“Thirty-four million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discourse were lost in 2016 owing to partisan effects,” according to research published in the June issue of the journal Science.

Emotional political partisanship that has escalated this last year-and-a-half caused politically split families to cut short their Thanksgiving dinners by 30 to 50 minutes, according to researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles and Washington State University.

This heightened acrimony and polarization of the Western political system, and the current levels of personal anger expressed in public media is very apparent to the Chinese who follow world events. It is a climate that most of my colleagues in China simply cannot understand.

This cultural difference goes back over 2,000 years. Western cultures evolved from ancient Greek traditions. When there were opposing ideas, both advocates came to a public forum and argued their case. The audience would vote and one would win.

Asian culture goes back to a Confucian tradition. Society operated under a set of rules establishing relationships; children obeyed parents and wives obeyed husbands, similar to Western customs. But when there were larger opposing ideas for public discussion, both parties could politely argue their case. Then a decision would be made that found a “middle way.” The result would be some accommodation of both side’s viewpoints.

To a Western teacher in China, it can be frustrating getting Chinese students to discuss an issue and come to one conclusion. They will often bring up: “Well, on one side such-and-such, but then on the other side there are other advantages and disadvantages, too.”

Westerners are predisposed to assert “I have my rights!” But “rights” is rather hard to translate to an equivalent in Chinese. They would state: “I have my responsibilities.” And when navigating a population with four to five times more people, going-with-the-flow works. Demanding your right of way causes gridlock.

Asian cultures take a long view, and family comes first. Each person weighs their obligations as a descendant of ancestors long dead, but who worked hard to maintain the family lineage. And each person is responsible for doing their best today for their future family yet unborn.

In Asia, continuity and reliability is highly valued. If the government is doing its job — repairing the roads, providing electricity, maintaining schools, etc. — then an average person can get on with life with little concern for political debate. 

I was teaching in China last fall when the People’s National Congress was in session in October. While all of the media followed it in the news, I was surprised by how little the general public watched it on television. But a few weeks later, everyone came into the university offices with smiles on their faces.

“Why is everyone happy?” I asked.

“All university professors are getting a 20,000 yuan raise next year (about $3,000),” they replied.

They described how professors were being lured away from university positions by the growing commercial industries, and this was a government strategy to keep universities strong. There were also nationwide raises for high school teachers and medical and health workers for the same reason.

In these last five months after returning to America, I have seen how our only recourse for teachers to get higher pay and better classroom support was to go on strike. We have a political system that operates by confrontation. We now live in daily strife.

But if a government does its job and meets its responsibilities, a population can thrive in peace.

 

Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.