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Return Migration and IdentityA Global Phenomenon, A Hong Kong Case$

Nan M. Sussman

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9789888028832

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888028832.001.0001

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Confucius and Socrates: Ancient philosophies, migration, and cultural identity

Confucius and Socrates: Ancient philosophies, migration, and cultural identity

(p.232) (p.233) 10 Confucius and Socrates: Ancient philosophies, migration, and cultural identity
Return Migration and Identity

Nan M. Sussman

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks to the past to Chinese philosophy, religion, and history to help in understanding the unique Hong Kong response to remigration and identity. It notes that the teachings of Confucius and Laozi, among others, form a four-thousand-year-old foundation for looking at the migrant psychology of contemporary Hong Kongers. These formative schools of thought are contrasted with those of the ancient Greek philosophers, whose work similarly shaped Western culture, including psychological responses to cultural transitions.

Keywords:   Chinese philosophy, religion, history, Hong Kong, remigration, identity, Confucius, Laozi, ancient Greek philosophers

Balance is the great schema of the cosmos;

     Harmony is the universal path of life as a whole.

Adapted from Zhuangzi

There was an old farmer whose only horse ran away. Knowing that the horse was the mainstay of his livelihood, his neighbors came to commiserate with him. “Who knows what’s bad or good?” said the old man, refusing their sympathy. Indeed, a few days later his horse returned, bringing with it a wild horse. The old man’s friends came to congratulate him. Rejecting their congratulations, the old man said, “Who knows what’s bad or good?” As it happened, a few days later when the old man’s son was attempting to ride the wild horse, he was thrown and broke his leg. The friends came to express their sadness about the son’s misfortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the old man. As it happened, the army came to the village to conscript all the able-bodied men to fght a war against a neighboring province, but the old man’s son was not fit to ride and was spared. And so on…

Ancient Chinese story

Geography, history, politics, economics, and psychology intersect with any investigation of Hong Kong identity. When cultural transitions are added to the mix, the outcome is understandably complex. Flexibility and pragmatism, hallmarks of Hong Kong society, set the tone for overseas adaptations and for repatriation accommodations. The resultant additive (p.234) identity allows Hong Kongers to feel comfortable whether in the Western diaspora or back home in Hong Kong. In both large and small decisions, the behavioral consequences of the additive identity were enacted. This investigation predicts that in the future Hong Kongers will continue to be both geographically and psychologically mobile, returning to their countries of immigration to fulfill strategically developed family decisions and plans.

What accounts for the pragmatism and ease with which the Hong Kongers adjusted to their return? And, conversely, why is repatriation so stressful for Westerners? One likely explanation is in the opposing foundational cultural philosophies of the East and West regarding psychological consistency, compromise, and stability. Chinese philosophy has a 2,500-year tradition of accepting contradiction and complexity through compromise. Daoism and Confucianism both extol the virtues of the dialectic and of the importance of finding the middle way. The ancient name of China itself, the Middle Kingdom, underscores these notions.

An equally long tradition stemming from ancient Greek philosophy teaches the opposite lesson — that logic and its corollary, the “either-or” principle, are preeminent. Contradictory ideas or behaviors must be resolved to support one idea or the other, and, once the contradictions are resolved, consistency must be maintained. Changing responses whenever contexts change must be avoided in favor of unswerving stability.

Cultural identity appears to be influenced by these divergent, yet fundamental philosophical foundations. Throughout the immigration cycle, the Chinese response to identity complexity shows flexibility and additivity. Individuals activate one identity or another in response to situational and contextual prompts. This reaction occurs without stress or angst; it is a pragmatic solution to an ever-changing cultural and geographic landscape. Identity consistency is not paramount in this psychological universe, but harmonious and sensible compromise is. Pragmatism also supports the rationale for Hong Kong remigration, in this case, economic pragmatism. The majority of returnees found the higher salaries that Hong Kong employment would pay them irresistible (although some questioned whether their standard of living actually improved).

The Western response to cultural transition is highly emotional, partly because of the felt inconsistency of holding dual identities. The response is to resolve the duality by choosing “either-or” — that is, choosing either one cultural identity or the other. An American returning to the United States from a well-adapted sojourn in France cannot be both French and (p.235) American culturally. If the individual “feels” more French, then he or she must “feel” less American, hence the preponderance of subtractive identity profiles among Western repatriates following a cultural transition. The changeover period is filled with uncertainty, the need to adjust, and a search for the correct and sole cultural identity, resulting in significant distress and discomfort for the individual. The classic psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, in which tension arises within individuals who hold conflicting attitudes, also predicts an either-or response from the individual, followed by a lessening of distress.

The remainder of this chapter seeks to expand on these ideas by exploring how the musings and teachings of philosophers twenty-five centuries ago and around the world from each other have shaped the psychological landscape of today’s global traveler.

The teachings of Confucius and Laozi

The political world of China in the sixth century BCE was torn by instability, as various warlords and kingdoms vied for superiority in the face of ineffectual emperors. Kong Qiu was born amid this turmoil and developed his ethical teachings in response to his environment and as a salve for the uncertainty of the times. As the tale of the old farmer in the epigraph at the beginning of this chapter reveals, the world is full of uncertainty and change. Finding paths to social harmony dominated Kong’s thoughts and writings. In his lifetime, in recognition of his brilliant insights as a scholar and civil servant, he was called Kong Fuzi, or Master Kong. Two thousand years later, Jesuit missionaries translated his name as Confucius and called his philosophy, then adhered to by China’s intellectual and political elite, Confucianism. Described as the Confucian Classics, his writings were not the beginnings of a religion that focused on explanations for suffering, life after death, and Truth but were an ethical guide that focused on the daily, here-and-now concerns of human interaction, good government, and friendship. These basic works consist of the Five Classics (Wu Jing) and the Four Books (Si Shu; the first book being the famous Dialogues or Analects), plus commentary, interpretation, and expansion by his disciples.

Five hundred years after the birth of Confucius, a Han dynasty emperor set up the semblance of a state university system with five colleges, each one devoted to the study of one of the Five Classics. The brightest students in the country were assigned to these colleges, and those who excelled at their studies and passed a rigorous examination would be selected to (p.236) join the cadre of administrators running the vast empire (considered the forerunner of the modern civil service system). It was not the devotion of the Emperor Wu Di alone that ensured the continuance of Confucian thinking. Because the philosopher’s works grew out of the very ecology of China and addressed the daily dilemmas of the people, millions of peasants accepted them as guides for living. Plagued by famine and flood, the natural environment also was unstable, and life was unpredictable. Confucius counseled people to exercise restraint over their desires and to distribute limited resources equally among family members. The family, not the individual, then was the core of social organization, and children were counseled to respect the dignity of all and to exercise restraint over their individual wishes in order to maintain family harmony.

By situating his dictums within nature and the agrarian economic system, Confucius developed a viable code that revived an older and orderly social system based on virtue, truth, harmony, and flexibility. Chinese schoolchildren have, for the past 2,000 years, studied those same texts, aided by the continuity of the Chinese culture and language. Subsequently, Confucian dictates have formed the foundation for the social life and thinking processes of more than 2 billion Chinese within China and the diaspora.1

The turbulent times of 500 BCE China produced another great scholar and teacher, Laozi, the founder of Daoism (Taoism), “The Way.” Daoism offered another path to harmony. Laozi advocated meditation over action, coexistence with nature, and retreat from the world. He also recognized the ever-changing nature of life, its balances and counterbalances. These he symbolized in yin-yang swirls of black and white, solid and circle. Returning, moving in endless cycles, is the basic pattern of movement of the Dao (Tao).2 Laozi’s philosophy also provided practical advice for achieving balance and calmness of body and spirit through the free fow of qi (energy) and the balance of the Five Elements (feng shui).

While Confucianism focuses on education and economic well-being, and Daoism stresses calm and harmony, both philosophies offer a way to live in a chaotic and unpredictable world. Their tenets allowed the Chinese to see the world as a whole despite its variability, to see a middle way despite extremes. Harmony with nature or with other human beings was elemental. Chinese social life was interconnected, and the fibers formed a supportive cushion for its members.

(p.237) Consequences of the ancient philosophies for values, emotions, and cultural transitions

In the famous opening lines of the Analects, Confucius states: “Isn’t it a pleasure when you can make practical use of the things you have studied?” An emphasis on the practical application of ideas reverberated in the Confucian and Daoist texts. Many themes in the writings of the Classics focused on ways to achieve smooth social relationships, and on ideal leadership qualities. Those themes help us understand the ease of the cultural adjustment of Hong Kong remigrants, who tended to have complex, additive identities and to make transitions relatively free of anxiety, distress, and emotionality.

This discussion necessarily begins with one of the basic Confucian principles: humans exist in relationship to others. Five relationships are preeminent; each is hierarchical, and each has clearly defined rules of correct behavior. Harmony (he) reigns if every member of the relationship acts in the prescribed manner of proper social behavior (li). However, each person holds membership in many relationships (one can be a parent to one’s child, yet a child to one’s own parents; a younger brother to an elder, yet a boss to an employee). In some relationships the person has the superior role, in others the subordinate. Learning how to reconcile these various, sometimes conflicting roles and the appropriate rituals for each is the key to growth. Adaptability, not consistency, becomes the hallmark of maturity and good character.3 The highest ethical goal of every person is to achieve ren (defined as humanity or benevolence). The Chinese character for ren is composed of two parts, one meaning “man” and the other meaning “many” or “society.” The best interests of both the individual and the group require attention to balance and to the adjustments needed to achieve the highest levels of humanity.4

Much of Chinese social behavior and the Chinese response to migration, remigration, and sojourner experiences can be traced to these ideas. There is a fundamental acceptance of duality, of what has been summarized as the principle of “both/and”; a tolerance for multiplicity. The Chinese can embrace multiple religions; they can engage in Buddhist and Christian rituals and follow Confucian ethics. It is interesting to note that religious wars, in which adherents of one religion attempt to dominate the adherents of another and demonstrate that they alone know the Truth, have rarely erupted in China’s long history.

(p.238) Make no mistake — harmony did not imply conformity or a lack of creativity. Throughout China’s four millennial history, innovations that have had worldwide repercussions have abounded — the introduction of ink, porcelain, nautical instruments, astronomical techniques, and medical methods. But these creative inspirations were practical solutions to real-world problems, and the development process frequently involved group discussion rather than individual thought.

Two links connect Confucian precepts and an explanation for the unique transitional behaviors of the Hong Kong immigrant and remigrant. The first connection involves understanding how Confucian teachings, through formal methods (education) and informal means (observation of family members), shape the life priorities of the people. We often refer to these concepts, which are held in high regard by a culture and are evaluated as crucial to life, as societal values. The second consideration in understanding the Hong Kong behavioral and identity response to remigration is the connection between Confucian values and a particular way of thinking about and viewing the world. This is referred to by psychologists as cognitive style.

The values held by contemporary Chinese people, whether the people are within the national borders of China; in other Asian countries with Confucian traditions, such as Taiwan, Korea, or Japan; or in countries having significant Chinese populations through immigration, such as Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand, derive directly from Confucian and Daoist teachings. What are those values, and how can they be identified? One method for examining the multitude of human values is to use a model created by the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede.5 In this model, hundreds of possible values were categorized into five superordinate dimensions. Scores on each of the five dimensions aid in mapping out the cultural contours of a country. Two dimensions are particularly relevant to the discussions here, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-term Orientation.

Uncertainty Avoidance is a constellation of values encompassing ways of handling the inevitable uncertainties in life. Some cultures have developed an intricate system of rules, regulations, laws, technology, and religion to shield their members from the anxiety of the unknown and the threat of ambiguous situations. Techniques abound to reduce ambiguity. These countries score high on the Uncertainty Avoidance Scale; out of 74 countries, at the highest end of the 100-point scale are Greece, Portugal, Guatemala, Belgium, and several Eastern European nations. In other countries and cultures, people are less concerned about the inconsistencies (p.239) and ambiguities of daily life, and their anxiety levels tend to be low. They are emotionally calm and disapprove of aggression. These citizens score on the low end of the Uncertainty Avoidance scale. Of the ten countries at the lowest end of the scale, five are Asian, including China and Hong Kong. In these countries, rules are more flexible, and the world is perceived as basically benevolent; uncertainty is considered a part of life. Lenient rules, easy toilet training for toddlers, and relaxed family life and workplace environments are typical. Problems can be solved without formal rules and on a case-by-case basis by examining each unique situation.

A second value dimension relevant to our discussion is Long-term versus Short-term Orientation. This category was developed by a team of Chinese psychologists and adapted by Hofstede.6 Specific values embedded in Long-term Orientation (LTO) include perseverance, thrift (being sparing with resources), willingness to subordinate oneself for a purpose, and personal adaptiveness. While Confucian values appear at both poles of this time dimension, the countries that scored highest on Long-term Orientation were China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam. High LTO countries have low divorce rates and consider humility to be a general human virtue. And what is virtuous depends on circumstances and not on any absolute criteria for good or evil. People learn these values by example. Work values are similar to those pertaining to the family and include learning, adaptiveness, accountability, and self-discipline; the development of lifelong personal networks (guanxi); and a focus on work life rather than leisure pursuits.

The research of Hofstede and other cultural psychologists has enabled us to identify, measure, and compare values in different countries. Within a country, however, the importance placed on some values rather than on others, or the prominence given to one value over another, helped shape the development of the national culture, which encompasses not only values but also attitudes, emotions, thinking style, and actions.

Confucius teaches that the superior (or virtuous) person is quiet and calm. Daoist ideals are also refected in contemporary emotional responses to cultural transitions. As already discussed, recent social science investigations have found a general lack of anxiety and stress among Chinese sojourners or migrants. The Hong Kong Remigration Project found similarly low levels of reported distress among returnees. Hong Kong remigrants scored low on the Repatriation Distress Scale and high on the Satisfaction with Life Scale.

(p.240) The second explanatory link between the ancient philosophers and contemporary transitions is to understand how the Confucian values of low uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation, coupled with a preference for calm, have shaped the thinking style of Hong Kongers. For this we can turn to a series of ingenious psychological experiments that compared Western (primarily American and Canadian) college students with East Asian ones (primarily Chinese, Hong Kong, Japanese, and Korean).7 What did these studies reveal about the connection between values and cognitive style and about how Chinese thinking is conceptualized?

In the first series of studies, researchers demonstrated that the “middle way,” the path to holding opposing viewpoints that resulted in reasonableness, operated in everyday thinking. In one study, college students in the United States and China were asked to rate how much they liked common American and Chinese proverbs. The Chinese students preferred proverbs that contained contradictory statements (e.g., Too humble is half-proud; Beware of your friends, not your enemies), and the American students preferred proverbs without such inconsistencies. Perhaps the students were reacting to familiarity, with the Chinese preferring Chinese proverbs and the Americans liking theirs. The study was repeated using proverbs from Yiddish (a language of Eastern-European Jews, and based on the assumption that neither group of students would be familiar with these adages. Again, the Chinese rated the proverbs that expressed contradictions as more to their liking than did the Americans.8 Dialectical thinking prevailed, as the Chinese students preferred to focus on contradictions and resolve them.

Another study asked American and Chinese graduate students at an American university to read stories about confict: one disagreement was between a mother and daughter, and one was between the conficting desires of a single individual. The participants were asked to analyze these conficts. The investigators coded the responses as either dialectical resolutions (seeking a compromise or middle way) or nondialectical resolutions. For the mother-daughter confict, 72% of the Chinese answers were dialectical as opposed to 26% of the American ones. The Chinese responses often suggested compromise solutions. In the scenario involving conficting desires, 50% of the Chinese responses endorsed compromise but only 12% of the American responses did; the Americans’ responses suggested change in only one direction.

One final empirical example of the dialectic: East Asians can simultaneously hold opposing emotions, as well as opposing thoughts. (p.241) Chinese, Korean, and American student participants were asked to rate their emotional states at the moment of the investigation, and, in general, American participants reported either uniformly positive or uniformly negative emotions. But Chinese and Korean students reported having both strong positive and strong negative emotions at the same time.9 Again, we can trace the foundations of dialectical emotions to Confucius, who stated, “When a person feels happiest, he will inevitably feel sad at the same time.”10

A second series of research studies confirmed that the Chinese embrace a holistic approach to life and to the relationships between objects within an environment. In other words, the situation in which events take place infuences the events themselves and their interpretation. Korean and Americans college students were given a “holism” questionnaire that included statements like “Everything in the universe is somehow related to everything else.” Results revealed that Koreans had a more holistic worldview than Americans. In another study, Korean and Americans were given a news account of a Chinese graduate student in the United States who tragically shot and killed his adviser and several other students. The research participants were given 100 pieces of information about the student, the professor, the school, and so on, and were asked which items would not be relevant in determining the motive for the shooting. The Koreans thought that only 37% of the information would not be relevant, whereas the Americans thought that 55% would not be useful.11

In 1991, when the abovementioned Chinese graduate student Gang Lu killed his adviser and fellow students, the story was covered widely in the press. Two psychology graduate students wondered whether the US and Chinese press would attribute similar explanations for this tragedy.12 They coded newspaper articles from both the New York Times and the Chinese-language US newspaper the World Journal for the type of explanation. The Chinese reporters focused on situational or contextual explanations for the killing rampage — for example, the availability of guns in the United States, the pressures on Chinese students, and the killer’s relationships with his adviser and fellow students. The stories in the New York Times focused on the unique qualities and character of Lu — he had a bad temper, he had a sinister personality, and so on — and his personal beliefs and attitudes. Subsequent studies examined explanations for the mass killings by a non-Chinese worker, and similar results were found. Yet another related study found that Chinese students thought that the murders might not have taken place had the contexts been different, whereas American students, (p.242) whose perspective assumes that behavior is driven by stable, individual characteristics, thought that the murders would still have taken place despite situational changes. The Chinese perspective was holistic and situational; the American view was that causes of behavior are individualistic and stable.

A third series of studies inadvertently confirmed the Confucian values of adaptability and change. Although the study set out to examine the type of interpretations that Hong Kongers give to the causes of behavior, the findings relate directly to the flexibility of identity. Hong Kong students were shown animated cartoons in which one fish was swimming in front of other fish. They were asked why that fish was in front of the others. First, however, the students had either their Western or Chinese identities “primed” by showing some of the subjects pictures of a dragon or a temple or of men writing Chinese characters using a calligraphy brush; other subjects were shown Western icons, such as Mickey Mouse or a cowboy on horseback. Flexibility of cultural identities were such that when their Western identities were primed, the Hong Kong students focused on the motivation of the individual fish, similar to the reaction of Western students. Those Hong Kong students who had had their Chinese identity primed gave a greater number of explanations that dealt with the other fish and the context.13

In summary, the flexible and additive identity, behavioral decisions, and emotional calm of the Hong Kong remigrants can be traced directly to Confucian and Daoist teachings that emphasize situationalism, compromise amid contradictions, harmony in interpersonal relations, and tranquility of emotion. These ancient philosophers prepared the Chinese well for twenty-first-century global transitions. However, Western sojourners are not as fortunate.

The teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers

What did the ancient Greek philosophers espouse that led to the development of Western values, and how did they differ from the Chinese approach? Historically, Confucius and Socrates were contemporaries, with Socrates being born 80 years later. Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were Western counterparts to Confucius and Laozi. Their teachings, and those of their disciples, provided the philosophical foundations for Western culture in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries BCE. But the similarities with Chinese philosophers end there.

(p.243) These ancient Greeks developed their ideas in response to a natural environment that encompassed both maritime activities and solitary farming and herding in mountainous regions. Food was available to those who expended great effort, and those individuals, by dint of their hard work, could influence their own lives. Additionally, individual effort could be combined with a political system and leadership style that allowed citizens freedom of movement and thought. Travel throughout the countryside expanded, and public debate of the ideas of individuals took root. This sense of personal agency or control became one of the dominant themes in Greek life. The individual, rather than the group, was the central unit of life. It is not surprising that the Olympics Games, in which individuals, not groups, competed against each other, were created by the Greeks some two thousand years ago. The Games were a celebration of individual training, strength, and spirit, and the competition, held among nude athletes, glorified the human body and elevated the winners to the level of demigods. Individual effort and individual honor were hallmarks of the Games.

Western concern was with Truth, belief, and exclusivity, as opposed to the Way, action, and harmony. The Greek preoccupation with certainty and curiosity about the natural world led Aristotle, considered by some to be the father of biology, to classify flora and fauna. He created categories and defned the shared attributes of the members of those categories; each object could then belong only to one group, either-or. Curiosity about the world also led to the development of abstract theories and models by which natural processes could be explained and predicted.

Categorization and mutual exclusivity gave rise to the philosophical Law of the Excluded Middle. When confronted with contradictory propositions, the ancient Greeks tended to polarize their beliefs — to hold one or the other. The Chinese, however, moved toward equal acceptance of the two propositions.14 Logic, a cornerstone of Western thought as a paradigm to evaluate arguments, dictates that a statement excludes its opposite: if A is true, then B (the opposite of A) must be false. Rationality is abstract, analytical, and extreme. As one scholar has said, the “Western tendency [is] to think in terms of ‘either/or’ such that the fine lines of distinction and exclusiveness so typical of Western life…are not common to the Chinese mind” (p. 6).15 Confucian thought is specifc and practical, and allows that both A and B may be true at different times and in different circumstances.

Another important element of Greek thinking was the emphasis on examining objects in isolation from their surroundings. Although the Greeks studied both human “objects” and physical objects, their focus was (p.244) increasingly on the physical and less on human attributes and relationships. Further, they considered the objects and the world around them to be static. Parmenides, another fifth-century BCE philosopher who strongly infuenced Plato, suggested that the universe is an indivisible, unchanging entity and that all reference to change is self-contradictory. In his poem Way of Truth, he claimed that change is impossible.

Extrapolating from the Greek teachings, Western psychological theory assumes that humans need and demand consistency, that they act in stable ways and search for universal laws by focusing on discrete attributes and elements in both the psychological and physical world. Even the presentation of Western philosophy and thought since Aristotle has become compartmentalized and analytic, dividing experience and life into separate aspects of knowledge and separating the mind and body for study or treatment by psychologists or physicians. Eastern thinking, however, focuses on wholeness and practical applications. Chinese philosophers looked at life and knowledge in its totality, not in its parts.16 Witness Chinese traditional medicine, which treats the mind and body as parts of a whole.

Western philosophies and contemporary cultural identity

Greek writings provided the blueprint for the development of Western values, thought, and behavior. The inhabitants of the continent, who subsequently became the nations of Europe and the Anglophone world, had Romance languages at its core and were heirs to the Roman Empire. The Roman legacy provided a system of laws that promoted consistency, the reduction of ambiguity, and universal application rather than case-by-case adjudication. Consistency within their lives could be amplifed by keeping foreign elements away from the society and by minimizing contact with those who were different.17 Thus in the Laws, Plato warns that the Utopian state must be insulated from the outside world as much as possible. In terms of foreign visitors, “good care” needs to be taken lest any “of this category of visitor introduces any novel custom.” Contact with strangers is to be kept “down to the unavoidable minimum.” Plato implores citizens not to stray from their homeland. “No young person under forty is even to be allowed to travel abroad under any circumstances; nor is anyone to be allowed to go for private reasons, but only on some public business, as a herald or ambassador or as an observer of one sort or another.” If citizens do go abroad, they are obligated when they return to “tell the younger generation that the social and political customs of the rest of the world (p.245) don’t measure up to their own.”18 Thus the Greeks developed a categorical and ethnocentric worldview, a word whose very roots are Greek.

What, then, were the links between early Greek thought, the development of Western societal values, and contemporary cognitive style? They follow a clear, linear path just as the teachings of the Chinese philosophers led to current Chinese thought.

Western countries are emphatically individualistic in their orientation to the group. The relevant Hofstede dimension in this regard is Individualism–Collectivism (introduced in Chapter 1). On the Hofstede Scale of Individualism (ranging from 0 to 100), every single country scoring 70 or above (15 countries) was Western; the United States ranked first, with a score of 91. Confucian countries, valuing family and group relationships above the self, scored in the lowest quadrant. Hong Kong scored 25; Singapore and China, 20. Proclivity toward the self among Westerners is the antithesis of the group harmony that Easterners value. Cultural adaptation, both overseas and return, is an individual struggle for the Western identity.

A corollary value, that of interpersonal equality versus hierarchy, again distinguishes Western cultures from Confucian ones. Scores on power distance, the value dimension created by Hofstede that captures these behaviors, reveal China, Singapore, and Hong Kong to be significantly more accepting of inequality and hierarchy than the United States and other Anglo and European countries are. Because they value equality, Westerners also feel less compelled to adjust their behavior in a context that may include a superior or higher-status individual. In the West, norms are looser, and cultural imperatives are less clear; as an alternative, personality-driven behavior propels the individual.

Self-emphasis overshadows other values, although the West and East differ on other Hofstede value dimensions as we have seen. The United States and other Anglo countries have a moderate score on Uncertainty Avoidance; they are more concerned about avoiding ambiguity than most Asian countries, but there is not as large a gap as with the other value dimensions. To shield themselves from uncertainty, Westerners express pride in being “governments of laws” rather than “governments of man,” as the Chinese described themselves. Western cultures have more linguistic rules. They consider what is different to be dangerous. Having less tolerance for ambiguity also generates more anxiety for the Westerner, an emotion that surfaces during cultural adaptation and repatriation.

The United States, Great Britain, and other Western countries value (p.246) Short-term Orientation (STO) compared to the Confucian countries that score the highest on Long-term Orientation. One prominent characteristic of the STO dimension is a concern with personal stability and a wish to discourage change. Another is a focus on beliefs that convey the “Truth” as embodied in “the Book” among some world religions (the Old and New Testaments, the Qu’ran) and in the legal systems. These concepts lead to sharp distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, one identity and another. Applied to cultural transitions, these values lead to the development of permanent or clearly described identities and work against the easy cultural identity flexibility and behavioral switching of the Chinese. However, “Truth,” stability, and cognitive consistency may prove to be liabilities in the fast-changing global world of the twenty-first century.

The empirical link between Western values and cognitive style has been demonstrated in many psychological studies. Do Westerners have a narrow, single-focused perspective while Easterners focus on the wider situation (the context)? Japanese and US college students were shown a short animation of rapidly moving, centrally located fish against a background of rocks, plant life, and fish that were not moving. The students were asked what they saw. While both groups mentioned the moving fish, the Japanese made 60% more references to other elements in the clip, such as the water, bubbles, and plants. The Americans were also more likely to start their narratives by describing the large, moving fish, while the Japanese tended to provide context first: “This looks like a pond.” The American students were not infuenced by the environments in other recognition tasks either, as their focus was on the central objects, and they perceived fewer relationships between objects and the environment.19

In a series of studies, Richard Nisbett and his students demonstrated that, consonant with the early philosophers, Americans today are more likely to see stability in a wide number of situations compared to Chinese.20 Shown various statistical graphs about how likely it was that a dating couple would continue to date, about whether a trend in global economic rates would continue to rise, or about whether world cancer rate trends would continue to accelerate, the Americans thought change was much less likely to occur than did the Chinese.

In general, Westerners saw fewer objects in their field of vision and fewer relationships among objects. They were also more likely to assume that the behavior of an individual was caused by stable personality traits rather than by the situation in which the behavior took place. This reliance on personal characteristics rather than on contextual elements (p.247) was demonstrated in the analysis, described earlier, of the studies on the campus shooting by Gang Lu. Psychologists have labeled this Western cognitive bias as the fundamental attribution error (FAE). Other studies have demonstrated FAE by asking research participants to read an essay that expressed a particular political point of view written by another student. Some participants were told that the students were paid to write about that particular point of view; other participants were told that the student-writers could choose their own point of view. In other words, the conditions under which the students wrote their essays were said to vary. However, this made no difference to the US participants. When asked what they thought was the actual point of view of the student whose essay they read, they indicated that they believed that all the students wrote about their own personal points of view. The notion of stable traits and beliefs overwhelmed the situational explanations.

Westerners’ anxiety-laden subtractive identity response to cultural transitions follow from the values and cognitive style laid out for them 2,500 years ago by the Greeks. A proclivity to categorize the world and make either-or decisions, to believe in one Truth, to perceive stability rather than change, to endow the individual with control, to separate the individual from the group, to ignore the situational context, and to feel distress in uncertain and ambiguous cultural situations all formed the Western sense of who they should be throughout the cultural transition cycle.

Descendants of Confucius and Laozi, Socrates and Aristotle have had their basic life values and ways of thinking shaped by the teachings of these ancient philosophers. Perhaps it should not surprise us that these values and cognitive styles also influence people’s day-to-day behavior and the decisions people make during the migration and remigration experience.


(1.) Reid, 1999.

(2.) Nisbett, 2003.

(3.) Bond and Hwang, 1986

(4.) Moore, 1967.

(5.) Hofstede and Hofstede, 2005.

(6.) Chinese Culture Connection, 1987.

(7.) Nisbett, 2003.

(8.) Peng and Nisbett, 1999.

(9.) Bagozzi, Wong, and Yi, 1999.

(10.) Nisbett, 2003.

(11.) Choi, Dalal, and Kim-Prieto, 2000.

(12.) Morris and Peng, 1994.

(13.) Hong, Chiu, and Kung, 1997.

(14.) Nisbett, 2003.

(15.) Moore, 1967.

(16.) Moore, 1967.

(17.) LaBrack, personal communication, 2007.

(18.) Kauppi and Viotti, 1992.

(19.) Masuda and Nisbett, 2001.

(20.) Nisbett, 2003.