Giving Thanks: A China-US Cultural Comparison

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/

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