Don’t Judge by the Cover


GETTING THROUGH: Talking to people and not at them is the way to communicate

I read with interest an online exchange between a Chinese friend and someone he was chatting with in America. The dialogue could have been a way for both people to learn more about the other’s culture. Instead, both parties ended up talking at each other, not with each other. That is to say, they weren’t really listening to each other. The end result was sadly predictable. Both people drew on their stereotypes of the other culture and left it at that.

People have a tendency to stereotype when they are unfamiliar with another’s culture. The unfortunate part is that the sources of these stereotypes are often questionable. Or perhaps a person forms their own negative impressions from one or two experiences with someone of another culture. People miss too many opportunities for true intercultural communication because they automatically fall back on stereotypes. What’s more we often don’t even realize that we are doing it!

In the online exchange, the Chinese person was flabbergasted that the American did not know where Canton was. I was more surprised that he was flabbergasted. China has traditionally been a closed society and there are many misconceptions and stereotypes about the country.

Before I came to China, I admit that I had many preconceptions. For example, I believed that what was called Chinese food in Canada was what was served out here. Much to my surprise and delight, Chinese food is much different than its adulterated form in Western countries and also much better. I believed that all Chinese people spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese. I didn’t realize how many different dialects there are across China. I thought that Chinese people were all the same and did not realize that every city has its own flavor and that China is a country of many subcultures, each with its own view of the world.

I soon found that I had to revise my view of China. Having lived here a few years I’ve had the opportunity to become more China savvy. However, the fact remains that the people I left behind have not. The questions I hear every time I go back to Canada continue to surprise me. Questions from the slightly amusing: Are you sure your cat is safe there? To the downright disturbing: How do we know that you won’t be sold into slavery? I love to talk about China and my experiences, and I try to do my part in educating people about what it is really like. They are shocked and very interested when I describe to them how modern many places are, the contrasts between the old and the new, and the differences among the Chinese people.

Misperceptions also work the other way. Since I have come to China, I have also had the opportunity to learn what people know about Canada. In general, there are four things that always come up:

Canada is cold. Well sure, that’s true in many parts of Canada. I used to just smile and nod and agree that Canada was indeed cold. Then a friend from Canada’s west coast took me to task. Where she’s from it doesn’t get very cold. It rarely snows and the temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the summer.

Canada is beautiful. There are many parts of Canada that are very beautiful. There are also many smoggy, polluted and ugly places. Not every corner of Canada is pretty.

Norman Bethune is the most notable Canadian. While every Chinese person knows who Norman Bethune is, a lot of Canadians will sadly say, who? On the other hand, they are appalled that people don’t know the name of our prime minister.

Da Shan (Mark Roswell) is the most notable Canadian. Since you are Canadian, the Chinese will say, you must know who Da Shan is. But outside of China, very few people know about Da Shan. He lives close to me in Canada, but, no, I have never met him.

I hope that these are not the only four things that Chinese people know about Canada, but it’s almost all I hear about it. Yet it doesn’t surprise me because few people have had the opportunity to live in Canada for an extended period of time (a vacation is not enough). I don’t blame people for their lack of information, because the misinformation about Canada is similar to that of China.

I have found other stereotypes about Canadians to be beneficial in my travels. Canadians are known worldwide as friendly peacekeepers. I am generally welcomed with open arms or at least neutrality, unlike my American friends who are constantly quizzed about their president and his ambitions. The interesting thing is that all those stereotypes I have been told about Americans don’t usually hold up when I meet one. So I have learned that if we strive to really talk to people and not talk at them, that is not assume they are like their stereotypes, then we will really learn what the world is like and not what we have been told it is like.

The author is a Canadian who runs a business with her husband in China