Should Filipina maid Evangeline Banao Vallejos (far right) be granted right of abode status in Hong Kong? According to Professor Robert Nisbett’s cross-cultural research, your answer may indicate whether you see the world from an Asian or Western perspective.
The case seemed simple. A Filipino maid named Evangeline Banao Vallejos had served her Hong Kong employer for 25 years. According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, foreigners living as ‘ordinary residents’ in the territory for more than seven years can apply for permanent residency.
When I as an expatriate teacher passed the seven-year mark, I applied for and, about six months later, received permanent residency and the right of abode. However, when Ms. Vallejos applied, this right was denied to her because, according to an immigration ordinance, as a foreign domestic worker she is considered a “non-ordinary resident.” She is now challenging this statute, and a decision will be handed down by the Court of Final Appeals later this month.
Much is at stake in this case. What happens if the Court of Final Appeals passes down a verdict that favors the plaintiff? It seems likely that the Hong Kong government will refer this case to the National People’s Congress in Beijing, which could “re-interpret” the Basic Law, barring domestic helpers from gaining permanent residency. While many feel that such a reinterpretation would damage Hong Kong’s rule of law, arguably the city’s greatest asset, at least one prominent politician, Regina Ip, is calling for such a course of action. Only once since the 1997 handover has a case been referred to Beijing for re-interpretation, again involving right of abode, that time concerning mainland Chinese immigration. Indicative of the highly charged nature of such re-interpretations, it has recently come to light that in 1999 all five judges of the Court of Final Appeals seriously considered resigning over the referral of the case to Beijing (Cheung and Ip, 2011).
A Western Expatriate Perspective
Initially, this seemed to be an open and shut case to me. This woman, like myself, has lived in Hong Kong for far more than the minimum seven years to qualify for permanent residency. Despite differences in nationality, educational level, occupation, and social status, I considered this woman to fall into the same general category as myself. I expected (and still do expect) the court to side with this woman’s argument.
I was taken aback, then, that a sizable and vocal group of Hong Kong people protested against this helper’s case. One protester’s sign read, “We pay you. That is enough.” Although I didn’t share my opinions readily with others, my first reaction was that these protesters were being hypocritical and or even racist. Can’t they see, I thought, that the claim that domestic helpers are “non-ordinary residents” is nothing but a technicality used to strip a certain class of undesirable foreigners of their due right under the law? Aren’t they grateful for the services provided by domestic helpers?
Considering Cultural Assumptions
However, teaching about Richard Nisbett’s research on Asian and Western ways of thinking to my freshmen gave me pause. Perhaps there was more to this story than meets my Western, expatriate eye. Nisbett begins his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerns Think Differently … and Why, by retelling how a Chinese student challenged his assumptions:
One day early in our acquaintance, he said, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line . . . . [The Chinese] think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture . . . .” I was skeptical but intrigued. I had been a longlife universalist concerning the nature of human thought (p. xiii).
This set Nisbett on a new research trail, searching to understand the differences between how Asians and Westerners perceive the world. The book’s most illustrative example (p. 141) can be seen below:
Nisbett explains that Westerners tend to group the chicken with the cow, while Asians associate the cow with grass. Westerners see a chicken and cow as belonging to a group of “animals” rather than “plants;” Asians, however, choose the other option because cows eat grass as well as rest in it. Nisbett uses this simple mental experiment to demonstrate his larger point: Westerners perceive reality in categories which are governed by abstract rules, while Asians see life in terms of relationships. Interestingly, Asian-Americans responses fall between the two.
Teaching Geography of Thought in the Humanities Classroom
I wanted to teach Nisbett’s ideas to my ninth grade humanities class as we began the year discussing the concept of worldview. About 80% of my students are Asian, yet they are studying in a Western educational institution. Learning how Asians and Westerners think differently seems to be an immensely relevant concept to these bi-cultural students. What would they think, I wondered, of Ms. Vallejos’ case?
I asked my 18 students to line up from most Western to most Asian in my class. We used language usage at home, basic cultural orientation, years lived in and out of Hong Kong, and local Hong Kong school experience to determine whether students considered themselves to be more Western or more Asian. Then I put the students in table groupings according to their cultural orientation. Following an introduction to the case, I showed them this video clip:
After the video, I asked each table group to share their viewpoints. The two Western table groups (which included two Indian students raised in the U.S.) both thought that Ms. Vallejos deserved the right of abode, reasoning that she belonged into the same category as other non-Chinese residents. It’s the law, they said.
However, most students in the Asian groups were clearly opposed. It’s impractical, they argued, to allow hundreds and maybe thousands of Filipinos and Indonesians and their relatives to enter Hong Kong and further strain the social welfare system. Hong Kong’s poor do not need further competition for scarce resources.
Rather than labeling my Asian students as selfish, hypocritical, or racist, Nisbett’s research provides a way to explain this reasoning in a more positive and, I think, more accurate manner. From a Western perspective, the starting point in a case such as this is fairness under the law. From this point of view, this Filipino woman deserves the right of abode. To claim she is a “non-ordinary resident” strains credulity, and seems to be a fig leaf covering Hong Kong people’s instrumental use of domestic helpers.
My Asian students, however, have a different starting point. Rather than beginning with the rights of individuals, what is most important is the entire context of relationships in Hong Kong. A large influx of Filipinos and other domestic workers poses a threat, they reason, to the overall health of the community. It is far better to limit immigration for the sake of those with a long-term investment in this community than to open up to foreigners who come to Hong Kong out of self-interest. Using Nisbett’s research, it seems quite possible that my Asian students place greater value upon the manifestly practical consideration of relational harmony in Hong Kong before the abstract category of individual rights before the law. The Western position that the rule of law is the preeminent consideration has been nudged aside by an Asian systemic view of social harmony.
I find Nisbett’s research immensely helpful for a number of reasons. First, it highlights for Westerners that there is not one universal, that is, Western, way of perceiving reality. A wholly different, historically viable system of thinking is available for consideration. Rather than simply dismissing Asian or Western perspectives, Nisbett’s research helps each culture to identify strengths and weaknesses of each respective system.
Second, and most relevant to my humanities courses, in order to find solutions to global problems, students need to be exposed to multiple perspectives. My students find Asian sensitivity to context an important value for social harmony and environmental sustainability. Conversely, many students enthusiastically affirm the Western emphasis on individuals finding their “true selves” so as to contribute their particular gifts to the community.
Thirdly, it is evident from Nisbett’s research that abuse is possible in each system. As Duncan Jebson, an Asian-American lawyer in Hong Kong wrote recently, there is no concept of fairness in traditional Chinese thinking that compares to its fundamental importance in Western thought. Frequent reports of human rights abuses just across our northern border in China are regular reminders that the rule of law needs to be an essential cornerstone of healthy societies across the globe. On the other hand, the concept of fairness can be taken to an extreme. For example, as Nisbett notes, the per capita ratio of lawyers in the US to Japan is 42:1. The overly litigious nature of American society drains its legal and insurance systems, and reinforces the belief that justice is often a function of financial resources. The right to bear arms, as guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, is another example where legal categories have seemed to trump the welfare of American society.
Hong Kong is a culturally hybrid city where it is often said that “East meets West.” The interactions between these two worldviews are on display in the right of abode case of Ms. Vallejos. Given the rise of China on the world stage, however, the implications of this case go far beyond local Hong Kong politics. From a broader viewpoint, Hong Kong and China are both negotiating between Western and Chinese ways of thinking. Thus, this case can be seen as another step in the dance between these two cultural approaches. A verdict in this case is expected in the next two weeks.
October 3, 2011 Update: On Saturday the High Court ruled that foreign domestic helpers should be considered “ordinary residents” of Hong Kong, and therefore are eligible to become permanent residents after living in the territory for seven years. Thus, the immigration ordinance that had prevented foreign domestic workers from gaining right of abode status has now been struck down as inconsistent with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. The government expressed its disappointment with the decision, and leaders are now weighing their next move. One possible reaction is to refer the case to Beijing for them to re-interpret what “ordinary residents” means in the Basic Law, overturning the judicial decision. The price to pay for this, however, will be howls of protest from Hong Kong people that value the rule of law as well commentators abroad. Given the low opinion held by many Hong Kong people of the government, such a move runs the risk of mobilizing local people to oppose both Beijing leaders and their Hong Kong intermediaries.
March 28, 2012 Update: The Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s decision that Vallejos should be considered an “ordinary resident.” The three judges unanimously agreed that the legislature can decide which foreigners can be accepted into Hong Kong and on what basis; thus, foreign domestic helpers can be classified as “non-ordinary,” denying them the opportunity to apply for permanent residency after seven years of service in Hong Kong. The government welcomed the verdict. Meanwhile Mark Daly, the human rights lawyer defending Vallejos, promised to press on, “It is highly likely we are going to take this to the Court of Final Appeal. There is no time for disappointment. We will fight until we see justice” (South China Morning Post, A1, March 29, 2012).
Summary of Nisbett’s Research in Geography of Thought
|Asian Perceptions and Values||Western Perceptions and Values|
|Natural and social environment is ever-changing and mysterious.||Natural and social environment is stable and comprehendable.|
|Because environment changes (yin & yang), no search for scientific laws.||Because environment is stable and knowable, search for abstract and universal laws (e.g., gravity, Darwinism).|
|Focus on the context (e.g., the small fish in a fishtank)||Focus on objects, not context (e.g., the big fish)|
|Individual should fit into the environment (China traditional art: family scenes and rural pleasures)||Individual can and should try to control and act upon the environment (Greek art: battles, athletic contests, wild parties)|
|Identity comes from combination of social roles, which often change as the environment changes.||Individuals create their own identity based to a large degree on their individual talents, passions and interests, and goals.|
|Individuals search for the wise way (Tao) to live in society and in the world, which often involves accepting contradictions and finding the Middle Way||Individuals search for truth(s) about life, which often involves resolving logical contradictions and living by this truth.|
|Harmony as a member of a group||Individuals strive to find their “true self” and contribute this gift to their community.|
|Relationships emphasized and confrontation avoided||Critical thinking and public debate highly valued|
|Interdependence emphasized||Independence emphasized|
Cheung, G. & Ip, C. (2011). Beijing’s right-of-abode rebuff ‘dismayed judges.’ South China Morning Post, September 8, 2011, p. A1 & A3.
Jebson, D. (2011). Reconciling my two cultures. International Herald Tribune, April 14, 2011. Accessed on September 12, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/opinion/15iht-edjepson15.html
Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently and why. Free Press: New York.