By Yaxue Cao
Yaxue Cao is short story writer who grew up in Northern China during the cultural revolution.
I met a young man a few years ago while working with a law firm on a case involving China. We were among a few Chinese who had been hired to translate documents. All of us were working more or less honestly in our respective capacities, but every day he sat in front of his computer, chatted with anyone who would answer him, or mostly got online to do whatever he was doing. Now and then, he would say to the rest of us, “Why rush? Slow down so we will log more hours!” Or, twirling in his office chair, “The Americans are dumb! They don’t have any idea how much we can do!” So disgusted was I to hear this and so enraged that he dared to include me with him in the same breath. For days on, I was haunted by that smug look he wore on his face. How I know that look, how I know such crookedness, by heart! What was more appalling to me was that he was a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, he had come to the US in his teenage years to join one of his parents, and, in other words, he had spent a significant portion of his formative years in the US. But instead of shaping his values, America was this wonderful place filled with dumb people for him to take advantage of! And he is by no means a singularity among Chinese living in America.
To many Chinese, Americans don’t have xin-yan (心眼, meaning, literally, eyes of the mind; or figuratively, calculating, wily), they trust what you say, and they believe you are doing what you say you are doing. For that, they are dumb.
I know a writer from my hometown who writes with unusual perception and style. But I remember how surprised I was reading an essay of his a few years back. He mused on this distant place called America, how it was such a young country and, in mentality, like an imprudent teenage boy showing no consideration for things, how naïve Americans seem to him with no depth and no appreciation for subtler things. I know exactly from what corner these thoughts arose and why he perceived America and Americans the way he did. In some ways, it was not unlike de Tocqueville, the old-worlder, but through the unique filter of Chinese wisdom. For him (again, he is not a singularity), to speak your mind straightforwardly, to defend your position forcefully, and to uphold what you believe without compromise, are all signs of childishness. A lot of Americans, alas, fill that bill.
I once told him, “You are an exceptional writer with discerning eyes and a superb sense of style, but I find your writing wanting, because, ultimately, you cannot write from a morally compromised position. At the most crucial junctures in your writing, you tend to hide even if you have to lie, obscure it or stop halfway, and you fail to snap it into its right place.” He didn’t want to hear any of this. He probably thinks I am stupid, not knowing the so-called art of the unspoken.
A college friend of mine organized a reunion party in her house last time I visited Beijing. Over the course of the conversation, one of the “girls” (well, we are not girls anymore, but…) stopped abruptly, commenting to the party, “Don’t you feel refreshed when you hear Yaxue talk?” It would be a nice compliment that I didn’t deserve but would enjoy anyway, if she didn’t turn to me and look at me in such an ambiguous way that, for a while, I couldn’t decide what she really meant. “Doesn’t she sound earnest and pure?” She pursued the others for agreement. The girl sitting next to me said, “She has lived too long in America.” She might have patted on my back. By now I had heard all the undertones and was positively annoyed: To her ear, I sounded naïve and simplistic. The problem was, I had no idea how she had reached that conclusion. I had made no big speech; in fact, I had hardly talked at all. I had not seen them for years, didn’t know what to say, and for most of the part I just asked what they did and where they lived, etc. as they themselves talked about all sorts of subjects: job, house, children, society, news of other classmates, etc.
To many Chinese, the guilelessness on a face, the heartiness of a voice, or/and the confidence with which a person carries herself/himself can all seem rather sha (傻，foolish, simple-minded).
Whenever I hear a fellow Chinese say or hint that the Chinese are “smart” and the Americans are “simple,” I would quickly point out that wisdom is not universal. Instead, it is relative and product of a particular society. The Chinese “wisdom” they cherish so much and feel so smart about is really just habits they have developed in a totalitarian, oppressive, and in many ways odious society. It’s nothing but the mold that grows in a dark and wet place.
When I told my brother that a lot of Chinese thought Americans were dumb, he said, “That’s a dumb thing to say. If they are so smart, why aren’t they doing anything better than the Americans?” This is the question, I bet, those Chinese who believe that the Americans are dumb have not asked themselves.
I second that! Well done!
This ought to be explained to every American working in China.
This ought to be explained to every non-Chinese everywhere. One can encounter ‘smart’ Chinese anywhere in the world now, and everyone must be on guard.
[…] tt") + ""); | Being Chinese about it | China web debris | Cultural perspectives | In Dumb Americans, Yaxue Cao explains how some valued American character traits and ideals appear to many […]
Very insightful post.
In many ways I find the ‘Chinese’ style of beating around the bush a sign of immaturity. Why can’t people just call things by their name or admit mistakes or gaps of knowledge? Isn’t the more direct ‘American’ way of discussing issues openly more desirable?
“We don’t really want what they want anyway, so how can their methods be anything but dumb? The things they want are just the dreams of children.” Hmmmm, that could go lots of places.
This is very helpful for one just having moved to China.
Yes, I get your point Yaxue and I value your insight. But surely we are talking about 老外 here, any sort of “foreigner”, not just Americans. I am British and have felt the effects of being judged a simple minded lao wai. As I said to my Chinese friend “Not all of us lao wai are stupid, you know!” A lot of communication is non verbal and some wily Chinese people forget how much they leak their real feelings. Thank you, Yaxue. I learned today of things my Chinese friends would not tell me, such as the concept of 新颜。
美丽，I did mean to add that it is not just the Americans who are perceived dumb, but the westerners in general. But that note got lost as I wrote.
There is another xinyan word/phrase: 实心眼。It means solid, blocked 心眼 (note that 眼 also means “hole”), and, figuratively, honest, lack of wily flexibility. It is sort of like 没心眼，the difference being, 没心眼means no 心眼 at all while 实心眼 means not necessarily the absence of of 心眼，but the insistance on doing things in a more principled way. It is generally recognized that, in China, 实心眼吃亏—if you are too principled, you stand to lose, you suffer, and you are dumb.
I read somewhere that the Eskimos have a lot of words for snow; and heck, we Chinese have tons of words for 心眼!
Fantastic explanation of 心眼. I’d never heard the word before but it’s use in your article as well as this elaboration really helped me to get a decent grasp of the meaning and how I might use it in a conversation.
Great article too! This is my first time reading your work, and I definitely enjoyed it! Thanks! 辛苦你了！
i agree they have this hyena mentality,but what do westerners do to hyenas:we shoot them!their behavior just serves to dishumanize them to us and i can guarantee you we are inevitable going to be at war with them and we will be utterly merciless towards them.their(smart)behavior has just hardened the hearts of an enemy who has 5,500 nuclear warheads to their 200…oh thats real “smart”.i guarantee the next use of americans nuclear warheads will be to eradicate these human hyenas since they aren’t human but a race of hyenas.boy its really “smart” to make enemies of people with nuclear bombs?these people are real assholes,they think we can’t figure them out.they the same as our hyena jail culture people…real “smart” smart enough to wear the moniker of “animals” who need to be caged or worse.
I am an American living in China. It is a sad thing that behaving honorably has lost so much of its meaning in China. I strive to point out to my students that if they hate the corruption so much then why do they do things that are corrupt? That when you behave in a dishonorable way then you can no longer look in the mirror and like who you see. If you no longer respect yourself then how can you expect others to respect you?
In many ways I like the restraint that most Chinese show about voicing things. Sometimes it is wiser to say nothing and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. But, that being said, in some respects they should speak their minds openly and honestly. I have the good fortune to have actual Chinese family members here in China via my husband’s brother. He married a Chinese woman, and even though they are now divorced, the family is still our family. It gives us an insight that many westerners don’t normally get.
My husband and I also have the added benefit of teaching a class of Chinese teachers every term. In this way we have befriended many Chinese people and associate more with them than we do with the other international teachers here. We also associate a great deal with our ex-students on a social footing. They introduce us to Chinese culture and we introduce them to western culture. Gaining insight into, ‘why things are the way they are here’, helps us to be more patient and tolerant about issues that would otherwise simply be frustrating.
Never does a day pass where I don’t learn something new and intriguing. I don’t have to agree with the way that things are done in China but I must respect the fact that the way things are done here are simply the way they are done.
Many things are changing in China. I notice that the English majors tend to be far more westernized in their thinking than students of other degree programs. Their progeny will be even more westernized. Slowly but surely China will evolve into a new state of being.
For the most part, I find the everyday Chinese people to be quite like people everywhere. They want the same things westerners want. A happy life. A good job. Good health. A nice home and a car. A good education for their children. Healthy food on the table and decent clothes upon their backs. Most importantly, they simply want the opportunity to better themselves and their lives.
They love their families, which due to the one child rule, tends to be fairly extended. They have a great sense of humor. They worry about their parents old age and their own too. They are mostly very industrious and constantly doing something. They push their children to excel… perhaps a little too much. 🙂 In many ways I hate to see them becoming westernized. There is a much stronger sense of community here than I felt at home. Hope is burgeoning like new flower buds struggling to burst open.
Yes, there are many Chinese who cling to old, antiquated ideas and ideals, but they are becoming fewer and fewer as the younger generations step up to take their places in society. There will always be those who see the cup as half empty. There will always be those who must put others down in an attempt to try to raise up their own feelings of self-worth. It doesn’t matter what country they are from, they exist. But, there are many like Yaxue Cao who can see through this for what it is and not allow themselves to be dragged down by those people. As long as this is so, there will always be hope for a better China for these wonderful people.
The term “foreigner” is indeed to broad for Ms. Cao to label. Have you ever considered the case of esoteric writing/reading, say, by Leo Strauss? Xinyan is not a Chinese-only term.
The sad irony is that I doubt many of these “clever” Chinese realize just how much their duplicity costs society. There’s a reason for the difficulty we have returning merchandise to shops, the fact that we have to pay deposits on practically everything, the towers of paperwork and drawers full of stamps required for the simplest transactions, and the general inefficiency of life in China as a whole. I would wager a good deal of it could be set at the feet of “smart” individuals who try to work the system.
Impossible to run a business with people who don’t trust each other. Drives me crazy at my Beijing company. Impossible for a society to function when lies and cover ups abound.
Mainlanders should not think the Lao wai are so stupid. When lied to, we often are tempted to say “what? Do you think ijust fell off the turnip truck?” But westerners are taught not to do so in China because that is impolite. I have called out mainlanders for lying and they get angry at me because i am not playing the “face” game. Yo, you’re the one lying. Face is a very dangerous concept and i would submit that it lies at the heart of many of China’s problems.
We have a saying in the west: “Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Once you lie to an American it is hard regain his/her trust.
From a societal perspective, if China wants the respect from the world it so desperately craves, it needs to drop the all duplicity. You’re on stage now guys! The world is watching. You can’t pull all the sophomoric nonsense with fhe world that you do with your own citizens.
“face” in china , is “cover your ass” in america .. and americans are GREAT at that!
I disagree. ‘CYA’ is cross every t and dot all i’s to make sure one is not blamed for anything. ‘Face’ is looking good in all circumstancese, getting the appropriate respect, advantage, vested interest, whether one deserves or not, and a way to show respect to someone, whether deemed deserving or not, mostly not.
”The sad irony is that I doubt many of these “clever” Chinese realize just how much their duplicity costs society. There’s a reason for the difficulty we have returning merchandise to shops, the fact that we have to pay deposits on practically everything, the towers of paperwork and drawers full of stamps required for the simplest transactions, and the general inefficiency of life in China as a whole. I would wager a good deal of it could be set at the feet of “smart” individuals who try to work the system.“
Very Very true. Very true.
This is a common perception that many people around the world have of Americans. Gullible and overly trusting. Is it true? I’m inclined to say yes and no.
Yes, those attitudes in China make life frustrating for people who aren’t used to that way of thinking, but those attitudes aren’t inherently Chinese, just as trustworthiness isn’t an inherently Western quality. It has less to do with culture than with how a country is governed. I was listening to this NPR podcast recently about how Italians really pride themselves on gaming the system and evading taxes, resulting in a perpetual deficit and slow economic growth – all because their gov’t has a really inefficient way to collect taxes, making it easy to find loopholes.
My point is, these types of attitudes develop over time when there isn’t a well-laid legal system to keep a tight rein on things, making it easy to 赚小便宜. The U.S. judicial system, despite some flaws, enforces the notion that no one is above the law and that we’re all bound by a code of ethics and penalties for breaking them. In China, there’s little oversight so it’s literally each man for himself and honesty is seen as not taking advantage of “opportunities”. If people want things to change, there would have to be top-down reform.
Those people who called you naive have obviously never lived in the U.S. because even though they may think they’re so clever now, life is so much better when you can have peace of mind.
whoops!! I just read your last 2 paragraphs….(for some reason the entry didn’t load properly the first time)….and realized that my comment reiterates what you already said.
THIS. Thank you for bringing this up.
This piece really resonates and also goes to the heart of the way things function up and down the social structure in China. This is also an issue which could produce a whole sociological literature of its own.
We had a meeting in our company about corruption and bribery, prompted by the regulator’s normal annual “campaign” to prevent corruption. It goes a long way to telling you about a society when they have to have campaigns to enforce laws on the books! They kept using the word “xiao jin ku” (little treasury box) which I finally realized means a slush fund.
All this led to a discussion on ethical or moral behavior. After much discussion, with associates speaking in the sequence that is typcial in China (lao ban speaks last), I was among the last to speak. I said “in my country (US), moral behavior, specifically how to act in a situation, is a matter of conscience. You will do well if you assume that whatever you do in that situation will be judged by all your peers and those “judges” will know EVERYTHING about the situation. Will you be able to defend your actions if everyone knows everything?” The looks that I got from my colleagues, especially the Lao Ban, were priceless… some were fearful, others had a look that suggested they knew such a thing could never happen.
You’re only guilty if you get caught.
That’s why I strongly reject arguments that start “Well, America isn’t perfect either….”, blithely equalizing the two. Nobody says America is perfect, and, by all means, do criticize it to make it better. But America is not the same as China just because there is corruption too at some corners, because we are talking about two completely opposite value systems.
By the same token, just because there is a Wang Keqin (王克勤）, a journalist dedicated to exposing the vices of the Chinese society, in China, doesn’t make China a country with free media.
One of the commonest route some Chinese living in America take to defend China is, “America is just as bad….” This is the kind of argument that can turn me into a fuming militant: “Go back to China then! What are you doing here, you sonof*****?!”
I, like you, usually respond to those who defend China with the “Amercia isn’t perfect” defense by saying “Go ahead. Criticize away. Have at it. But I can criticise the US ten times better than you anyway and so, you won’t be saying anything I haven’t already heard. And also that does not diminish the validity of my criticism of China.”
If a country is going to be a world leader, it had better face up to criticism and be prepared to defend its policies under the bright light of world opinion. Not sure China is ready for that.
I might clarify your apparent “love it or leave it” comment. We hope that people, by engaging in criticism and logical discussion of policies, by voting and participating in the democratic process ,will make America stronger. However, if all a person wants to do is say “America is bad and China is good” then yes, I would tell them what you said too along with “don’t let the screen door hit you in the fanny on the way out!”
LOL, Yaxue Cao, you are so right. Much in China is simply a facade. Appearances are held to be more important that what lies beneath them. What must be kept in mind though is that we are comparing oranges to apples and other than both being a fruit that contains seeds and produce a popular juice, the differences are very evident and many prefer one over the other. Is one truly better than the other? In some ways… perhaps yes, but not in all ways. Each has their own superior attributes. Likewise, there are many things I like better in America and there are many things I like better in China. Many foreigners come to China and then do nothing but complain about how it is not like back home, and similarly with the Chinese who come to America. It is all in what one was raised with. It is always easier to complain about the things you don’t like while enjoying the things you do. Do note though that most people like both fruits and that is the way it really is with those who complain. And in keeping with the fruit analogy… There are bad apples in every bunch. We just cannot allow them to contaminate the rest of the good apples. While you may not take specific notice of all the good apples, the bad ones always seem to stand out!
out of the whole american crisis, only Madoff got caught(how dare he cheated the wealthy). We dont have corruption in the US, we only have regulatory lapses
This post coincides PERFECTLY with this story: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-05/china-said-to-discuss-allowing-sec-probes-of-mainland-firms-for-first-time.html
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you. And when you cook the books, you get booted from US stock exchanges. The scope of SEC probes may very well prove to be limited, but it still ushers in the question, “Will you be able to defend your actions if everyone knows everything?” We shall see a manifestation of “You can’t pull all the sophomoric nonsense with the world that you do with your own citizens.”
MONEY QUOTE: “The Chinese ‘wisdom’ they cherish so much and feel so smart about is really just habits they have developed in a totalitarian, oppressive, and in many ways odious society. ”
Really interesting post and it really gets you thinking. Only a Chinese could give us this fascinating perspective. I would agree… but this information is not something that you can get into a conversation over a Qingdao at the bar with some friends. Usually when someone thinks you are dumb they are either taking advantage of you or they want nothing to do with you. But still, good info.
Lao Why?: I am less angry with, say, my high school classmate who bombarded Americans (I mentioned it in one of my comments) and I understand why the writer from my home town thinks Americans are foolhardy–I know their limitations. As for some of my fellow Chinese here, they enjoy every right they can’t possibly dream of having in China, they have taken every advantage from this society that has embraced him/her; most of them have had a free advanced education from American universities and have decent jobs; they know better–they should anyway.
As a Chinese-Canadian, I have to say your friend is right though. Most Westerners, in fact, most people outside of East Asian countries don’t have “xinyan”. They are trusting and naive and will put their beliefs and feelings above facts and profit. It may be a stereotype but it is one that is almost universally true. The number of non Asians I’ve met who match us in guile and suspicion can be counted on one hand. It is almost painful to watch clueless Westerners drone on about their business plans in China, they don’t even believe me when I point out that their idealistic approach would end with them being gutted and sold before they even knew it. This is why most Western companies flounder in China, as they did in Japan back in the day.
I’m a businessman by profession and even amongst other Chinese colleagues, we all agree that we need to be more careful when dealing with another Chinese. Koreans and Japanese aren’t as shameless in tactics, but they clearly understand enough to be suspicious and put up appropriate protections. This is precisely why ethnic Chinese traders own the majority of wealth in South East Asian countries like Malaysia or the Philippines, but can’t crack the market in Korea or Japan. Paranoia? Fear? Insecurity? Sure, it’s probably all those things. But that’s what it takes to survive.
Now I avoid taking advantage of people and don’t and don’t endorse it, but when faced with wiley, devious competitors, there is no choice but to eat or be eaten. It is up to the rest to step up their game, because a return to “innocence” is not an option for most of us.
Wow. Caozi, that says volumes. Thank you for your candor. I would also submit that the struggles that mainland companies are having overseas (the Saudi rail line, the Polish highway, the Australian iron mine) stem from application of their own standards of behaviour erroneously superimposed on a foreign business situation.
As to putting feelings above profit, I am not exactly sure what you mean by that, but my experience in China is that Chinese business people invest emotionally, follow a herd mentality and have rudimentary ability to apply rigorous financial analytics to investment opportunities. More like gambling.
The biggest difficulty that US firms in China struggle with, IMHO, is the use of laws and regulations to benefit favored firms and to stymy firms that do not have favor (usually foreign firms). We can deal with people who lie and don’t live up to contracts. What is challenging is there is usually no penalty flag.
I have Chinese colleagues that explain to me that mainland SMEs are like wolves. They exist on their guile. They feed on the leftovers from the SOEs. They will do anything, ANYTHING to make money because it is an issue of survival. From simple cheating on contracts to bribing officials to in some instances, consciously endangering the health of their customers (tainted garlic chives is the latest).
Loawai’s are trusting, but no naive. They assume one is honest, until one is proven
dishonest once, then this person will have to prove to be trustworthy every time from that point on. And if one gets caught doing something irregular, laowais will hit you with a ton of bricks even if you are his father-in-law.
Chinese assume one is not trust worthy until one gives enough face to earn the trust, and continue to give face to maintain that trust. And Chinese pride to take advantage of people and situation to get thing they don’t deserve or irregular, even just a very small advantage.
The Chinese have adopted the hyena mentality. Show any sign of weakness and they will eat you alive. This includes trust, pity, mercy, friendship, helpfulness, kindness etc. The rule of thumb in China, for any foreigner, is as Professor Moody aptly put it is “constant vigilance” and “a Chinese person in need is a Chinese person to be avoided”
all ancient civilizations (Persians, Indians, Egyptians, Morrocans, …not to mention the Jews)are more “sophisticated”. Talk to anyone in international trade and they will tell you Chinese businesses rank very well.
Some of my friends do translation work for foreign companies in China and, quite often, the Chinese side will invariably try and bribe the translator to get them to overlook areas of the contract or to help create loop holes. All is not kosher in the world of Chinese international trade.
I don’t think western businessmen are so much naive as they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt the first time. But once burned, twice shy. Yaxue Cao is right, once you lose a westerner’s trust it is hard if not impossible to win it back again. Trust is only given to the worthy. It is a sad thing to think that so many Chinese are unworthy. 🙁
Do not mistake our being willing to presume, initially, that Chinese businessmen are honorable. We too are suspicious by nature but someone has to be the first to take a step forward. If you read western comment boards about the Chinese you will get a rude awakening as to just how “not trusted” the Chinese are. Yet there are still some of us willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Yes, we will probably get burned because of it. The one who will suffer will be the next Chinese businessman we must deal with… even if he IS an honorable man.
In my experience (I’m a 来自美国的老外) US society is arranged so that those who game the system; who cheat, lie, and steal; who are inept and lazy, those people do not win — they more often end up jobless and sometimes in jail. If Chinese society becomes transparent and open, and laws become fair and are enforced–with nobody above the law–I expect, that the winners in China will seem as sha (傻, foolish, simple minded) as Americans seem to many Chinese today.
China has been trading on the myths of an ancient, mystical China for a while now. But the polish has worn thin.
Gradually that mis-perception is is eroding and China is being unmasked as a den of business cheats who are so lacking in ethics that they would poison even their own children’s milk, cut corners on quality and safety and say or do anything to make a profit.
And all the while, they call themselves “clever”
Because they cannot be trusted, the Chinese cannot make the next step up from being merely the world’s workshop to becoming prominent in the service sector. Who would by a Chinese insurance policy, software development contract, or financial instrument from China?
One can only flout the rules and norms for so long before becoming a pariah. And, it seems likely that will happen.
And when it does, China will inevitably blame being outcast on China haters, or the old standby, the Japanese.
You fail to recognize:
when Europe was in despair in the Middle Ages, it was through means returned from China, Marco Polo and followers, that made industrialization possible.
Thus, yes, China deserves the credit.
Ms. Cao, i believe USA citizens, as the term Americans encompasses altogether too many people, are by and large showing signs of stupidness at an alarming rate. It’s no accident that at the leading USA universities’ sciences and mathematics departments, it is difficult not to find the majority of students are Chinese nationals. I humbly submit that the principal cause for this cultural malaise resides in misplaced materialistic stratagems compromised by carpe diem tactics. Curiously, however, China seems hell bent on following the same path, e.g. golf courses, car washes, automobile-centric economy, but fully expecting different results. How smart is that?
In the West when one says “Americans” it is always meant to refer to US citizens and everyone knows that. An Argentinian or a Canadian would never call themselves an “American”.
Well, that is due to the fact that we are a dying people/civilization, along with the rest of the Western world. It is predicted that we will be extinct in about 200 years. The fact that you are eluding to is just a symptom of our death throes.
Take heed, Americans, Mr. Mao has a point. I too believe American people have to rethink about a lot of things, and some tough soul-searching is urgently needed.
曹女士您好 (since you’re Chinese, I think it’s better for me to type Chinese)，我想翻譯此文到我的blog，想冒犯請教您的中文名字如何寫？
I think there are two versions of “smart” at play here. From my experience the Chinese definition is more tactical and closer to the English ‘cunning’ or ‘clever’ (聪明,灵). I also feel there is an element of novelty and quick-wittedness inherent to these words not found in the English equivalent.
Americans are thinking of something more strategic and accumulated over time, akin to ‘wisdom’ or erudition (智慧,学问). ‘Cunning’ has a negative connotation in English where it more neutral in the Chinese context. (Probably because if you don’t show some cunning in your dealings someone else certainly will) In English, you can be smart and be a bit slow.
I would add that the Chinese version is meant in a more social sense, while the American is more abstract.
Perhaps in American English this is so. not in British English, where we refer to “clever hands” to mean nimble, quick, etc. “Boxing clever” and “clever wit” are also examples of this. However, we do not necessarily equate cleverness with intelligence.
Us too…cleverness in Chinese would be “xiao cong ming” “hua tou”
狡猾 doesn’t have negative connotation in Chinese ? Live and learn. Live and learn.
I take issue with the idea that the American system breeds honesty and merit of purpose. I agree 100% with the OP but please let this not be a reason to pat yourself on the back for being a product of a pure, straight-forward system. Americans are lied to and had by each other as well… for those who say no, I’d like you to help me go look for some weapons of mass destruction over yonder in Iraq.
Cheating, lying, and being inept are impediments to success? Would you really like to say that about a country in which 3 or the 4 last serious Presidential candidates sported GPA’s of less than 2.2? I mean, because Chinese society has some flaws and the OP adroitly pointed them out does not mean we need to hurt our arms congratulating ourselves on being a just and pure nation, gosh darnit, full of straight shooters and hard workers, unlike those wily Chinese.
Of course Americans lie too. But the line is much closer to zero tolerance in the west. You make a good point about politicians. It’s kind of funny that I know of few Americans that take anything said by a politician at face value. Perhaps I am wrong but it seems like a lot of mainlanders believe the stuff spewed out by the government, often times so obviously wrong, it is laughable.
[…] 中国见红博客：愚蠢的美国人——在中国人看来，美国人大都缺心眼，属于很傻很天真的一类人。 […]
Outstanding, Yaxue! I hope it’ll be posted in Chinese somewhere where lots of netizens will read it. I wonder what kind of reception it would get?
In my experience, it would depend on where it was posted and what was known about the identity of the author, but I think tons of people would agree with it. It’s not the first time I’ve seen a Chinese person write that Americans’ relative honesty shouldn’t be mistaken for stupidity.
Thanks, Susan. Someone has expressed interest in translating it into Chinese (the comment in Chinese above).
please give us that link when it pops up
The truth has to be that there are far more dumb Chinese than Americans because in any group at least half their numbers are dumb and since China has far more people than America it stands to reason they have far more dummies than we have. The only observation I have to add is that the average Chinese is more industrious than the average American but that is doubtlessly so because China has never had a government that coddles its people.
To compare who is more industrious, one has to put them in the same working environment. I did. Chinese are way more cunning in doing the least passable amount through cutting corners, and coming up with the most creative excuses when caught. This is another proof that Chinese are creative. Is that industrious ? Your call.
Have you seen how Americans work when they are trail brazing or homesteading ? They are no slacker.
Americans are good when put under pressure – pioneering etc.
They are not good methodical workers, though.
My Chinese buddy, appreciates a woman’s beauty most from the posterior. I once told him, “There are more asses in China, but more ass in America.” Just a cheeky comment. You’re all so insightful! 🙂
Both sides could do with a little introspection.
Yes, foreigners, especially Americans, may appear simple-minded to the Chinese, but when dealing with foreigners, instead of rejoicing on how they’re putting something over on the foreign devils, the Chinese might think a little more about how they lose face when they lie to a foreigner who discovers they are lying. While the Chinese may feel everyone has their reasons for lying, as we see from the comments above, Americans are often outraged at lies, and conclude the Chinese are devious or dishonest.
On the other hand, the ideal for Americans is telling the truth, but there are plenty of places where a white lie causes less problems. Furthermore, when dealing with outsiders, trust but verify.
I take your post to mean that Chinese are introverted, and Americans are extroverted. If so, I would agree…
Very interesting discussion and topic. As a French / German who spent nearly 21 years in all 4 East Asian countries sharing the “face culture” ( North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan ) I have also noticed that although face is central in Japanese and South Korean culture, the “cunning” attitude is far stronger in China and North-Korea for systemic reasons.
When you live in totalitarian ( North-Korea ) and authoritarian ( China ) one-party police states, you really need specific survival skills which are not needed in the same way in democratic societies. When you know that any disparaging comment, attitude or action will be scanned by your peers and authorities and that as such may cost you dearly, you learn the art of double-language pretty fast and if you survive well, you feel extremely proud of having “fucked” the system. If you grow up in such an environment, this attitude becomes a second nature and will be extremely difficult to abandon.
I intend to write something soon along this line: How duplicity becomes a natural reflex in countries like China where honesty can be downright dangerous. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Read Patrick Chovanec’s post on a remarkable story of deceit. While scams and cheating are regular fare in China media, this one is amazing….
I have some doubt about the’system’ theory of cunning. Chinese grown up in other political environment also show that trait.
I have to comment strongly on one point. Chinese people have not adopted this as a response to their one party police state. They have adopted this system through thousands of years living in a feudal system. The dawn of Communist rule and the Cultural Revolution just gave Chinese people a good excuse to screw eachother over and blame it on Mao. Just like people blamed Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot etc. People kill people. I just feel that Chinese people sleep better at night being able to blame one man.
Someone thinks this story is fantastic…
This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….
Yeah I have been here 10 years and I’ve dealt with pretty much every type of “You laowai all …” stereotype. You know, “omg you can use chopsticks! omg you can speak chinese? omg you don’t bark like a dog and scratch at fleas…” Its kind of stunning sometimes because in my mind I’ll be laughing hysterically, but because I am usually dealing with an extremely self-conscious insecure person relying on anything but his/her own spirit for confidence and acknowledgement, I have to just chuckle slightly and say “yeah thanks, yiban yiban…”
I have spoken truth to Chinese before and mostly it results in pouting in the corner, silence all around and often serious (badly concealed) hatred. But I have also had those moments where someone Chinese and I have a true, unadulterated connection of spirit – even for a few seconds – and I find that within most people, Chinese or not, that little connection is what we all desperately seek.
Giving this idea of mine, if Chinese society relies on that sneaky, hand-rubbing liar and cheat …. then the society is sick and very very sad. That’s something Americans can understand.
What we need to do is get together.
對！中國人的智慧只能用“英明”這兩個字來形容！當年美國經濟靠譜，我們就騎著美國的背，大量投資於美國！Hah? “Diversification” 是甚麼？uh…. 現在… 這就是“險中求財”嘛！你看！“英明”！
I am Chinese and I have never heard of Chinese people describing Americans as dumb simply because Americans are more straightforward. If anything, it seems most Chinese people find this particular characteristic of Americans refreshing.
As for your classmates, please stay away from them, they remind me of my high school classmates in the US… catty girl/women are everywhere, worldwide.
[…] But that’s not the reason why Yaxue Cao over at the Seeing Red in China blog thinks the Chinese specifically think we’re dumb as a doorknob (you can read her full post here). […]
As i have been living in Asia for some time, as well as in North Africa, I hope I will try to convey my inner thoughts on the subject ( already a naive thing to do ).
We can say want we want about Americans, but they are go-gethers, extremely creative, he who has failed can stard again and succeed in America ( to some extent also in Canada, where I hail from ).
I respect every race ( Asians, Africans, and so on ) and cultural backgrounds of all sorts, for their spirit, be it of entrepreneurship for the Chinese, of acceptance of the life’s hardships, to give just an example or two. I have learned a lot from Chinese people. From Arab people as well…As from Americans.
I am convinced however that many can learn a lot from myself and my fellow Westerners: How to enjoy life more, which does not have to mean that you have to less less productive in the work place. That would stem from my French heritage I gather ( I am French – Canadian ).
Perhaps my Chinese friends feel more at ease and less guarded with me because I easily share with some ( not all ) of them. By the way, it is not so hard to read Chinese faces 😉
I am sorry for my typing mistakes.
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I wonder what these “smart” people think of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, if they’ve heard of it at all. It suggests that the “dumb” approach is actually the optimal one. Obviously it’s just a thought experiment but it does seem to roughly model a lot of real-world situations where defaulting to mutual trust benefits everyone involved.
It seems to me that this kind of worldview has a lot more to do with guanxi than it does with face. You will act with integrity toward people with whom you have lots of guanxi — and ONLY toward those people. The less guanxi you have with someone, the less deserving of trustworthy behavior they are, dwindling down to zero for strangers.
The ‘dumb’ approach with all the guys of African descent locked up ???
800/100.000 imprisoned in the US; compare with 80/100.000 in Europe !
On the other point, I agree.
After being in China for 8 years, I just now expect the “lie” from Chinese people. Although, I prefer to refer to it as “the hustle” or someone “trying to get over on me”. I actually don’t think it is a bad characteristic and feel it is a part of human nature.
I would like to make a few points about this phenomenon in China as I too, have been bombarded with the myth of Chinese cleverness and American (the stereotypical term for all foreigners) stupidity.
1. In many ways Chinese cleverness is in serious decline.
2. I am more wary of foreigners’ and their schemes than of the Chinese.
Like it or not, and Ya Xuecao did an excellent job explaining the reasons why, Chinese are forced to engage in this behavior. In most situations it is the only way to get ahead or get something done in China. This presents a problem though. Everyone is trying to “get over” on everyone else and without accountability it becomes a quasi-normal behavior. Therefor, there is no need to be constantly honing your skills and they atrophy.
In foreign countries, you have to be sinister as hell to “get over” on people, and if discovered for your deceit, you face possible consequences to your financial, social, and possible physical well-being (granted these consequences are more for the normal citizen, politicians are different). Whereas in China, no one notices, they just ignore it, or no one cares. You do not have to be a con man in China.
I often remark to my Chinese friends when they brag about “getting over” on others in China that in many ways it is akin to bragging about speeding on the Autobahn.
The least and the last thing I want to do is to reinforce the already existing stereotype of Chinese that can be traced as far back as over a hundred years ago. No, there is no such thing as “Chineseness”; if there is something that can be described as “Chineseness” (let’s not engage in parsing a word), it is not inherent in the people, but the society that makes them. And I think I have in effect already voiced my rejection to that path of thinking in the post.
I totally agree with “Steven Grimm”: “the “dumb” approach is actually the optimal one.”
Labelling [“dumb”] to me less interesting than describing. Let me try to explain: This post, to me, is about types, types or categories of mistakes. Americans seem more prone to make certain types of mistakes than Chinese. Chinese seem more prone to make certain types of mistakes than Americans. Setting aside the overarchiing error of attempting to essentialize either 1.2 billion people or 300 million people I’d be interested in a taxonomy of mistakes more likely in certain cultures how what may be judged a mistake by Chinese isn’t judged a mistake by Americans and vice versa. Also missing here was age and gender cohort. In my limited experience the differences between Americans and Chinese increases with age. In other words 20 somethings of the two countries have vastly more in common [perhaps including the tendency to make certain “mistakes”] than 60 somethings of the two countries.
In my opinion, Chinese people have suffered a lot of indignities in the past;
They have every right to be happy. They’ve earned it. And it may profit everybody. ( Not a vague notion of harmony. )
But greed – which exists everywhere from America to China – is too strong a current…. It is hard to resist in these material worlds.
Instead of placing our hope in a system, better to be pragmatic, put bread on our table.
Sorry, Dude. The indignities suffered by Chinese people were caused by Chinese people. China sold their own country to the Japanese. Chinese people killed eachother during their civil war; and Chinese people killed eachother during the cultural revolution. Let’s face it…Chinese people like to kill, sellout and stab eachother in the back. They have been doing it for centuries and, if you look carefully, Chinese people are exactly the same towards eachother today as they always have been.
Kev, you’ve already left multiple comments on this blog that don’t serve any purpose except to deride and dehumanize Chinese people and suggest that all of their human and societal flaws are a result of their ethnicity. Since no one seems to be moderating your comments, I will call you out for what you are: a fucking racist troll. Your comments are not a thoughtful or legitimate critique of Chinese society and beliefs, because they all depend on reducing a complex population, history, and society to baseless generalizations of the Chinese’ supposed inherently evil preferences and habits. Of course, a deeper, well-thought out analysis like the ones posed by Yaxue would merit actual critical thinking, intellect, and willingness to learn, which, as revealed by your comments, you sorely lack.
@Teaspoon. So answer me this Teaspoon, or crawl your way back to your gutter…How did the Japanese manage to gain a legitimate military presence here in China before they attacked? Did Mao himself kill the 70 Million odd people during the Cultural revolution (he must have been very busy)? Is the concept of xin-yan 心眼 new?
In Chinese history, a lot of their Heroes are famous for “tricking” their enemies and the whole bloody cycle still remains. Businessmen boast how they cheat each other. Workers boast how they cheat their employers. Chinese use foreigners to cheat each other. Cheat, cheat, cheat. It’s one of their few traditions that they hold dear.
I don’t really care if I am perceived as a racist. That would mean that if “Jim” condemned the Nazis for the holocaust, it must mean that “Jim” is a racist. Wake up, Teaspoon, you douche bag upstart.
That would appear to be the prevalent mindset in East – Asia
Americans and westerners more trusting? Do they think westerner got to where they were by being good samaritans?
The virtuous west is a facade. Indeed, if you break an contract in the west you don’t just simply lost face; you lose you lives savings, your house, your pension, your car and your dog, get a nice criminal record next to your name. And best of all it’s all legal. China could learn a thing or two about officialdom. This guy should have given himself a raise and charge some expenses on the companies credit card if he hopes to emulate a real American.
“if you break an contract in the west[..]” 1. Wouldn’t that be “you” being the untrustworthy one?
Also in the USA if a contract is illegal, then one can sign an illegal contract and, at a later point, sue the company. So the company forcing people to sign an illegal contract is being punished for dishonesty
Very interesting view on what is honesty. Got your point and know your type.
I was intrigued with your article until I read the last few sentences. Chinese wisdom is a “mold?” China is a “dark and wet” place?
I have some advice to you about your writing. I hope you take it to heart:
You are an exceptional writer with discerning eyes and a superb sense of style, but I find your writing wanting, because, ultimately, you cannot write from a morally compromised position. At the most crucial junctures in your writing, you tend to hide even if you have to lie, obscure it or stop halfway, and you fail to snap it into its right place.”
I think you misread her statement. To me it seems that Yaxue is referring to the practices of lying and cheating, which the Chinese in her article describe as being characteristic of a clever person. So she is not attacking Chinese wisdom, she’s attacking Chinese “wisdom”.
A very interesting article! I like your explanation of the terms such as 心眼 and 傻. I’d like to see more analysis of Chinese culture based vocabulary.
Tao Jet (Jet Tao) of Hong Kong has written a lot about how the Chinese vocabulary shaped the culture.
Hi Yanxue Cao,
What makes you think that US or other Western countries do not have those cleverness? ever been invovled in an office position promotion fight?
If yout think they are dump that is your problem. To me, they are clever as hell.
I think you have misunderstood this article. Please read it again.