Author Archive

Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters

by Joe

Anyone who has not been in a coma for the past 12 months can speak to the challenges of 2020. I cannot add much to the macro review of last year which has not already been said, repeated and then responded to.  A few friends and of course our loyal Word 4 Asia Consulting clients have asked me “How is it going for you”?  Word4Asia has served a liaison between Western nonprofits and parallel organizations in China. Our primary roles are advising but also bridge building.  When our friends at SARA, in Beijing, wrote to ask what the view of religious people in America thought about events occuring  iin China, specifically in light of the world-wide pandemic, we gladly responded. After all, building greater understanding between the peoples of our two great countries is as important to us now as it has ever been.  

Our work continues to be about building relationships across the small ocean which divides us.    How do we interpret recent events in Hong Kong?  What is the truth regarding the Covid virus, it’s origins and current status?  How has American rhetoric towards trade and human rights impacted Anglo-Sino relations?  What do the most recent religious policies and regulations mean?  What is behind the recent focus on Sinicization?  Will it permanently alter the shape and ethos of the five legal religions in China?  Making all the previous questions more intriguing is the lack of international travel. While absence may make the “heart grow fonder” it also has potential to create unwarranted suspicion and misunderstanding as well.

For building better understanding cooperation with the people of China, there has never been a better option than face-to-face dialogue.  When will this be possible again?  Frankly, Word 4 Asia has no answer, but, so far, neither does anyone else. Until Covid is under control, full routine flights between the USA/China are not going to happen.  No one is more disappointed than the team at Word 4 Asia, and we thank our clients for their continued understanding during this difficult time. While we live in this uncertain reality, 2020 was a good year for Word4Asia.  We were able to assist our clients in the completion of their positive and worthwhile objectives in spite of the challenges. I give credit to the following dynamics for being able to report this.  

  • Our exceptional staff who understand China far better than I ever can. 
  • 25 years of personal relationships in China.  Trust is built over  a lengthy period of time. When relationships move from trust to love, the bond is never truly broken. 
  • Clients who actually listen to counsel and have long-term objectives. A journey of a thousand miles not only begins with the first step, but sometimes we must take a rest or even a couple steps back.
  • Many wise advisors in China who give us invaluable insights. They include business persons, politicians, pastors, party members and friends. Their combined words will paint the China mosaic for us as we continually improve our ability to listen well. 
  • Clients who genuinely seek to be “friends” of China and will patiently learn to look at China through Chinese eyes. 
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 For almost 25 years now, Word 4 Asia has kept our commitment to remain transparent and legal in all our transactions and dealings. When our clients come under our umbrellas, they also make a commitment to this path. Do we face frustrations?  Surely.  Do we wish the entire world could share our conclusions, thoughts, values and opinions?  Of course. Such is in our humanity, this insipient arrogance.  Bridge building is hard work. In the past year it might appear that both sides of the Pacific Ocean have shifted their shoreline a bit.  Word 4 Asia will assess the shifts, and find the bed-rock upon which we can establish a stable bridge for the next decade.  If your organization is seeking help to bridge the China divide, please do not hesitate to contact us. Word 4 Asia is looking forward to another great year in 2021.  Perhaps you can join us in flight when the skies are full again with happy travelers.   

Dr. Gene WoodPresident/Founder

Unwrapping Christmas in China

by Joe

For unto us, a Child is born!

It’s Christmas all over the world right now.  In nations across the globe, this is a special time, marked by large and small efforts to make the days a little happier, to exchange gifts – tokens of love and friendship – and to enjoy special customs and favorite foods.

Christmas in America

In America, and much of the Western world, we continue to honor the traditional remembrance of a special birthday, some 2,020 years ago that many of us believe changed the world and our own personal destinies.  The Christmas holiday is steeped in hundreds of years of imagery, favorite songs, and celebrations that most of us hold dear in our hearts and memories.  We remember our childhoods, and those of our children and we look forward to sharing it with our grandchildren every year.  Homes are decorated with nativity scenes and beautiful Christmas trees and decorations.  Our kitchens are filled with the smells of home-made Christmas cookies, and baked hams and the strains of Christmas carols ring through the air.

Many countries share our customs, and even countries that were not traditionally part of the Judeo-Christian tradition still reflect some of the sparkle and good will that is part of the season.  In America, and for at least the last sixty years, our observance of Christmas has increasingly trended toward the commercial side.  The Chinese are keenly aware of the important role their nation plays in manufacturing many of the items that wind up wrapped, and underneath our Christmas trees.  In fact, recently, Chinese state media bragged that China makes American Christmas possible. A quote from an article in China Daily said, “American fellows, it is Christmas time, a time to wake up, have a strong cup of coffee, and see what gifts a Chinese Santa Claus really delivers.” 

Historical Roots

To understand some of what follows next, its important to recall that China’s relationship with the west has not always been what, I believe, either side would have preferred.  Several hundred years of western colonialism have taken a toll on modern relationships with China.  Several years ago, Word4Asia conducted a symposium for our clients to help cultivate a better understanding about the historic reasons why the Sino-Western relationship has, periodically, been fraught with so much tension.  We concluded that meeting by stating that the West still has a great deal to learn from our historic mistakes with China; we hope our efforts at Word4Asia continue to improve mutual understanding between both sides. 

China’s Un-Easy Relationship with Christmas

China’s leadership wants to protect their nation’s culture while continuing to strive toward a better quality of life for its people.   This has meant different things at different times over the last roughly eighty years.  In the years prior to the Great Leap Forward, Christmas was not widely celebrated.   The first public mention of Christmas in the People’s Daily was in 1949.  The mention came in an article celebrating Josef Stalin’s 70thbirthday; a section from it follows:

December Twenty-First,

Is the day you were born,

And for all the people of the world it is “Christmas.”

Comrade Stalin,

You deliver precious gifts to the world,

You offer wheat and warm coats to the hungry and cold,

You call the exiles home,

You give culture to the benighted,

You liberate those who have lost their freedom!

For several decades afterwards, references to Christmas in the Chinese press were usually negative; an attempt to illustrate the disparity between what Americans said they were celebrating in their culture, versus the ‘reality’ of life in America.  For instance, sections from American newspapers, such as the following from 1957, were re-printed in China: 

According to a report in the New York Times on December 27 last year, 883 people died in America during the Christmas holiday through various accidents. Among these, there were 705 deaths attributed to car accidents, 54 to fires, and 123 deaths from other accidents. The report said this was the highest number of deaths in the history of the Christmas holiday.”  

In 1973, the People’s Daily newspaper reported, “The political, economic and social crises in the capitalist world, the mounting problem of inflation, and other ills inherent in the capitalist system, are all flaring up. The oil crisis has intensified the chaos. People everywhere are enduring a ‘dark and cold’ Christmas and New Year.

Celebrating Christmas in China

Word 4 Asia extends peace and goodwill to our friends
and colleagues in China as well as hopes for a prosperous 2021.

Not so long ago, China embraced a commercial form of the Christmas holiday.  

The Chinese government began allowing a more commercialized version of Christmas to take root, starting in the 1990s.  The Chinese experience with Christmas was that the more popular Christmas became, the less Christian was the observance.  During most of the first two decades of the present century, China’s freeze-out of Christmas was actually ‘thawing’.  While definitely celebrated as a commercial holiday, Christmas was definitely in the air in many of China’s largest cities.  There, Christmas was celebrated like we celebrate Valentine’s Day; a romantic holiday for young people and a time where young couples gave gifts to each other.  

Many of the commercial trappings that we see here in America were also in use in China during this time.  For example, it was common to see Christmas Trees, lights and other decorations on the streets and in department stores  (Christmas trees in homes was never common place). Santa Claus, called ‘Shen Dan Lao Ren’ (translation: Old Christmas Man), was frequently found in shops and it was not infrequent to see mail carriers in Santa costumes while delivering the mail before Christmas!  In many depictions, Santa was often shown jamming out on a saxophone! Typical ways to celebrate the holiday included seeing a movie, going to a karaoke bar, or shopping.  During this period, Christmas Eve was the biggest shopping day of the year.

The Chinese also have their own translations of our Western Christmas greetings.  For instance:

  • Happy/Merry Christmas;  Sheng Dan Kuai Le or 圣诞快乐’ in Mandarin and ‘Seng Dan Fai Lok or 聖誕快樂’ in Cantonese. 
  • We wish you a Merry Christmas; Wǒmen zhù nǐ shèngdàn kuàilè (我们祝你圣诞快乐).
In Chinese, the term for a peaceful, quiet evening sounds like the Mandarin word for apples. Of course, “Silent Night” is closely related to a quiet, peaceful night and the custom of giving apples as presents on Christmas became popular. This carried on through the mid 2010’s.

Another Christmas tradition that become popular during this period was giving apples. Many stores sold apples wrapped up in colored paper or festively printed cellophane. The custom formed due to the audible similarity in the Chinese language between ‘Christmas Eve’, “Ping’an Ye” (平安夜), meaning peaceful or quiet evening, which has been translated from the carol ‘Silent Night’ and the Mandarin word for apple, “píngguǒ” (苹果) which also sounds like their word for peace.

Like American traditions, those that celebrate Christmas in China have a feast. Rather than turkey and stuffing, the menu would look similar to a Spring Festival fair with roast pork, jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), spring rolls, huoshao (baked roll with or without stuffing), and rice. However, Christmas time does offer one unique food tradition for the Chinese.

An Icier Interpretation of Christmas

More recently, the pendulum has swung against celebrating Christmas.  

China, once again, views the Christmas holiday as a tool of foreign imperialism.  Shortly before Christmas in 2006, ten post-doctoral students from Peking University, Tsinghua University, and other elite colleges penned an open letter asking Chinese people to boycott Christmas and resist the invasion of “western soft power.” They warned, “[Christmas celebrators in China] are doing what western missionaries dreamed to do but didn’t succeed in doing 100 years ago.” The letter added, “Chinese people need to treat Christmas cautiously, and support the dominance of our own culture.”  

The movement to diminish the celebration of the Christmas holiday came to a significant head in 2018, when authorities gave clear instructions to discontinue celebrating Christmas.  Cities, schools, and government institutions have ordered citizens not to celebrate the holiday and to instead focus on promoting traditional Chinese culture.  Examples include the northern city of Langfang in Hebei province.  Here, city officials ordered all Christmas decorations to be cleared and forbade shops from selling Christmas-themed goods. Officials said the measure was aimed at “maintaining stability” and controlling street hawkers.  In Changsha, in central Hunan province, the education bureau issued a directive to schools not to celebrate “western festivals” such as Christmas, including putting up decorations, posting related messages or exchanging gifts.  A statement, circulated on Weibo, stated, “Communist Party members must be role models in abiding to the faith of communism. [Members are] not allowed to have superstitions and blindly follow the opium of Western spirits.” 

What Comes Next?

What the future holds for the celebration of Christmas in China is unknown.  We have seen periodic waxing and waning in the interpretation of the holiday, even as our own culture’s relationship to Christmas changes. However, one thing that Word4Asia knows to be true and universal is the importance of mutual understanding and continued good will between the United States and China.  For over twenty years, we have made it our business to help American organizations build positive, constructive relationships within mainland China.   We have done this by respecting the laws and customs of our host nation, and working closely with our clients to ensure they understand and abide by the policies and regulations that have been in place.  As we move into 2021, we look forward to continued cooperation and good will between both nations.

We wish all of you a very happy holiday season, and a prosperous 2021.  If your plans for the coming year include China, we would be very happy to meet with you to offer our experience and assistance.  If I can answer any questions or help you in any way, please feel free to contact me at gene@word4asia.com

https://ltl-school.com/christmas-in-china/

https://transferwise.com/us/blog/christmas-traditions-in-china

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2125526/why-chinas-war-christmas-gathering-pace

https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2125526/why-chinas-war-christmas-gathering-pace

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/24/china-cracks-down-on-christmas-celebrations

https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/voa-news-china/china-stepping-its-control-over-religion

Giving Thanks: A China-US Cultural Comparison

by Joe

America is about to celebrate another Thanksgiving this week.  Thanksgiving, 2020 is actually our 157thannual celebration of the holiday that Abraham Lincoln first introduced during the depths of our tragic Civil War.  It says a lot about our national character that, when our nation’s morale was at a very low ebb, we chose to stop the blood-shed for a few hours and turn our attention to the things for which, we truly believed, we owed a debt of gratitude.

Gratitude is a universal experience.  It is not only dressed in red, white and blue.  Of course, our Chinese counterparts also recognize the importance of giving thanks. Some of China’s earliest customs related to a collective sense of shared gratitude extend back more than 2,500 years.   This is sixteentimes longer than we have celebrated Thanksgiving and tentimes longer than we have been a nation.

Culture Influences How Communities Express Thanks

Over the course of this blog, we have written many times about the cultural differences between the United States and China.  Many of these differences stem from the fundamental way we each perceive the relative importance of the individual and the community.  American culture is grounded in the individual, so American children learn a ‘concrete’ form of gratitude expression; we learn to show gratitude in ways we, ourselves, would appreciate.  On the other hand, community-oriented cultures promote ‘collectivist’ gratitude; expressing gratitude in ways that the people toward whom we feel grateful will most appreciate.  For instance, when a child draws a picture for a loved one, the drawing is most pleasing to the child herself.   It bears reflection that 85% of the world comes from a more community-focused culture.  

The self-versus-group axis that human societies differ along colors everything about how each family, tribe, community or nation relates within and between each other.  Consider some common Chinese expressions that reflect community values:

  • Return the favor for a drop of water with a burst of spring. 滴水之恩,当涌泉相报
  • When you eat the fruit, remember the tree; when you drink from the stream, remember its origin. 落其实者思其树,饮其流者怀其源
  • Cherish the kindness of others. 知恩图报,善莫大焉
  • Don’t forget the good others have done you and seek to return the favor投之以桃,报之以李

Let’s think about a few common American expressions about the importance of giving thanks.  

  • Count your blessings, things could always be worse.
  • He that is hard to please, may get nothing in the end.
  • Never take anything for granted.
  • Thanks cost nothing.

It’s interesting how the value of gratitude is measured in how it will come back and further benefit the grateful one.  Saying ‘thank you’ is almost like a magical incantation used to guarantee that the good fortune continues to fall on the already blessed ones.  That’s not really thankfulness at all!

How Saying “thank you” Is Received In China

Starting from the times when we were young children, Americans have been drilled in ‘minding our manners’.  “Say ‘thank you’!” is something we were taught as children, and as parents, most of us have been careful to continue the norm in our own childrens’ lives.  However, the Chinese response to ‘thank you’ will probably surprise us.  

In the West, over-politeness has always been our fallback position. Whenever we find ourselves in uncomfortable social situations, we retreat into a cacophony of pleases and thank yous, as this is what we have been programed to do. We do it without thought or hesitation, such that it has become more of a reflex than an expression of actual gratitude.

Our heritage includes the golden rule taught to us by Jesus Christ, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”.  For many people, this is mostly an ‘aspirational’ value, but not something that we put into regular practice.  Many of us believe that saying ‘thank you’ is a sufficient response to a kindness someone has done for us.  However, the Chinese have the Confucian principle of ‘bao’.    Bao is pervasive in Chinese society.  Reciprocity is expected, not just aspirational.  Once again, this difference between our cultures hinges on the community-versus-individual distinction.    In a community-focused society, ‘thank you’ does not equate with reciprocity.  

Seen through a Chinese lens, our repetitive drone of ‘thank you’ that most Americans display seems insincere.  In our culture, saying ‘thank you’ is an indication of being well-raised.  It is something we do to endear ourselves to others. “How polite, he/ she is!”  In Chinese culture, such politeness is associated with formality.  Rather than creating more closeness, our ritualistic use of the words ‘thank you’, actually creates barriers.   When we say it, the Chinese actually wonder why we are establishing more formality in the relationship.  Dropping the (frequently insincere) ‘thank you’s’ creates more closeness.  

Observing the American Thanksgiving Holiday

For some people in modern American society, Thanksgiving is a holiday that is receding into our national folklore.  We associate it with earlier times in our families of origin, and with our national history.  When we imagine it, we see it in sepia-toned, warm and achingly nostalgic versions of the Norman Rockwell painting on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Modern life, pock-marked with single-parent families, economic challenges, religious divides, and political friction has had a toll on how we celebrate the holiday.  For some, it is the day where we over-eat and watch football. Little thought about gratitude and blessings is actually given.  Sadly, imagining that painting is about as close as many American get to experiencing a true Thanksgiving anymore.  

For some people in modern American society, Thanksgiving is a holiday that is receding into our national folklore.  We associate it with earlier times in our families of origin, and with our national history.  When we imagine it, we see it in sepia-toned, warm and achingly nostalgic versions of the Norman Rockwell painting on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Modern life, pock-marked with single-parent families, economic challenges, religious divides, and political friction has had a toll on how we celebrate the holiday.  For some, it is the day where we over-eat and watch football. Little thought about gratitude and blessings is actually given.  Sadly, imagining that painting is about as close as many American get to experiencing a true Thanksgiving anymore.  

With this in mind, It’s interesting that affluent young couples in China are beginning to celebrate Thanksgiving in their own homes or in restaurants.  Of course, as an imported holiday, the day is perceived differently from the ways we traditionally valued it.   The families who do celebrate an American-style Thanksgiving generally think of it as a time to enjoy a Western meal and thank friends, family, workmates, and teachers or bosses. The day is referred to as “Gan’en Jie” (感恩节,literally: ‘thanks for grace holiday’).  Perhaps China’s version of Thanksgiving is closer to the interpretation found in some American households these days.Turkey is relatively rare in China.  Therefore, people often substitute roast geese or chicken instead. If turkey is part of the feast, its often purchased through one of the larger hotels that cater to foreign travelers.  Also, there are a number of newer Chinese supermarkets in the large cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, that may have a limited amount of frozen turkey available. Food trends are playing themselves out in our own Thanksgiving holidays.  Over the last twenty years, a number of alternatives to the traditional braised and roasted turkey have grown in popularity.  While ‘the bird’ is still our traditional go-to, these have more to do with preparation.  Many of us have tried, or at least heard of other families who enjoy dry-brined turkey, turducken, brined turkey, deep-fried turkey, even tofurky (tofu alternative to turkey.

Sources:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_cultural_differences_shape_your_gratitude

https://www.startribune.com/how-cultures-around-the-world-show-gratitude-in-their-ceremonies-of-thanksgiving/565530632/

http://www.bjreview.com.cn/eye/txt/2014-02/10/content_594944.htm

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/06/thank-you-chinese/395660/

A Good Time for Transparency

by Joe

What does Word4Asia Consulting do? We help quality non profits who wish to work in mainland China.  It’s important that you understand this in order to appreciate what I am about to share. My words are specific to Westerners who wish to work in/ serve China.  When I speak of transparency I am not using it as a synonym for integrity or honesty. Hopefully, that is a given at least on the part of our clients. Please see the IMC code of ethics.  I am stressing there has perhaps never been a more timely moment for corporate transparency than now. For the following reasons: 

  1. Political tensions between China and USA as two dominant international powers.
  2. Recent news stories about spying and digital espionage.
  3. Out inter-connected world where virtually everything we say and do is known or could be known.
  4. Cameras and audio monitoring are everywhere. Phone apps track every step we take and GPS monitors every mile we drive.
  5. Health concerns/ Covid 19 has created distrust and genuine fear in some people.
  6. Computers; they make all the above factors eternal and retrievable. 
China and USA relations concept. China and US of America flags on metal gears. 3d illustration

 Some organizations may see the above list as a call for greater guile, sneaking and enhancing security.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with appropriate security procedures, sneaking around and deceit are not a good strategy for a productive, long term business relationship in China.  I suggest you consider the following guidelines. 

  1. Decide who you are and what you wish to do, and then declare it and stay in your lane. This is who we are. This is what we do/ don’t do. This is what we want. 
  2. Make sure everyone you work with knows #1 and is able to articulate it consistently and clearly. This should be the case from the National level to the grassroots conversations. 
  3. Assign people in your organization to assure your on-line message is cohesive with your personal words. 
  4. Recognize that privacy for foreigners traveling in China is a privilege, not a right. 
  5. Nothing on the cloud or over 5G is private. Thinking out loud and brainstorming various options and strategies is fine but its best to do it at home or in your office. Doing these things on Zoom, Blue Jeans, phone, text or email may leave you open to greater scrutiny. 99% of the options we consider never happen. So why broadcast them publicly? It only creates confusion and questions. 
  6. Don’t try to hide. It is futile. Sneaking or evasive behavior is basically lack of transparency. 
  7. Accept that terms are defined differently in the West than they are in China. However, humans are fundamentally wired the same despite cultural and linguistic differences. 
  8. While we can disagree on many things, we should be gracious, loving and respectful in all matters personal. 
China and US flags with a handshake on a white background

 Of course Chinese culture is most often less blunt and usually not inclined to say “no”.  Rather, they would prefer to have leaders work through their Zhong jian ren (middle person, negotiator). Our network in China expects us to have the necessary experience to distinguish ming bai(‘they understand); ke yi (‘what you say is possible); dui (‘yeh, sure, why not, I see) and tong yi (‘I genuinely agree with you’).   However, my 25 years of relationship building in China has convinced me that leaders at all levels appreciate transparency.

Initially, we may may have been perceived as naïve; However, over time our Chinese connections have learned that “our yay is yay and our name is nae.”  That, they can ultimately work with – as long as our words and behavior are gracious and respectful.  Outcomes are better when those we wish to work with discover what we said to them is the same truth we’ve said to others, and the same we will be saying in ten years. It’s very important that our actions reflect our words. We may not always get to do what we wish, but the transparent way is the best way. This is true even if we do not receive transparency in return.  

If you choose the truly transparent way, the pay off may not be immediate. It may, in fact, appear to backfire initially. However, we know that since our objective is to build, and sustain long term relationships, the pay-off can be significant.

 

Bridging Troubled Waters in China

Anyone who has not been in a coma for the past 12 months can speak to the challenges of 2020. I cannot …’.

 

Read More

 

Unwrapping Christmas in China

It’s Christmas all over the world right now. In nations across the globe, this is a special time, marked by large and small efforts to …’.

 

Read More

 

Giving Thanks: A China-US Cultural Comparison

America is about to celebrate another Thanksgiving this week. Thanksgiving, 2020 is actually our 157th annual celebration of the …’.

 

Read More

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