The Chinese Are So Different – Cannot Understand Them…

Recently I met many Caucasian Aussies who work with Chinese people in different professions, from tour operators to bankers who are on the lookout for billionaire renmimbi investors. Listening to my non-Chinese colleagues, customers, friends – their common lament is – how can we better understand these Chinese people who are so different from us Aussies and Kiwis. And I might add: we, the Chinese from outside the mainland (the hua qiao), are also different amongst ourselves even though we are all Chinese. As a ”Malaysian-Chinese-Australian” who have lived in Oz for many decades, I often face the same question: how do we understand ourselves as Chinese. The truth of the matter is that there is not just one Chinese culture but many. The Chinese diaspora or dispersal has been going on for many centuries. This global scattering of the Chinese probably occurred as soon as the first Chinese fleet set sail from China aeons ago. In his book 1421 the author Gavin Menzies, claimed (probably fictitiously) that Zheng He, the most famous Chinese navigator known to us Chinese people, went round the world and discovered America. It was not Christopher Columbus! Zheng He, so brilliant was he that today many Taoists still worshipped him as one of the deities in their spiritual pantheon of saints.


At the time of writing of this editorial, there are probably more than 27 million Chinese scattered round the globe outside China. I am making a wild guess here as in the early 1990s, it was estimated that there were 24 million members of the Chinese diaspora outside mainland China. Predominantly found in South East Asia, these people owned two-thirds of the wealth of Asia (think HK & Taiwan). Although these Chinese are found predominately in Asia, some of us are residing in Europe, Australasia, North America and Canada. Since the 1990s, many Chinese from Mainland China are also found in Africa, South & Central America. The impact of these Chinese is still to be discovered empirically. But commonsense tells us that the impact is of huge global significance. It is commonplace now to find Chinese working alongside you no matter where and who you are on this planet.

Yet, working and communicating with us (not to mention the other Chopsticks peoples e.g. Vietnamese, Japanese & Koreans) seems such a challenge to many.

A new Australasian friend who I recently met and who is a CEO of his own company told me that his Chief Technical Officer, Wang (not his real name), is a Chinese from Mainland China. He has always thought his employee Wang is quiet, polite and deferential. However, recently my friend has a new client from China whose English is rather limited, so he let Wang deal with this new client. My friend was amazed by the change in Wang’s personality. The quiet deferential employee was drinking, laughing and carrying on with the customer in a manner that my friend had never seen before! An introverted Wang turned into a party animal overnight!

Why this transformation? Because Wang was back in his own comfort zone. Speaking the same language and sharing a common culture with the new client, he could be himself. This was obvious. Watching the transformation in his Chief Technical Officer, my friend asked himself several questions. The main one was how did he get it so wrong, thinking that Wang sort of fitted the stereotype of the quiet & deferential Chinese man? Another question that surfaced was how little he knew about the Chinese culture that has shaped Wang, and his last question: how much more he, a youngish, modern, well-travelled Aussie CEO has to learn. My new friend, being an intelligent and insightful bloke, asked penetrating questions of himself and what he had observed in this other side of his CTO, Wang, whom he had worked with for a long time.

I was delighted with his sharing of this experience. Being a cross-cultural trainer, I can provide some psycho-cultural answers to this eye-opening experience for my Aussie friend and his work situation. Wang, being an employee of my friend who is the CEO, may be using the values associated with a hierarchal relationship by showing deference for my friend who is, after all, his employer/CEO. Deferential relationships are practised by all Asians, both from Chopsticks (Sinitic) and Hands (Indo-Malay) cultures. Although for most of the time, we Asians practise this form of communication unconsciously. There are other factors at play here but this is not the place to go into a full discussion. Suffice to say that for me, listening to my new friend’s story of his CTO, makes me realise once again how important cross-cultural training and education about each other’s culture is.

Last night I attended a conversation sponsored by Westpac and DAWN (Diverse Asian/Australasian Women Network) and the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, on diversity and inclusion in politics and throughout the meeting, no one mentioned cross-cultural education and training. This is my lament. How can we manage issues of diversity and inclusion at the workplace if we do not educate ourselves on our diversities? Educating and training in cross-cultural communication skills and knowing each other’s ethnic and cultural differences are the first step to discussing inclusion in Australia. What my newly found friend, the CEO, has shared about his CTO Wang, is a classic example of the lack of knowledge and training provided by schools, universities and companies to facilitate greater understanding of our diverse backgrounds in Australia. Not being educated about each other’s diversities has a significant impact on all of us, Aussies/Kiwis and Chinese alike.

The lack of importance placed on cross-cultural education and training is appalling in this country. I say this with a sense of disappointment and anger. For over twenty years beginning with the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke’s call for Australians to be “Asia literate” till now, (and given the fact that there has been many Australasian inter-culturalists working in this broad field of cross-cultural management and cross-cultural communication in Australasia) there has been little formal & structured cross-cultural education in corporate Australia. The figures that have just been released regarding the inclusion and promotion of Asian-Australian leaders in corporate Australia are woefully disappointing. Asian-Australians are still under-represented in the upper echelons of the power hierarchy in this continent. The question is why? One of the answers may lie in the title of my editorial: The Chinese…they are so different… People generally fear and do not trust what/who is different from their own kind…. and if there is no inter-cultural awareness education, the fear spirals into the use of stereotypes and many Pauline Hansons will find fertile ground to flourish. Another reason could well be that the people responsible in educating their employees do not know that there is such a discipline called cross-cultural management, i.e. the training of people on how to manage cross-cultural encounters effectively. But that is another story. Another editorial.

Till then, zaijian, readers.

2 Replies to “The Chinese Are So Different – Cannot Understand Them…”

  1. I live on the Gold Coast, where there are many Asian people,moving here from any Asian nations,so we all enjoy the new Asian restaurants,opening in our shopping centers,the older generations do not mix much with the Asians, but the younger ones,are assimilating fine,I have no problems, my wife is Chinese,and have lived in Malaysia, eat their food and speak Malay and Indonesian, Asia is 24 hours whilst australia is 9 to 5, I like going to Penang once a year

  2. Hi AntHony
    So good to hear that your are married to a Chinese. Best way to understand each other across cultures. I think you are right that the younger generation are “assimilating fine”. Our increasing globalisation also helps greatly. Thanks for your response to our blog.
    Moni

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