Thursday, August 19, 2010

Asian Culture Shock: Can’t blame culture all the time

I don't know if anybody else has gone through this stage of culture shock - For a long while I buried language issues as the cause of most arguments in my marriage, in favor of cultural: after all, how could a missed past tense compare to the overbearing presence of mother-in-law. However, it slowly dawned on me that our problems were not so intractable. This wasn't the first time:
The wife was upset about work again – complaining about her boss.
“She shout at me,” she said.
“I'm sorry. Anyway, but she shouldn’t shout at you,” I replied.
“She shout me,” she said again.
I had no idea why she had just repeated the last sentence back to me again instead of engaging my point. However, I tried to keep my temper and repeated myself again.
“I know, but she shouldn’t shout at you - It is not professional.”
“No, she shout me. If she want.” She was herself angry at this point because she was sure she was addressing my point.
I lost my temper: “Are you listening? Why don’t you answer the point being put to you? - It is wrong to always shout at people.”
Now she exploded: “Why you don’t keep your temper? I think she can shout me - She is the boss.”
I was about to launch a tirade when I realized she had finally answered the question. I didn't agree that it was ok for bosses to shout, but at least she had answered the question. It was another 20 minutes spoilt because she had not added the word ‘can’ to the sentence. I wanted to shout at her again for getting the grammar wrong and wasting our time, but I decided to think about it first. Who’s fault was it that we had a language misunderstanding? I could speak Chinese better than her English but we had agreed to speak English at home to give her a chance to practice. As this was her request I kind of thought right was on my side. Still there was no point in saying anything.
What to do? Was I expected to second guess everything I heard? Was she expected to pay better attention to what she said? Ultimately, it was both our faults for assuming the worse of the other and digging in. Misunderstanding happened to people of the same culture but when you have a different language, it just added another dimension.
Unfortunately, another horrible truth occurred to me – Remember when we first arrive and are tripped up by the smallest grammar and accent issues from the Taiwanese speaking English, then as time passes we get used to it. You know we tell ourselves proudly that we got over communication problems because we had worked out what the Taiwanese wanted to say...Hmm, half the truth – We also got used to not communicating, to walking away when we were not 100% clear, and to arrogantly assuming we understood.
Oh, well. What to do? I took a good look at her. I resolved to pay better attention in future.


Michael Cannon said...

Dan, My wife and I often go through similar triades. Frequently, I find that I just need to be asking back to her, what do you mean?

Still, seems we've got to get riled up first before sense kicks in.

Hang in there,


Dan Chapman said...

What do you mean by 'frequently i just need to be asking back to her'?

Anonymous said...

Same here. But her English has improved a lot though. Also, I'm very good at understanding what she means. So if I'm not in the mood to correct her or feign ignorant I just answer her. The bigger problem is on the side of her understanding me when we're speaking about an advanced topic or when I get carried away. I can talk about something important, she says yes, and 45 minutes later when I'm about to hang up she asks me why I didn't bring up that important topic we were supposed to discuss. The carried away part is sort of a good sign. Before, I couldn't speak at my normal (which is fast) speed. Nowadays I can do that but sometimes she just doesn't follow.

Phillip said...

Cultural differences. In Australia, when the boss shouts you, it's a good thing. In some companies, it's tradition to shout the employees a Friday night beer. But shouting AT an employee is a bad, bad thing.

1. A loud burst of voice or voices; a vehement and sudden outcry, especially of a multitudes expressing joy, triumph, exultation, or animated courage.
2. (Australian, New Zealand, UK, slang) a round of drinks in a pub, the turn to pay the shot or scot: Whose shout?!

Claudio said...

Just another "Me too, Dan".

My wife (from Taoyuan) did not like your blog before today, she thought you did not respect enough Taiwanese culture. After I read her your latest post, she appreciate your site a lot more, since you described a situation that resembles many of our conversations, with the main differences being that I do not speak Chinese at all and that, although a decent English speaker, this is not my native language.

I am also glad to see I am not the only foreigner losing temper ...