and they will snap back to being only reasonably misbehaved 7 and 8 year olds.  Yesterday between a series of unfortunate events and a series of bad decisions by my kids, by lunch I was tapped out mentally and emotionally.  After arriving to the cafeteria and finally sitting down with a heavy sigh, a new Chinese coworker, JM, asked me, “Kristin, are you ok?”, I just looked at him and before I could say anything, tears suddenly appeared in my eyes without my consent.  I assured him I was fine and that it had just been a hard day, but it made him extremely uncomfortable.  His response? “Uh, here, please eat some soup…it will make you feel better..please just eat the soup.”  Sadly, the thought of eating that soup made more tears appear.

Later I retold the story to my other Chinese female coworker and told her that I scared JM at lunch with my involuntary tears.  She responded, “But why were you crying?  Do you need a rest?” If I needed a rest, I would have been yawning.  I was feeling overwhelmed in the moment by things going on at work and outside of it.  The outward expression, or even discussion, of feelings is a very foreign concept here.

Another example is during a staff meeting early on in the year, I strongly disagreed with something that was being said by an American coworker and felt an urgency that it be addressed in open forum right then.  I did so in a respectful but firm way and throughout the dialogue back and forth, I could see a look of sheer shock across my Chinese coworkers faces.  My coworker and I discussed the issue and worked out a solution with the input of some others, but afterwards my Chinese coworker told me that was the most uncomfortable meeting for her (and probably the others) because in their culture they NEVER question anything being said by “the boss”.

The Chinese way is to keep your head down, keep quiet, and flash the China smile.  The china smile is what is offered ALL THE TIME by everyone in any given situation.  From insult to compliment and everything in between the Chinese always respond with a close lipped gentle smile that communicates everything from true humility to “if a smile could take you out…”.  I’m sure that somewhere in the middle of the two cultures is best, but I also know myself enough to know I’m a feeler, I own that and I think about this quote from Anne Lamott:

“Some people have a thick skin and you don’t.  Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world.  The cost is high but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams.  However you’re not going to feel that a lot…just hang on.”



2 thoughts on “American vs. Chinese: showing emotion & the China smile

  1. Kristin, -Hey just found your blog — hope you are having an experience of a lifetime! thinking of you back in McKinney Texas.

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