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A look at collectivist China through the eyes of Individualistic America

Art mimics life. Or is it the other way around. One thing is for sure; when it comes to American individualism nothing describes it better than Hollywood.

Take the 1971 movie Big Jake, with John Wayne playing the title role. When his grandson gets kidnapped by John Fain’s gang, Big Jake goes into action. He packs his six-shooter and his trusty 30–30 Winchester, gets on his horse and heads out to rescue the boy. Needless to say he kills a lot of people and brings the boy back.

And what about Liam Neeson in Taken. Neeson plays ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills who sets out to rescue his kidnapped daughter from human traffickers, all by his lonesome. Do we even need to go into details? Neeson’s character Bryan Mills wipes everybody out and brings his daughter back safe and sound. Needless to say those savvy Hollywood types know what Americans like and filmed Taken 2. There is even talk of a Taken 3.

America loved the real Sargent York, who during WWI, with his army issued Springfield .30–06 carbine in hand, took hundreds of German soldiers as prisoners all by himself. But America loved the movie too, played by Garry Cooper in 1941. In real life, Sargent York exemplified American ingenuity, valor, and modesty. A true American hero portrayed in the movie that followed in a very compelling and realistic way.

Let’s not forget all the other superheroes. Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc., etc., etc.

This is a reoccurring theme in Hollywood. The one lonesome gun-slinging, karate kicking, fast thinking and determined hero, sometimes with superpowers, sometimes not, that against all odds, always comes out victorious at the end.

But why is that? The reason is simple. Movies are a reflection of our culture and our culture is the most individualistic in the world. Groups and teams are good, but individuals are better. The Hollywood guys know this and they have exploited it at every turn.

It perhaps is no oversimplification to say that if you want to understand American sense of individualism, just watch Hollywood films. In films we see a lot more than American’s predilection for the hero, the one-person wrecking crew or the win against all odds guy or gal protagonist. In films we do also see how our society gives priority to individual-oriented outcomes such as self-determination, self-reliance, and independent living. In them we also see how our culture puts a great deal of emphasis on the idea that it is our great American ingenuity which over the years has put the U.S. at the forefront of technology, creativity and inventiveness.

The fact is that we know who we are. If asked to describe individualism, most Americans should be able to give some sort of answer that perhaps while not grounded in the proper scientific vernacular social scientists generally use, is fairly accurate non-the-less.

From a more scientific perspective, individualism as described by Geert Hofstede is a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of themselves and their immediate families only. These cultures exhibit a high degree of interdependence among their members and people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I”. Governments of individualistic societies protect the individual through the notion of “liberty and justice for all” as well as equal rights to all.

These societies are known for equal sharing of information, accessibility of superiors and managers, informal communication, difficulty especially among men to develop deep friendships contrasted by an ease of interacting and talking to complete strangers. Also, within the work place hiring, promotion and decisions are based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do.

On the other hand in order to understand collectivistic societies in general we must look at their preference for tight-knit social networks in which they can expect their relatives as well as member of a larger in-group to look after them. These cultures are extremely group oriented in which decisions are based on what is best for the collective. People’s identity is based on structured social system that normally allow for less social mobility.

Political power and rights are typically more geared toward interest groups. Among these cultures belonging is emphasized to such a degree that invasion of people’s private lives by institutions and organizations to which they belong is accepted and even expected.

Ultimately, collectivistic cultures aim to be harmonious, obedient, conformative, yielding to authority and to those whose position in society are at a higher level. Students are expected to listen, and classes are geared toward teaching them how to do, rather than learning how to learn as it is the norm in individualistic societies. In addition these cultures are subject to tradition and oftentimes superstitions.

Of course individualistic and collectivistic cultures exhibit many other types of social behaviors that reflect in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or in terms of “we”. But what about us having a first hand understanding of collectivism? Where can we go to see collectivism at work? Where in this planet can we observe and experience the “We” people at their best? In most experts’ opinion, there is no better place than China.

For those Americans who are just visitors to China or to those that live there permanently, there are striking behavioral differences they notice immediately. Other forms of behavior are more subtle and take a certain period of time to recognize and understand. One behavior easily recognized which requires a great deal of dexterity and as the French would say connaitre is eating with chopsticks. While this may not be a reflection of collectivism, it is non-the-less one of the many examples of the difference between our cultures.

Among those behaviors that reflect Chinese collectivism and is quite striking to Americans is the practice of girls and/or women holding hands in public. Where Americans value privacy and personal space, Chinese prefer to express a sense of belonging. This behavior is a perfect example of the inner-group versus the outer group or network. Chinese females holding hands, even Chinese man draping their arms around the shoulders of a friend is a collectivistic expression that points to the ease and security that the inner-group or network brings. What about large groups of friends going out to town? You cannot get more collectivistic than that. Even the group selfies is an obvious celebration of the comfort and comradeship felt in the inner-group.

Another behavior Americans immediately perceive as different, is what could be described as communal dining. This is where a fairly large group of people eat at the same table sharing all the dishes. Contrast that with the scene you will normally see at an American restaurant, in which most tables are occupied by two or three people at most, and dishes are for the most part consumed by the person ordering them. This communal dining behavior is a very obvious and explicit reflection of the collectivistic nature of Chinese culture. Again, here we see the inner-group participating in comfortable network building behavior.

These behaviors described above are easily perceived. However there are other less obvious displays of a collectivistic culture that oftentimes lies below the surface and only understood under close analysis or scrutiny. Take for instance student’s behavior in a classroom. American college professors or school teachers are always amazed how well behaved Chinese students are. How much they revere and respect their instructors.

While good behavior is nice, class involvement, asking questions, offering their opinion and being part of a class in which ideas are free flowing engendering a more creative atmosphere is regrettably lacking.

The difference between an American college classroom and a Chinese one can be quite striking. An American classroom or lecture hall can be quite animated sometimes bordering on chaotic. But take heart; these students are the same ones who once out of school create disruptive technologies, breakthrough products and services as well as game changing companies and industries that keep the U.S. economy growing and competitive. The reality is that creativity and innovation sometimes requires some degree of hell raisedness!

Business is another area where upon closer scrutiny we can detect a tacit collectivistic foundation in Chinese companies that allows for the type of cohesiveness and obedience top down management organizations require. Contrast that with the American CEOs, usually considered the superstars of industry, who arguably mainly operate or attempt to operate at the individualistic hero level. Most American CEO’s boast about their ability to create a vision, implement breakthrough strategies and plans, all the while delegating authority and motivating their employees.

The difference between American CEO’s and their Chinese counterparts can be quite striking. In anecdotes that make their way around American business circles, we always hear about the CEO of a U.S. company that travels to China in order to engage the CEO of a Chinese company he does business with in a tete a tete. He is hoping to engage his counterpart in some sort of private conversation that will lead to concessions or a mutual agreement. Amazement and disappointment sets in when upon arriving at the Chinese company he is lead to a conference room where he meets the CFO, the head of quality control, the V.P. of manufacturing, a number of accountants, engineers and even administrative personnel. American hero CEO bumps into a Chinese collectivistic corporate monolith.

Perhaps the most important producer and purveyor of collectivism is the government itself. While the U.S. government attempts to protect individual rights and attempts to create an environment of liberty and justice for all, governments of collectivistic societies as it is China, attempt to maintain a stable and harmonious society.

Even from an ethical perspective, both the individualistic and collectivistic approach greatly differ. Where the American government views the meaning of the word ethics as a set of principles of right conduct and as a system of moral value, the equivalent Chinese word for ethics has more to do with the rules of society. In essence ethics as applied by the government of China is more about maintaining a stable society where people have a balanced relationship with each other while avoiding surpassing their boundaries or limitations.

At the center of this view of governance, lies the philosophy that the well-being of society is more important than an individual’s well-being. As a consequence of the desire to protect society and the status quo we see a stricter policing of the news and the media in general. Television, newspapers, internet and social media outlets all have government censors that attempt to maintain order and controlled dissemination of information.

Additionally, government decisions mirror corporate decisions in that they are top-down. Even in family settings the older members are afforded a great deal of power and say. We have all heard about the Chinese mother-in-law ruling the roost. In fact it can be said that in every aspect of Chinese society there is one person or one entity occupying a top position dictating instructions to those below. This type of social interaction would cause a great deal of consternation and disputes in the U.S.

Undoubtedly, The Middle Kingdom is a fascinating and enchanting land. American ex-pats must all agree that living in this vast country of 1.4 billion people has to be among one of the greatest learning experiences they have encountered.

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