26th to 28th 1998
Symposium of Intercultural Communication
The Department of Linguistics, Gothenburg University
with the support by KIM and the Immigrant Institute in Boras
The paper is a discussion of verbal and non-verbal
communication issues encoutered
by the Peopleís Republic of
keywords: values, customs, verbal/non-verbal communication, immigrantsí self-identification, aculturalization, identity shift.
††††††††††† This paper is a discussion on verbal and
non-verbal communication issues encountered by Peopleís Republic of
††††††††††† Self-identitycan be racial (ethnic origin), national (citizenship), religious or linguistic. However, the main issue of self-identity is the relationship between the individual and groups in a given environment because human beings are social creatures (Aronson 1972). An individualís relationship with a group can be that with work, family, recreation, worship or politics (Bochner 1982:3). On the basis of these premises, the paper discusses how native culture and language of PRC immigrants influence their communication when they interact with local Australians of these groups.
††††††††††† As a result of the 1989 Tiananmen events
more than 20,000 students from PRC were granted permanent residence status by
the Australian government. One off-shoot of this development was the rise of
anti-Asian feelings among some sectors in
††††††††††† What is it about Chinese immigrants and their culture that makes some white Australians uncomfortable? It was for this reason that we carried out a questionnaire survey on these PRC student immigrants and a number of interviews were conducted as follow-ups to the survey. Part of the survey results and discussions related to other issues are published elsewhere (Gao and Liu 1998).
††††††††††† I will
first present some results of a questionnaire survey and interview research on
Chinese students in
from PRC began to go to
††††††††††† By the
time the Australian government took measures to adjust its education export
††††††††††† At the
time of the Tiananmen events in 1989, of the 18,000 PRC students who went to
††††††††††† The fact that PRC students were able to collect sufficient funds to
take the steps to go overseas indicates that they were already above the lower
stratum in Chinese society. According to our questionnaire survey 13.2% of the
respondents stated "worker", 23.9% "guojia ganbu (government officials)", 1.5%
"business enterprise", 17.4% "academics, teachers and research
personnel", 15.1% "government employees" and 18.1%
"engineering and other professionals" as their occupations. Only
10.8% of the respondents stated that their parents were of "peasant"
background. Most of respondents came from
††††††††††† The PRC
students were caught in a dilemma. Their stay in
††††††††††† Most of
these students belonged to what may be called the middle class before they came
††††††††††† In spite
of uncertainty, anxiety, and hard work (71.8% of the students stated they had
to work harder in
††††††††††† When asked
whether they felt that their social status had been raised or lowered after
they came to
††††††††††† To the
question of whether they had changed their social values (admittedly a very
vague and subjective question) 83.2% stated that their social values were
different from those they held in
††††††††††† Our survey study also indicates that most Chinese students are ready to embrace the Australian way of life. They soon started to make friends in the local community. 44.4% responded they had a lot of Australian friends, 44.4% had some friends and only 10.9% had few friends. Most of the students wanted to make friends with local Australians. 27.8% of the students had "very friendly" contacts with local Australians and 66.5% had "rather friendly" contacts and only 0.4% had an "unfriendly" experience.
††††††††††† At the time of our survey, the language barrier was a major hindrance. Only 14.7% of the students felt that their listening and speaking ability in English was "very good" and more than 20% had great difficulty in communicating in English. The Chinese studentsí most frequent contacts were with their employers and landlords. 59.2% of the students indicated that their relationships with their employers were "very good" or "rather good" and 79.8% have maintained "very good" or "rather good" relationships with their landlords.
3. Influences of Native Culture and Language on Verbal and Non-Verbal Intercultural Communication with Local Australians
††††††††††† In this part of the paper I will analyse how native language and culture affect this group of Chinese studentsí verbal and non-verbal communication with native Australians. It will be shown shortly that the influences of culture and language are a two-way traffic in that cultural influence affects verbal communication and in turn verbal behaviour reflects non-verbal values and customs. In other words the two sets of communication interact with each other.
††††††††††† Being in
††††††††††† In any
case these students did not went
††††††††††† Ethnically these students could not help but identifying themselves with being Chinese. In almost all other aspects they were ready to identify themselves with local Australians. Because of their circumstances, as individuals they had to interact and therefore communicate with local Australian groups with respect to study, work, worship, recreation and politics. However, their cultural values, customs, their native language and their self-identity presented them with difficulties and problems in spite of themselves. In what follows I will present and analyse some of these difficulties and problems.
††††††††††† To live in
a society that is culturally and linguistically different, immigrants may come
across a number of problems. To start with, many Chinese students have to lower
what they think is social status. Not only do they have to work but also be
engaged in lower social status manual work such as cleaning and washing dishes.
For some this is to lose face and many of them would not write home to tell
their families and friends about their work and life. It is ironic that in a
capitalist society the gap between manual and mental work is forced to break
down for them whereas in the so-called socialist
††††††††††† The fact
that these students had to do the kind of work they did not like to do and that
they found the situation face-losing is partly cultural partly economical. It
is economical because economic circumstances have forced them to do manual
work. It is cultural because in
life is vastly different too. In
they were used to a structured life in China which some may describe as
administrative control, PRC students in Australia need to take some time to get
used to what may seem to some of them to be an "uncaring" way of
university life. There is so much freedom in a society like
††††††††††† The Australian way of enjoying oneself may be another problem for some PRC students. Native Australians would very often be drinking in a pub or having a wild party, sometimes going on for a whole night. In an occasion like this these young people are loud, joyful and tend to be causal about things such as relationships and sex. For many PRC Chinese students this kind of life style is superficial, unintellectual and even outright immoral. Again, because of the cultural gap there is an obstacle to effective communication for the understanding of these issues. As a result PRC students may find this kind of life uncomfortable, unhealthy, waste of time and energy, and totally non-productive.
††††††††††† Very often Chinese women students are either more tuned to intercultural communication or more likely to be sought after by local Australians. As a result one tends to see that Chinese women students are more adaptable, more flexible and therefore make friends more easily with local Australians. There is of course an economic factor as well. If a Chinese man wants to go out with a local Australian girl he is not only expected to take the initiative but also expected to pay for a drink or a meal. Since in most circumstances, initially at least, Chinese men tend to restrain from spending they find it difficult to make friends of the opposite sex. Chinese women do not have that problem.
††††††††††† Finally there is a problem of what is called "conversational currency" (Brislin 1981:65). In Chinese culture when people first meet they tend to ask each otherís surnames and tend not to bother about their own names. The most common question they ask each other is where they come from. Then conversation may go on about work and about interesting things of these places where they come from. Then they may proceed to personal questions such as marriage status, whether they have children and even how much they earn from their work.
††††††††††† When familiar people meet they may greet each other by asking "Have you eaten?" or "Were are you going?" which are not meant to be real questions. One can speculate endlessly on the reasons behind the origin of this kind of "conversational currency"; it is quite obvious though that people in different cultures have different conversational topics. The Australians, especially male Australians, may talk a lot about sports. For most of the educated Chinese (including university students) sports are not every day topic of conversation. Indeed any student who has serious intellectual pursuit would detest sports, and sport persons are referred to as si zhi fada touniao jiandan (four limbs developed but simple brain). This kind of cultural difference limit PRC studentsí interaction with local Australians.
academic life, problems can be manifested linguistically and culturally as
well. First of all it is the teaching methodology. In PRC there are usually
core textbooks which are spoon-fed to the students who are then to memorise them for examinations.
Teachers are more serious, solemn and strict. In
††††††††††† One of the
most difficult things to manage in an Australian university is the reading list
provided by the lecturer. To read them all
or just to read some? To read them all is too difficult; but to
read some means making selections which is also difficult. In
††††††††††† If reading
presents problems for Chinese students, speaking is even more daunting. Many
students had studied some English before they went to
††††††††††† Language is not the only problem for the Chinese students in tutorial sessions. Chinese students tend to think that only the teacher has the wisdom on the subject. They therefore think it a waste of time to listen to another student speak in a tutorial class.
††††††††††† Then there is the question of writing essays. Lack of competence in English is the number one problem. This is true specially for students of humanities and social sciences. They do not have enough vocabulary and they make a lot grammatical mistakes. But that is not all. Another problem of equal magnitude is the style of writing and logic of thinking. I can still remember vividly the desperation by a professor who commented the writings by PRC Chinses students by saying "Donít you have the word "apparently" in Chinese?". A good question. "Apparently" does not mean "obviously" which has a ready Chinese translation. Nor does it mean "superficially".
††††††††††† An essay in English is required to be highly structured. Usually, there is an introduction section in which you say what you are going to say. Then it is the main body of the text in which you say it and expand it. Finally there is a conclusion section in which you say what you have said. A PRC student may find this very repetitive.
††††††††††† An essay in English also requires logical explicitness: what comes before and what comes after in an essay not only has to be logically coherent but also has to be stated explicitly as such. In Chinese writings a lot of the logic coherence is implicit or implied. An essay written by a PRC student may be logically coherent but lacks explicit linguistic expressions to connect text together. A teacher marking this kind of essays can easily get lost or confused.
Employment and Work
††††††††††† Language problems are also reflected in difficulties encountered by PRC students in finding jobs or even in a working environment. According to our survey 28.6% of the difficulties in job finding are attributed to English language, 4.7% to cultural difference and 3.1% to racial discrimination.
††††††††††† One clear example of linguistic problem is the preparation of a resume or curriculum vitae. Many Chinese students either tend to overstate themselves or understate themselves. Due to their cultural understanding of human relationship they may understate themselves because they think boasting will give employer bad impressions. In Chinese culture modesty is one of the primary virtues in human relationships. However, when they discover that Australians do not think the way they do they tend to overstate themselves.
††††††††††† Problems of this kind is more obvious in interviews. How to be self-confident without appearing to be brash and boasting, modest without appearing not to know what to do is very difficult when one is not competent in the interview language.
4. Two-Way Traffic of Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
it is not easy to demarcate whether the communication problems are verbal or
non-verbal. This is clearly shown in intercultural communication and in social
interaction. There are for instance different concepts of being polite. Chinese
may think they are a very polite people. However, some Chinese are perceived to
be rude and lack of manners in
††††††††††† In Chinese, the word for "please" is seldom used. In fact, the more close you are to someone you communicate with the less likely you would use "please" because the word sounds distant and formal in Chinese. In Australian culture "please" is one of the most used word, to strangers as well as to friends and family members. However, the fact that Chinese are not used to the word "please" of course does not mean they are not polite. There is a language problem.
††††††††††† When Chinese speak Chinese they use a lot of what are called functional words to soften the tone of their speech. These functional words include particles such as ya, la, ma and so on which do not have any semantic meaning except to soften the tone of speaking. Ni zuo shenme would be a formal or impolite way of saying "What do you do" or "What are you doing" whereas Ni zuo shenme ya would be warmer and softer. However, these kind of particles are very different to translate into English. To be soft in English one has to add semantic words such as in "What are doing please?" or "Can you tell me what you are doing?". Because these are not functional words Chinese students, who are used to using functional words to soften the command and request, may not be accustomed to use semantic in the English way.
††††††††††† An Australian person would not normally say "Sit down" as a command to a guest (they would do it to a pet). They would say, for instance, "Sit down please", or "Take a seat", or "Would you like to sit down" or "Why donít you sit down" to sound more suggestive. In Chinese the functional particle ba, as in Zuo (sit) ba has precisely this function of being suggestive. However, again, this particle has no direct word for word translation.
††††††††††† For instance in xiuxi ba the first word means "rest" and the second word is a suggestive particle. The particle is suggestive to mean "Let us have a rest". If you think in Chinese and therefore speak in English with a Chinese sentence pattern without being able to find an equivalent word for ba you sound very rude.
††††††††††† The problem is that the meaning of ba can be translated differently depending on different linguistic contexts. Because there is not a word for word translation a Chinese may just say "Sit down" or "Come rest" to a guest. Fortunately, Chinese are usually more expressive in gestures and therefore their friendly gesture or facial expression may sometimes show that it is usually not a impolite command when they say this. At other times, this kind of perceived inappropriate behaviours may be excused from their faux pas (Feldman 1968 and Schild 1962).
††††††††††† There are other linguistic ways of being suggestive or to show warmth in Chinese which do not have English equivalents. One way is to duplicate the word. For example a Chinese would say Xiuxi xiuxi, or Zuo zuo zuo, or hao hao hao. To translate the same into English as "Rest rest", "Sit sit sit" or "Good good good" does not only convey no sense of being suggestive, but also sound ridiculous in English.
5. Cultural Values, Customs and Linguistic Expressions
††††††††††† The above are just examples of the absence of formal ways of expressing politeness in Chinese which influence intercultural communication. This lack of formal explicitness is also shown in another kind of behaviour to each other. In Australian culture, for instance, "I love you" is used very frequently, to children by parents, and partners to each other, so much so that one tends to suspect that the expression, like "please", does not mean much any more! Chinese, on the other hand, usually find it quite embarrassing to say "I love you". For Chinese, whether one loves another person is shown by doing things for each other or by hints and little gestures. To say it explicitly sounds not only unnecessary but also fake.
††††††††††† Chinese also restrain from touching the opposite sex because to do that signals some sexual intention. It is quite normal to touch each other of the same sex, a gesture indicating only friendliness or affection. On the other hand Australians may touch the opposite sex for fun or very trivial reasons. It is therefore not unusual for a Chinese to mistake a friendly touch from an Australian of the opposite sex for a more "deeper" meaning.
††††††††††† Their inability to express emotions explicitly or differently, according to my observation, tends to decrease the longer the Chinese live in Australian society, especially when he or she is more and more fluent in English. There is evidence that some Chinese eventually find it easier to express emotions in English than their native language!
also appreciate friendship in a rather different way. They tend to think that
friends should help each other in getting things done, or in times of
difficulty. A Chinese may ask a local Australian friend (who may have influence
and network in the immigration office) to help him or her to obtain a visa for
a relative to enter
††††††††††† There are other cultural values which baffle the Chinese. Some Chinese find it astonishing and even horrible that some Australians pay their parents for lodging and food when they live at home; and some even have to pay for the use of telephone at home. On the other hand Chinese are still perceived by some local Australians to be "inscrutable". Chinese laugh is an example in case. Once an Australian who is a sort of Christian fundamentalist (there are still quite a few in rural Australia) was so frustrated and even angry because a Chinese laughed when she mentioned something in the Bible. The Chinese laughed because he was pleased and touched by the Australianís genuine feeling for religion. To the Australian, however, the Chinese took the Bible and Christianity too lightly.
††††††††††† Another time a local Australian complained to me that one of my colleagues laughed when he mentioned the fact that he could not get on with his wife and that was why he lived separately. For my colleague, that kind of laugh was an indication of hopelessness and helplessness. But the local Australian could not understand that and thought that my colleague took the matter too lightly.
††††††††††† Our survey
and interviews results show that there is a tremendous sense of loneliness felt
by many Chinese students in
††††††††††† It is not
just the material benefit or clear environment that is attractive to them. They
like the freedom, liberty and career opportunity. A high percentage of the
students also cited the lack of complicated human relationship as being very
attractive to them. These students hate the idea of having to handle the
complex of renji guanxi (human relationship)
††††††††††† The PRC Chinese students find it hard to identify themselves with these values and customs. They refer to the local Australians, especially the whites, as laowai, or yangren (foreigners ) when in fact they themselves are foreigners in a foreign cultural environment. They feel uncertain, on the alert and even uncomfortable with the so-called foreigners. When they are among themselves they feel at ease and they speak louder and more fluently in their own language. A very frequent expression among them when they start talking about something is women dou shi zhongguo ren... ("We are Chinese, so..."). Another pet phrase is laowai bu dong... ("foreigners would not understand...").
††††††††††† On the
other hand, according to our survey, they do not necessarily stick together
with Chinese very much either, except a few very good friends. In fact they
tend to be very suspicious of their expatriates. They feel that they can trust
foreigners more than Chinese, especially in work environment. Either because
psychological residue they have brought with them from
††††††††††† Consequently these immigrants do not have much of a self-identity. They can identify themselves with their expatriates in communication and even social life, though there is not much social life among themselves except some student activities organised by the Chinese student organisation sponsored by the Chinese embassy, such as National Day celebration or Spring Festival gathering. However, they have difficulty in identifying themselves with local Australians as well since the environment for their cultural values and customs is far away from them.
††††††††††† PRC immigrants find it difficult to identify themselves with native Australians because of cultural and linguistic problems, at least initially. This does not, of course, mean that they are not trying. What may be called actualisation does take place. For those who get better jobs such as being academic at universities aculturalisation takes place rapidly. Some even marry native Australians.
††††††††††† They work
and live like native Australians, though seen to be odd now and then. That aculturalisation takes place for
most of them can be seen by the fact that they find it very difficult to live
discussion of this paper is based on a questionnaire survey and subsequent
interview research on PRC Chinese immigrants in
††††††††††† This is the case because cultural values and way of thinking are so embedded in language use. Not only native cultural values and customs influence intercultural communication native language also interferes with the competence of using the non-native language.
††††††††††† The other side of the story is that once one acquires the non-native language better one also knows the non-native culture better. These are two sides of the same coin of what can be called aculturalisation.
research results also show that those who are more successful in their career
††††††††††† This seems to suggest that acquisition of a non-native language by an immigrant is culture-orientated. The more you are ready to embrace a culture the more you are tuned to the language of that culture; and as a result the more you will be competent in that language. In other words this is to state that linguistic competence of a non-native language is not just a kind of practical skill that one can acquire value-free. A learner has to take an attitude. This attitude, one way of another, will have an effect on the depth and speed of aculturalisation.
††††††††††† This is not to say, however, that the acquisition of second language competence cannot be obtained by motivation other than aculturalisation. As commented by one participant during the presentation of this paper, there are other motivations which drive a person to learn a second language and learn it well. During the Cold War period, for instance, some Russians were trained to learn excellent English which was the language of their enemy. Equally, some Muslim fundamentalists may learn to speak perfect English in order to fight those who are perceived to be their enemies, "To know the enemies better" is certainly one strong motivation.
††††††††††† As a way of reconciling the two points - the point that one tends to learn the target language better when one is ready to embrace the culture of that language as in the case of PRC Chinese immigrants and the point that you can learn the target language well even if you hate it (though this is not totally clear even in the case of the Muslim fundamentalists) - I would like to conclude the paper by saying that aculturalisation does not necessarily mean love, like or even sympathy of the culture of the target language. To say that the acquisition of a second language is not culturally value-free does not necessarily mean only positive attitude. It is the attitude of engagement (Bond 1997: xxi), positive or negative, that matters.
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