Sunday, July 13, 2008

Culture differences and confusion

One of the things I love about Lone is that we can have so many great conversations together.

Yesterday, we went to visit one of Lone's students, a Swedish man, and we started talking about the differences in Malaysian culture (and sub-cultures of the different races/religions/etc) and Swedish culture.

This man has been working here in Malaysia for the past couple of years, before his company will be sending him to yet another country to work for a while. He holds one of the top managerial positions in the company now in Malaysia, and he mentioned how flummoxed he was when he first started managing Malaysians.

In Swedish culture, it's common and even encouraged, that the employees give honest and sometimes negative feedback to their bosses. The people are more willing to share their opinions, which as Hans (the Swede) says, is a good thing, because you get honest feedback and that's one of the best ways to improve.

Part of it is because of the 'lifestyle' there; there is a very, very strong job security in place in Sweden. Employers cannot, by law, fire any employees there,(there may be some caveats which we didn't go into details about...) and the only time they can fire anyone is if they can prove that they are doing it to downsize the company. And if they are doing it to downsize the company, they can't even choose who they want to fire. The person who gets fired, is always the newest employee. It doesn't matter if you're more skilled or hardworking or whatever, if you're the newest one, you get fired.

The good thing, of course, is that it breeds a company loyalty, in that the longer you stay with a company, the more protected you are. In fact, personally, I believe this is a great policy all around, for many reasons. But at the same time, I also know it will not work for us.

It works for them, because of the details in their upbringing and their culture and all the little things that make them who they are as a culture, which makes them not take advantage or abuse a system like this.

It will not work for us, because our culture and the many little details of our own upbringing and societal conditioning, has made us into a different type of people. One that learns that it's better to be kiasu. And I believe, a system like that will not work because it will definitely be misused by us.

Anyway, it got me thinking further, you know. And later, when Lone and I went for supper, we started discussing about cultural differences and how interesting it was.

We started pin-pointing on the Malaysian culture, and the Chinese sub-culture in particular.

I said that one of the biggest problems with some of the Malaysian Chinese in our generation is that they are majorly confused. Majorly, inescapably, extremely, confused.


Because we are conditioned by our parents, by our friends, the people around us, that we have to be a certain way.

And then we are taught, in our colleges, in the books we read and the movies we watch, that we have to be a different way.

More specifically, our Chinese backgrounds and culture which is so deeply ingrained into us, have us living in total contradiction with the Western teachings that we consciously think is a 'better' way to live.

An example is that in Chinese culture, we are brought up to be humble and 'put ourselves down', it is a very, very old culture that most of us don't do anymore in its original form, but which we still do in a watered-down form.

If someone compliments you and say, "You have a very intelligent son." It is polite and expected of you to say, "No, my son is very stupid." Of course, now we don't do that anymore, but it is so deeply ingrained into our subconscious, that we still sometimes find ourselves unable to just completely accept the compliment with grace and pride. We have to say something like, "No la, your son is smarter," or "No la, my son still need to improve more."

It's also partly our fear of the 'compliment-er's' perception. If we did in fact, replied with something like, "Yes, of course my son is smart, we are so proud of him," we worry that the person may think we are showing off, that we are prideful, or whatever they want to think.

Personally, I'm one of those people who don't really have much of a humble bone in my body, not necessarily a good thing, and I would think nothing of accepting a compliment with a simple "Thank you" and a very big smile. Which, by the way, is what most of us are consciously taught that we should do, but which most of us seldom actually do. But I understand the reason that we mostly don't do it too, because the reaction we get is quite negative.

Perhaps the best example I can give, and the reason I gave up on studying Psychology in college, is this...

Ok, picture this, when you're a child and in school, maybe you have some brothers or sisters, maybe you have some other friends. Your parents are always telling you to study hard, study hard, study hard. They want you to have good results, but they are *always* comparing! Always!

How come your results are not as good as your brother's? How come your friend got 9A's and you only have 5? How come your math is so poor when your sister is a genius at math? And on and on and on....

So we learn to always compare ourselves with others. And of course, you *never* win when you do, because there will always be someone better than you in something! Not everyone will be better than you in everything, of course. It's just one particular person will be better than you in this, and another will be better than you in that, and that's perfectly normal, coz you would be better than them in certain things too.

But our parents have ingrained this comparing thing into us so badly that we always feel insecure and a lack of confidence.

So we go to college, and we(I) study Psychology, and the lecturer tells us that we must be confident, confident, confident! We must believe in ourselves! We must trust ourselves! We must whatever! The point is, they tell us to be confident.

Frankly, I've never lacked confidence. My parents never did that comparing thing with me, so I never really got the concept of comparing yourself against others.

That's not to say that I'm like, completely egotistical or whatever. I do have my own insecurities sometimes, and every once in a while, I do compare, but I always do it with a certain perspective.

I mean, I *know* perfectly well, that I'm definitely not the best in everything I do, and there are always people better than me, but that doesn't mean I'm a good-for-nothing either, coz I do what I do best, with all the things that I have!

For example, I love singing and I think I'm pretty decent, but I will never be a Mariah Carey or an Alicia Keys, but that sure doesn't mean I should stop singing.

And I think I'm pretty good-looking, I mean, I'm not horrible looking, but I'm also one of those people who don't really spend a lot of time on maintaining her looks. I'm chubby in certain places, I have really dry skin, I can't be bothered to shave my legs or tweeze my eyebrows, I don't even like shopping for clothes that might make me look better, and I'm too lazy to spend even 5 minutes putting lotion for my dry skin. So yeah, I do sometimes feel insecure when I stand next to a barbie doll, but I also know I'm good at certain things that she probably wouldn't have a clue at.

So you see, I believe in myself. I have confidence in myself. I don't really compare, much. I just do what I do, and try to improve myself the best that I can. I have never had the mindset of 'being better than the other person', but I always try to live by 'being better than what I used to be'.

So anyway, when I went to college, and the Psychology lecturer/counselor was preaching to the students with low confidence to be confident, I thought, "Great! Teaching people to be confident is a great, great, thing!"

Until I had my one-to-one sessions with the counselor and realize how hypocritical it all was.

Students are encouraged to go to the counselor every once in a while, to 'ground' themselves, or to get support or when they're feeling down, or whatever.

So I went for mine, and I guess he might have been really used to low confident students going to him, and replying with 'Be confident! Believe in yourself!" because when he started talking about confidence, and I said, "Oh, I have no problem with confidence...." intending to talk about other areas where I wanted his help instead, he snapped at me and said, "Then why are you here for?"

Inside I was shocked! But outside I smoothed it over by ignoring his snappish tone and going ahead to talk about the other issues.

I was really disappointed though. Up until then, he had seem like a really great counselor who was always patient with students' problems and I always agreed with the things he taught us, consciously. Even after that incident, when I talked about other problems other than with confidence, he would very patiently help me. I still think he was a great counselor, but I just feel like, our conscious learning, and our subconscious conditioning, are so totally at odds with each other.

Everybody loves preaching to people about how they should be confident. But what do they do when they meet someone who is actually confident? They think he's egotistic!

I know there's a line somewhere, between being confident and being egotistic, and perhaps it's to do with our individual interpretations as well.

I think confidence is purely a 'self' thing; believing in yourself, knowing your own abilities, how good you are and where you can improve, etc. I think egotism is an 'other' thing; how much better you are than the other person, what you can do vs what they can do, etc.

By this definition, I'm confident and not egotistic, coz frankly, I don't much care what other people can or can't do. I'm too busy improving myself.

Anyway, the point here is, (after zigzagging through all my musings) the problem with people nowadays is that they are confused because they are trying to fuse their Chinese upbringing, with their Western education, and they end up contradicting themselves and being hypocritical.

I don't care if you want to follow the Chinese culture, coz I think culture is a great thing, and whatever that may have worked for a people for so many centuries definitely has its place. And I don't care either, if you choose to follow your Western influences and teachings, because they have their own greatness.

But when you try to do both, which contradicts each other... consciously, you say you value confidence, subconsciously, you put down anyone who even shows a little hint of confidence in themselves... that's just plain confusing to everyone! And it makes it really hard for our next generation to learn, because they don't know if they should be confident or humble or what the hell!

Anyway, I'm done. Sorry for the really long post, and I think, a rather confusing one. LOL! It is a confusing subject, so what do you expect?! =P Feel free to tell me your opinions, I always love a good discussion.