1.2 Encountering culture in people
"My mother always said, 'Remember you are special, just like everyone else'."
1.2.1. Encountering "Foreigners"
I put quotes around the word foreigners for two reasons. 1) There is some irony in referring to people who are different as
"people who are different." To the people you consider different, you are also different; when you and a foreigner get together,
you are both foreigners to each other. 2) In Chinese, the term 外國人 is commonly translated as "foreigner," a harmless
description of people from other lands. But in American English, foreigner may have negative connotations as a label for
unwanted outsiders. A better translation of 外國人 would be "person from another country." The connotations of this word present
an interesting case of words being imbued with cultural meaning.
Of all the peoples on earth, the Chinese are among the most homogeneous in terms of written language, physical
characteristics, and thousands of years of shared history. To be Chinese, one must be born Chinese. There are, therefore, two
basic categories encompassing the world's people most often used in Chinese language: Chinese and foreigners (中國人，外國
人). This dichotomy of native and foreigner seems obvious, and it holds in most nations of the world where cultural boundaries
and geographical boundaries are considered one and the same.
The United States of America, on the other hand, is a nation of immigrants. No one in North America, besides the relatively tiny
Native American minority, can trace their ancestry on that continent back more than several hundred years (indeed, many
thousands of years earlier Native Americans were immigrants as well). The ancestors of the vast majority of Americans were
"foreigners" there at one time. Yet it is human nature to want to belong to a group, to be an insider and not an outsider, so the
"foreigner" label is not often welcome, and not worn for long.
The character of the USA as a nation of immigrants is reflected in the connotations of some immigration-related words. Non-
offensive terms such as immigrant, international visitor or tourist, as the case may be, are substitutes for foreigner; the
euphemistic undocumented worker (referring to illegal Mexican/US border crossers) is often favored in the American media
over the negative-sounding illegal alien. And as a visiting student to the US, you will probably be termed an international
student more often than a foreign student.
In the USA -- the Nation of Immigrants -- equal opportunity and nondiscrimination are ideals. Much attention has been devoted
to cultural and racial differences, and by extension, differences of all kinds. Words such as multiculturalism, diversity and
tolerance have gained currency in recent decades, and the list of differences Americans are required to respect has grown and
become quite detailed -- not without controversy. Some Americans feel that emphasizing differences among citizens injures
our unity; other Americans feel that ignoring differences marginalizes minority groups. There is a tension between unity and
diversity, and this has been recognized since the inception of the United States, expressed in the motto printed on American
money, "E Pluribus Unum" (Latin: "From the many, one").
Here is one example, from the New York State Education Department, of a list of thirteen differences that Americans should
observe and respect: Age, color, religion, creed, disability, marital status, veteran status, national origin, race, gender, genetic
predisposition, carrier status, sexual orientation. Click on the graphic below to read the full text:
1.2.2. "Normal" people
As stated at the beginning of the first section, from birth you are trained to play many roles among the people group to which
you were born. If you have never gone overseas or spent time with "foreigners," then you have spent your whole life so far
simply being a "normal person," a friend, a student, an employee, a son or daughter, a classmate, a neighbor, a person on the
street, etc., and not "a Taiwanese." The fact that you are a native of Taiwan or any other country only becomes relevant when you
are juxtaposed with people from other countries. Up to this point, you have learned to play your roles in society well -- you know
how men/women are expected to behave, you know how a student should talk to a teacher, you know how to regard strangers
you pass on the street -- but did anyone ever teach you how to play the role of "foreigner," or "person from Taiwan," a
representative of your culture?
As a matter of fact, all the training you received from the time you were born, every word, attitude, value and belief, every
movement and facial expression, was cultural training, or enculturation. You probably don't think of the way you were raised as
enculturation; if you are like most people in the world, you think of the way you were raised as normal. You are normal --
compared to other people in your culture.
The problem with encountering people from other cultures is that everyone tends to think their cultural ways are the normal
ways. Lesson number one in cross-cultural encounters is: You need to accept that there are many different "normals" in the
world. It is quite natural to think your culture's way is the right way, the best way, or the only way (this is called ethnocentrism),
but that won't win you many friends from outside your own culture. To help you appreciate and understand people who have
very different ideas about what is normal, I suggest three concepts: cultural relativism, common ground, and focus on specifics.
1.2.3. Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism
"Ethno-" means a group of people or a culture; "-centric" means center. Thus to be ethnocentric is to think that your culture is
the "central" culture of the world. We are all ethnocentric to some degree, which is certainly not a bad thing; it simply means we
identify with the way of life into which we were born. Extreme ethnocentrism (or xenophobia) -- the idea that one's culture is
superior, and therefore other, "inferior" cultures must be hated, rejected or destroyed -- is an unfortunate feature of humanity.
Examples, such as Nazism and "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans and Rwanda, racism and discrimination strong and mild,
Cultural relativism is basically the idea that all cultures are equal, and no one culture is better than another. This sounds like
the perfect antidote to ethnocentrism, but it is a bit more complicated than it appears at first. If we place the value of equality
above all other considerations, deciding that everything is relative, we can say that your evil might be my good, and vice versa,
because there are no absolutes. There is a contradiction in this: Would it not be ethnocentric to impose the idea of absolute
equality? Let's just say cultural relativism assumes all cultures have an equal right to exist, and that particulars of morality can
be decided on a case-by-case basis.
You needn't go outside your culture to find people who have very different ideas about "absolute truth," and by and large (setting
violent religious fascists aside), you will find these people living together peacefully. There is always some room in friendly
relations for differences of belief and opinion. Friends know better than to challenge friends' cherished beliefs, insisting they
are merely "options" among many options. Having lived in Taiwan and America, I can assure you there is a balanced number of
people in both countries who stand firmly on both sides of every controversial moral issue of the day. People are people: No
one has a monopoly on moral virtues.
It is one thing to say that all cultures have an equal right to exist, but it is not the same as saying all people in all cultures must
accept all beliefs and practices as equally good or right. Cultural relativism need not assume moral relativism. In the realm of
friendly relations, it is important to maintain your own ideas of right and wrong without imposing those ideas on people whose
ideas differ from yours. Encountering people whose beliefs are different from your own should not be taken as a challenge to
your beliefs, nor should you be expected to embrace contrary beliefs. Respect should be mutual.
1.2.4. Common ground
So far we've been focusing on differences between cultures. In fact, similarities between people outnumber cultural differences
[note]. Much of what makes people different from one another is found within a society: difference in personality, gender, age,
social class, residence (city people vs. rural people, for example), income and education levels, and so on. It is quite possible
that you have more in common with a Mexican who is your age, gender and personality type than you have with a compatriot
who differs from you in age, gender and personality type. When you focus on the similarities, the differences won't seem so
large. For effective communication, it is most useful to view people in terms of the things you have in common, to find common
1.2.5. Focus on specifics
You could look at a person in many ways, on many levels, from very general (e.g., Eskimo woman) to very specific (Marjorie, the
neighbor who borrowed your motorcycle). Although people may be proud of their nationality or culture, no one wants to be
merely "an Eskimo," "a Chinese," "an American," or "a Frenchman." As stated above, one's nationality only becomes relevant
when juxtaposed with other nationalities. People generally prefer to be seen as individuals (as you also do, I'm pretty sure).
Consider that when you make a friend, you do so on the basis of specific things such as common interests, and common
situations in life. You'll find friendship comes faster with a foreign person when you regard him or her as an individual with a
name and not as a "foreigner" from such-and-such a country.
1.2.6. Cross-cultural "do's and don'ts"
How do you know what to do and what not to do in cross-cultural encounters? Let's say you read a book about American
manners and customs, something like "Do's and Don'ts in American Culture." That might give you some insight into American
behavior, but does it explain the behavior of every individual American you might meet? The chances are good that a manners
and customs book would help you to form stereotypes, which are rigid impressions or opinions of a person based on
generalizations about the group of which he or she is a member. Actually, the "do's and don'ts" of every culture can be
simplified as follows, and they are not much different from what many mothers from cultures all around the world teach their
Unless you have a close, personal relationship with a person from any foreign culture...
- Regard him or her kindly, and be brave: It is natural for some people to feel afraid when meeting a foreigner, but that fear can
be misunderstood as disdain or discrimination.
- Respect his or her things, person and space: Different cultures have various ideas about what is personal, private, or public.
These ideas are mostly out of awareness, so it is safest to simply keep what you consider a polite distance.
- Be patient: You might find someone's behavior frustrating and not know why. Until you understand exactly what is going on, be
patient and forgiving.
- Ascribe the best intentions: When you don't understand someone's behavior, it is best to assume that his or her intentions are
- Touch his or her person and things: Touching is used to communicate, and might have very different meanings from one
culture to another. Make sure you have explicit permission to touch anything.
- Criticize him or her or anything about their culture: The roots of one's culture go very deep into a person's psyche. It is best not
to make comments about someone's culture, as they may be misunderstood as personal criticisms.
- Assume too much: You will need to assume some things, such as good intentions, but it is good practice to make as few
assumptions as possible. You should neither glorify nor vilify people.
- Force anything: If the person you are dealing with seems to resist you, don't force yourself in any way. In some cultures,
people are expected to force what they consider "kindness" on another, and the one receiving the kindness is expected to
resist, but everyone understands this is "politeness." Be safe and do not force anything.