Aggressiveness Versus Humbleness
One area where there was a clash in values regards aggressiveness versus humbleness. In China, preserving the social harmony is the foremost goal of society. Obedience, patience, restraint, and forbearance are all considered virtuous characteristics for an individual to have. Efforts to achieve individual goals are often regarded as inappropriate, and attempts to show off a person’s capabilities or importance normally perceived as presumptuous or arrogant (Li 1993). Humbleness and modesty are stressed repeatedly in the Chinese way of life. However, once they were in American land, students found their habitual humbleness and modesty sometimes brought them undesirable consequences. A bioengineering student disclosed:
I think Chinese traditional values, such as humbleness, restraint, or forbearance, have no use here. Americans will look down upon you, if you do that. Last semester, I wanted to take a course, and I talked to the professor who taught the course. When we met, he asked: “How good are you in bacteriology?” “Just so-so,” I responded in a Chinese traditional humble manner. He then added, “My course is very difficult and only super smart students can pass it. I think you’d better not take it, otherwise, you might get C or D in my class.” I do not know why he perceived me as so lacking of talented and incapable. You know I never took his class before. Later on, I think it might be because of my low-profile personality and humble attitude, which is so valued in China but does not work in America. However, back then, I was unable to figure out why I, an overachiever through years, had become a stupid person in an American professor’s eyes. I felt so hurt, painful, and frustrated. I cried the whole night. I insisted on taking this course, but I felt so stressed and I experienced emotional instability during that semester. I was haunted by his words.
In many instances, I went to bed and I could not fall asleep once I thought that I might get C or D in this course. It was a terrible experience, even though I got an A in the end. (Participant 17)
The influence of traditional Chinese values produced another problem for Chinese students when it came to job searching—that is, how to sell themselves. Ten of the respondents indicated that in America, where one has to sell oneself largely on one’s own, individuals have to depart from traditional humbleness and be more aggressive. An MBA student revealed:
In China, we have no experience in selling ourselves. Chinese culture does not encourage people do the “selling.” Anyone who openly publicizes his or her personal achievement would be considered overaggressive, whereas, in America, you have to be aggressive and show all you have to convince the employer you are the best among all the candidates. I learned this from my own internship experiences at IBM. When I did my internship at IBM last summer, I was assigned to collaborate on a project with another intern from India. To tell the truth, this Indian guy did not contribute a lot to our project. He neither showed up on time when we met, nor completed the part he was supposed to finish. Since the deadline was coming, I could not wait for him but finished the project largely on my own. What he did only accounted for 10 percent of the final project. However, when we presented our project to those managers in charge, the Indian guy suddenly changed to a totally different person: active, aggressive, capable, you name it. He bragged about what he did this and that in this project, how he went all out to get through this project. He tried his best to convince IBM mangers that he contributed a lot in this project, that he knew everything about this project, and that he would be the best candidate if there was an opening. In a 1-hour presentation, he talked about 50 min and left me only 10 min. The way he pretended to be the main contributor in this project really pissed me off. However, a month later, I found out he beat me and finally won the IBM position. I learned a lot from him. He might not be a good employee, but he definitely knew how to sell himself. As a Chinese, I am taught that a real knowledgeable person would only show 50%, if he or she has 100%. However, in America,
I think that you should show all you have, even brag some about what you could do in order to get a potential position. Otherwise, people take your humbleness as lack of capabilities, lack of talent, lack of confidence, or lack of communication skills. (Participant 1)
Manual Labor Versus Mental Intellectuals
Another area where there was a clash in values regards manual labor versus mental intellectuals. For well-educated Western youths, experiences with low-paid, parttime jobs can be associated with economic independence. However, manual labor is totally uncustomary and unpleasant for many well-educated Chinese students. In America, facing financial difficulties, Chinese students, especially those selffunded Chinese students, had to work to support their studies. However, finding a decent job in America was anything but easy for Chinese students. Chinese students encountered two major problems. On the one hand, as discussed earlier, because the US government regulations did not allow international students to seek off-campus employment, law-abiding employers dared not hire Chinese students; on the other hand, Chinese students’ limited communication could not convince potential on-campus employers that they were right for the job. Circumscribed by these factors, most Chinese students generally settled for the low-paying manual jobs. Many of these jobs were undesirable or unwanted by American workers. Most of them ended up taking jobs as waiters or waitresses in Chinese restaurants.
Respondents described their physical and psychological stress of working in Chinese restaurants. A political science student said:
You cannot imagine how unbearable [working in Chinese restaurant is] if you did not go through it yourself. Since the restaurant owner knew Chinese students needed money and had to work illegally, they treat us like slaves and make us work to our full limit. The owner told me that I should not stop working for a minute as long as I was in the restaurant. My major responsibility is to cut vegetables and slice meat. I had to cut up all the vegetables and slice the meat when the cook needs them. Once the cutting job was done, I needed to make thousands of dumplings. We had only 30 min for lunch. Except for these 30 min, I have to keep working and running like a machine. By the time I got home, I could not even raise my arms. My back was in such pain and I could not even lie down in the bed. (Participant 3)
To some extent, physical pain is something to which one can adjust with relative ease. What is hard for Chinese students to bear is the psychological pressure resulting from social status loss and intellectual worthlessness. A public administration student said:
I worked in a restaurant on the weekends last year. Recalling those days, there was a lot of pressure in my life. In China, I worked as a journalist for a well-known newspaper. I had a fairly high social status. But here, I feel I am at the bottom of society. Most of my coworkers were uneducated illegal immigrants. The things they talked about were vulgar. Being with these people made me feel inferior too. When I worked in a small darkened kitchen and heard dirty jokes, I felt devastated and hopeless. Besides the loss of social status, I felt doing the job was a waste of time. I am supposed to come to the United States to pursue my doctoral degree, not to work as a waitress. When I was cutting veggies, or washing dishes, I felt empty and disappointed. I dared not tell my parents where I worked. They would lose their minds. (Participant 11)
In China, it was believed that educated people should not engage in any physical jobs. An educated person should use his mind not his body. In Chinese culture, only those uneducated have to do manual labor to make a living. The ancient doctrine had, consciously or unconsciously, influenced many Chinese students’ views. For many of them, working outside an educational setting was commonly considered physically and psychologically unpleasant, intellectually worthless, and even socially demeaning.
The reactions toward manual labors were not all negative. Especially when they looked back, most of them saw the positive aspects of doing manual labors to support their study. Just as a student stated:
I did not feel much survival pressure when I was in China, since I was always taken care of by my parents. However, my parents were unable to support me financially anymore once I came to the United States, due to the wide gap between the income level of China and that of the United States and also as the result of low exchange rate of Chinese Yuan to the US dollar. Without any backup resources, I have to depend on myself to make a living. After tasting the difficulty in landing a job, I began to take a second look at my ability to survival and how much I am worth. I began to realize that being a nerd bookworm in an ivory tower is not enough for an adult. How to increase your market value and achieve financial independence should be given high priority as well. Accompanying this, my attitude toward life changed as well. I realized that I was too aloof and conceited before. I did not value what I got and complained a lot. After doing the manual labors in America, I know life is not easy at all. When each dollar you pay is earned by yourself, you know how to appreciate life. You feel grateful for what you have. (Participant 10)