Tag Archives: America

Book: Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences

Comprehensive analysis of ALL American/Chinese differences—starting with sex!
568 pages, ★★★★★

Many books are dedicated to the differences between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ culture. I’ve reviewed The Geography of ThoughtMao’s Last DancerBomb, Book & Compass and many more here on this blog. None of these books are nearly as comprehensive and readable as Americans and Chinese: Passages to Differences. This book covers almost every aspect of culture—starting with sex—and makes The Geography of Thought—to which I naïvely gave five stars the first time around—look especially simplistic by comparison.

The book begins with a premise that American life discourages intimacy. The author goes on to say that Americans chase money, material objects and weapons more readily than do their Chinese counterparts because Americans generally lack the tradition of strong social ties—guanxi—that are so prevalent in China.

While The Geography of Thought over-analysed the simplistic thesis that “America is a line; China is a circle”, this book gives us a more intelligent alternative:

U.S. society is individual-centred;
Chinese society is situation-centred.

This book goes describes differences in:

  • Relationships
  • Love (“how does my heart feel?” vs “what will other people say?”)
  • Raising children (bottom-up vs top-down) and how people celebrate children’s birthdays
  • Art and storytelling (briefly)
  • Education (fun vs rigid)
  • Religion, monotheism and the role of God
  • Attitude to animals
  • Sense of security
  • Attitude towards old age
  • Weaknesses and how they are dealt with

In all cases, this book focuses more on the “what” than on the “why”. It’s very lucid, very readable, and is authoritative without being dry. Basically, this book’s perfect!

Best of all, I love the examples and stories that illustrate these differences. In one instance, the author compares the flood story from the Bible with a flood story from Chinese history (~2500 B.C). The author shows how the responses and attitudes towards fate, nature and the common people in these two stories represent their respective cultures. (Noah was a saved, chosen ‘hero’; whereas the Chinese were supposed to stay put and abate the effects of their flood collectively.)

This book makes it easier for westerners to understand Chinese ways. Many books have attempted to do this, and some have succeeded, but this effort outshines the competition by far. For anyone who wants to increase their understanding of Chinese/Western culture, this book is an excellent place to start. I highly recommend this book. ★★★★★

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Book: New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Too much Uncle Tom.
195 pages, ★★★★

This collection of very detailed essays were written by different authors, so there’s naturally a lot of overlap in content.

Rather than review this book, I’m going to share some of the reflections I made while reading it.

  1. Some critics [of Uncle Tom’s Cabin] said the book isn’t a part of high culture because it appeals to the masses. Others said it appeals to sadness, too fundamental a human emotion, and thus yields no artistic merit. I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t sad at all because even though characters in the book suffer, the author doesn’t choose to dwell on their suffering. She merely describes it, leaving any reflection up to the reader.
  2. Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison suggested angrily that there were two Jesus Christs: one passive, long-suffering Christ for blacks, and one rebellious, warrior Christ for whites. According to Christian values in 19th century America, whites and blacks were expected to respond to suffering in different ways!
  3. Stowe held back on describing sexual abuse because the novel’s intended audience included children. In reality, sexual abuse of young, female slaves was widespread (Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin would have abused his slaves sexually, for example).
  4. Women played a role in ending slavery by persuading their white husbands that slavery was wrong, and by requesting that blacks stay subservient rather than self-determined. (A violent slave population would not have elicited sympathy from the whites.) By not fanning the flames of oppression or of revolution, women allowed slavery to ‘burn out’ faster than it otherwise would have.
  5. Gothic portrayal of women in nursery rhymes as “houses” is something to think about.

Between these interesting points was a great amount of detail that would lend itself well to a book club or a literary seminar. This book contained more than enough analysis of Uncle Tom for the average, interested reader. ★★★★

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Incredibly influential, sadly inaccessible.
411 pages, ★★

How dare I give just two stars to a classic?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel about slaves in 19th century America. I’ve summarised the story into a character map below.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Character Map

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for white people. I say this because it doesn’t dwell on the struggles, the emotional turmoil, the fear and loathing of whites that slaves faced; nor does it stir up revolution. Rather, it tells a realistic, emotionally-restrained story of two Christian slaves who stay unwaveringly loyal despite extreme social injustice.

While the book itself has no political ideology, it was one of the most politically influential books in American history; and possibly of all time. It spread rapidly—one in six adult Americans owned a copy—and was the best-selling novel in American history at the time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stimulated the growing impetus to abolish slavery to such an extent that 50 years later, author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bust was placed alongside that of Washington, Franklin and Lincoln in New York’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Even President Abraham Lincoln made references to “that lady” who “started the great Civil War”. Many writers argue that this novel played a significant role in the abolition of slavery in America.

Most interesting is that according to a poll conducted in 1946, the majority of Negroes surveyed by Negro Digest considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin “anti-Negro” since it “presented the black in a submissive, docile, cringing role, portraying him as less than a man”. While their description is definitely true, it seems ironic that the American black population would grow to resent the book that had quite possibly set them free.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating book, and is one that everyone interested in history should know about. So why only two stars? It’s told in such dated English that I struggled to enjoy it. Read literary criticisms instead. ★★

Book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Quiet
Quiet

Alerts you to society’s irrational love of extroverts.
352 pages, ★★★★

Introverts are singled out from a young age. They’re considered shy, socially-inept, boring, lazy and stupid in schools—at least, that’s the first thesis of this book.

The second thesis is that introverts are actually more valuable than people think. Evidence suggests that their moral reasoning, sense of responsibility, ability to stick to a plan, empathetic skills and thoughtfulness are better than those of extroverts. Introverts also earn more scholarships and graduate degrees than do extroverts.

Extroverts, on the other hand, make rash decisions, engage in risky behaviour (both in bed and on the stock market), are more prone to “groupthink”, make unsatisfactory team leaders and have poor listening skills. They have empty charisma—that is, they might appear to have everything in control, but when questioned, we realise they know nothing.

The third thesis, at the end of this book, says that “introvert” and “extrovert” are actually over-simplistic labels, and the book suggests “high-sensitive” and “low-sensitive” as more appropriate alternatives. Studies by Jerome Kagan have shown that people with sensitive amygdala prefer lower levels of stimulus—quiet rooms, fewer people, and familiar settings—characteristics of ‘introversion’. People with less-sensitive amygdala prefer higher levels of stimulus—loud places, more people, and new experiences—characteristics of ‘extroversion’. Different people need different amounts of stimulus to be comfortable, and these levels are quite fixed from birth through to adulthood.

Genes play an ambiguous role. I have C/C at the rs752306 SNP, which is located in the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene on chromosome 11. Even though the C allele has a frequency of as high as 75% (meaning most people have it), people still got excited when a study by Lee et al. in 2011 hinted at connections between rs752306 SNP and ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘risky behaviour’—traits which this book interprets as ‘extraversion’. Lee’s follow-up study showed no connection whatsoever. Personally, I think we understand so little about how genes affect our health that we should ignore any supposed ‘genetic factors’ for personality traits.

This book separates society along a single axis and looks for striking differences. The Geography of Thought did that too, along East/West lines, as did Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, along gender lines. Take all these books with a pinch of salt. Society is not a dichotomy of extremes, but a melting pot in which most people are pretty close to ‘average’. Remember that you are, too. ★★★★

 

Book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Stretched. Easy to read.
237 pages, ★★★

Amy Chua (a.k.a. “Tiger Mother”) bullies her children into being successful. Her loveable mixture of strict rules, punishments and blackmail locks her children into a world of all work and no play.

“Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.”

Clearly, Amy Chua loves her children. She sees them as fallen deities, as sleeping giants, who, with enough maternal provocation, can once again prove themselves as prodigies. She sees in them infinite potential, and pressures them immensely to succeed.

Love for her children sometimes blinds her to reality. On page 7, she writes:

“I was on leave from my Wall Street law firm and desperate to get a teaching job so I wouldn’t have to go back—and at 2 months [of age], Sophia understood this”.

Really? That sounds like over-analaysis to me.

On page 8, she continues over-analysing: when her daughter draws what her husband calls “two overlapping circles”, Amy Chua calls it “doing simple set theory”. On page 11, she describes 豆腐脑, a simple Chinese tofu dish, as, “silken tofu braised in a light alabone and shiitake sauce with a cilantro garnish”. (Her description is correct—it’s just pretentious.)

Amy’s propensity to overestimate her ability to raise children is exemplified most clearly on page 82, when she takes pride in having raised a “weakling, underweight” puppy into an adult dog that “excelled on its dog IQ test” despite hating dogs. Clearly, she’s not only blinded by love, but also by pride.

Fortunately, Amy Chua’s ruthlessness is somewhat justified. Her daughters, not yet 20, have articles printed in the New York Post and have been accepted into world-class universities. It’s the millions of Tiger Mothers with average kids that are cause for concern.

Interestingly, the Chinese version of her book was titled “我在美国做妈妈”, which translates roughly as, “I am a mother in America”: no mention of tigers; no implication of being fierce, and no connotation of being Chinese! The Chinese title makes her parenting style look “normal”. Check out the Chinese cover, below:

我在美国做妈妈
我在美国做妈妈

While Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an easy, double-spaced read, it is no more informative than Amy Chua’s famous Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. You can save time and just read the article (and this) instead. ★★★