Isabelle was one of the HKIS students that visited Concordia Children’s Services in Manila on a trip during Easter vacation, 2010. Does Isabelle, as a Chinese student, experience and understand her service experiences differently than Western students? This entry explores the tensions in some Chinese students’ thinking between the values implicit in service experiences and the traditional Chinese worldview with which they were raised.
I have found that HKIS students who identify themselves as coming from a more “local Asian” cultural background are more likely to find a conflict between their home values and the values implicit in our school’s service programs. Recently, a student from a traditional Chinese family wrote an essay about service in my class. She began the essay by explaining:
“My values and beliefs are heavily influenced by Chinese culture as I grew up in a traditional Chinese family. From a young age, my parents taught me the duties of being a Chinese daughter . . . and as a result these duties are a part of who I am. However, these values and beliefs are constantly in conflict with the “third-culture” me [in international schools] . . . and as a result, I constantly find myself struggling to balance the two cultures. For example, my brother who is a lot less Westernized than I am argued that I should not be spending my time serving others. He was against my participation in Service on Saturdays at school because he thinks I should be visiting my sick great-grandma instead of wasting time playing with little kids. [There are] many instances when I feel that my Chinese upbringing is in disagreement with Western values.”
How do we as teachers deal with this kind of cultural conflict that occurs when some of our Asian students do service? When I began doing research, I assumed that the group-centeredness of Chinese people, Confucian values, and the goal of social harmony would welcome social conscience education. So it came as a real shock when I was interviewing local Hong Kong students and teachers about what hinders development of social conscience education, and the most frequent answer was the traditional Chinese worldview. While other factors were mentioned, teachers and students’ most common discussion point was the conflict between these two ways of seeing the world.
According to the interviews, there were three aspects of Chinese culture that seemed to be in conflict with the concept of social conscience:
1) Focus only on yourself and your family
From a traditional Chinese point of view, education begins with self-cultivation. One teacher explained:
“It’s more moral education than social consciousness . . . I would include moral education with manners and the way to treat people like even standing up for a pregnant woman on the bus and trying to make students aware that this is difficult and puts the baby in danger.”
The Hong Kong teachers felt that this focus on manners, while having obvious value to society, directed people to avoid concerning themselves with larger sociopolitical issues.
Students and teachers said that Hong Kong people, when they see someone on the street that needs help, often tell their children, “It’s none of your business” (唔關你事). Another teacher explained further:
“For Chinese people, they always think if something is not your business and if you get yourself involved, maybe you will have some trouble. Maybe the police will ask you what happened and you have to go into the police station or the hospital to tell the police what happened. It’s just a waste of time. My mother told me that and I told my son and my son will tell – for many generations we have this concept.”
Referring to a Chinese proverb, another teacher stated:
“You just sweep the snow in front of your own house. You don’t get involved in other people’s business. You just care for your own self.”
Another Chinese saying captures the essence of this concept, “Refine oneself, establish a family, govern the nation, bring peace to the world” (修身齊家治國平天下). This traditional expression outlines a developmental path for individuals to fulfill their social responsibilities: first, manage the self; second, take care of family; third, contribute to the needs of the country; fourth, care for the world. However, in practice, few individuals manage to get beyond the first two responsibilities.
We have found that in our work with Chinese students that the idea of doing service, helping strangers, or developing a social consciousness that includes your city, nation, and ultimately the world frequently comes into conflict with these traditional values.
2) Play Your Social Role
In traditional Chinese society, the role of leaders is to govern wisely and act decisively for the good of society, while the role of followers is to respect, obey and implement leaders’ decisions. In the interviews, Hong Kong students and teachers explained how they were taught to play a prescribed social role, which contributes to group harmony. However, teachers felt that this resulted in student passivity about social issues, as one teacher explained:
“Chinese people are more passive . . . They like accepting others’ point of view . . . I think they think it is a kind of respect, but I think it really restricts how they grow and they don’t want to share what they think to others.”
In contrast, the worldview of social conscience education emphasizes awareness and analysis of social issues, forming opinions, and acting upon these beliefs. It is not difficult to see how these assumptions come into conflict with the traditional Chinese worldview.
3) Social Change Brings Chaos
A third characteristic of the Chinese worldview that contrasts with social conscience education is the view of history. The lesson often drawn from studying Chinese history is that attempts to change society typically results in chaos rather than improvement. Thus, dramatic social change is seen as a threat to civic harmony. By contrast, Westerners often view the term revolution positively (e.g., “The American Revolution,” “The Internet Revolution”). One Chinese student explained:
“[Chinese students] don’t have the capacity to make a difference or they cannot revolt. Before like a Western country, like, there’s like the Scientific Revolution. There’s like the French Revolution . . ., [but in] China – the Cultural Revolution . . . . So, I think [Chinese] people are kind of like afraid of people revolting and afraid of being innovative and changing.”
From the perspective of the traditional Chinese worldview, stability is a higher value than change. By contrast, the Western worldview values progress and growth.
Of course, the goal in raising these contrasts is not to suggest that one view is better than the other. What it does offer is that social conscience education builds on ideas that emerge from a Western perspective, and this approach seems quite “natural” to Westernized teachers and students. However, this pedagogy challenges some Chinese cultural values (and, I assume, Asian values more broadly) and leaves some students confused, as in the essay excerpt above.
Self-Efficacy in Asian Culture
One of the most important goals of social conscience education is that students will have the skills, confidence, and willingness to act in society for the sake of the common good. This bundle of beliefs that a person can “make a difference” is called self-efficacy.
A few years ago on a service trip in rural China where our group was providing conversational English practice and leadership training to one hundred girls in a scholarship program, I directly raised this question of self-efficacy with my students, all of whom were Chinese. Did they feel they could make a difference in society? I was particularly struck by the response of one of the boys, Brian, who had been especially instrumental in raising an astounding $45,000 US for the girls. In response to my question, Brian quietly stated, “We [Chinese students] find it much harder to assert ourselves compared to Western students.” Other students echoed this sentiment, suggesting that assertiveness and initiating social change are perceived by Chinese learners as Western concepts.
I was able to follow-up further on this comment six months later in an interview with five Hong Kong Chinese students at HKIS, four of whom had participated in the same scholarship trip the previous summer. All were highly accomplished students, two of whom now study at Ivy League schools in the US. In the context of discussing the scholarship trip, one female student said that giving hope to mainland Chinese girls of breaking out of the cycle of poverty was a Western concept. She explained, Jasmine and Jenn on a Summer Trip
“I always thought that the Chinese worldview is cyclical . . . like one dynasty replaces another . . . always like using the same political model, but the Western world is kind of like you are moving forward.”
Later, she added,
“Another thing that I think is that like Chinese people have a lower self esteem of themselves and they’re less confident than Westerners . . .. They don’t have that much imagination about what they can do.”
In this young woman’s thinking, Chinese students have a lower self-efficacy about positive social change than Westerners. She and the other students seemed to associate this lower self-efficacy with Chinese cultural beliefs.
Some research suggests that Asians do have a lower sense of self-efficacy than Westerners. Again, the point of raising this issue is for teachers to be aware of these cultural characteristics, so that we can raise these as discussion points with our students. Our experience has been that these questions are especially important to Asian students who are aware of the differences in values between the two cultures, but have almost no opportunity to discuss them with adults.
What Can We Do?
I have found that this kind of subtle understanding of the differences between Western and Asian approaches to service is not widely discussed with students. However, these concerns are present, even if at times not entirely obvious, to quite a few Asian students. In order for Asian students to embrace a service ethic, I believe they need to resolve the tension between school values and home values. Teaching about the differences between Western and Chinese thinking, and considering the local and global conditions that demand our attention, can help students make culturally informed, family-conscious, and self-reflective decisions.
My colleague, Mike Kersten, recently asked one of his students, Isabelle, about this cultural issue. This was her response:
I remember talking to my mom once about how after college I was thinking about doing service for a couple of years. At first she was very supportive of the idea, she encouraged me because my mom loves to do service . . . . Then, she said, “You know doing service also means being good to your family. You need to care for yourself and your family first before you can help others.” She had a point, but she also didn’t mean that I would have to stop doing service. Ever since I was young, my mother has been pushing me to do service for others and donating all my red packet money to the charity of my choice. For my whole life she would also constantly remind me that family is first, that we should love each other unconditionally and take care of our parents when they grow old.
I think that as generations go and we realize the major global issues in our world today, the Asian mindset of “service” is going to develop and change. My mother believes that doing service should be an important part of our lives (as it is important to her spirituality and religion) and she loves giving to others. She also believes in the Asian view of “service”. So as a member of a Chinese family, I think we contain both the Western “service” of international outreach and the Asian “service” of family first. However, when I think from my own individual point of view, I think that the so-called traditional Asian “service” of family first shouldn’t be called “service”. It should be a duty and self-awareness/realization that family is first, not a service. You should put your family first because you yourself realize that your family members are the only ones that will truly love you unconditionally. But…maybe my opinion will change as I grow old and find my purpose in life.
Isabelle’s response illustrates how various Western and Asian strands of thought can be weaved together into a synthesis that guides actions towards family and the community. Equally important, her comments show that she expects to revise her worldview in the future. Given the central role that culture plays in identity formation, I believe that many of our students would happily engage in this kind of reflection, if they were simply asked. Such introspection is crucial to helping Asian students make sense of their rich service experiences, and to help them begin to build a sturdy intellectual and cultural foundation upon which to contribute to the common good.
The girls at CCS welcome our HKIS group!
Isabelle wrote a very nice note to Ms. Talbot and myself about how the courses she has had at HKIS have been so valuable to her and how she anticipates this will affect the direction of her college career:
Hi Mr. Schmidt and Ms. Talbot,
I was starting on my college applications – which obviously require a lot of reflection upon your high school career, and realized that I had truly developed my path to social consciousness throughout the last four years. I realized that since taking Humanities I in Action, I had based a lot of my decision making on what I had learnt in that class. Humanities in Action truly inspired me to think outside of my own bubble and explore more of the world and of the issues that are prominent in our world today. Because of Humanities in Action, I decided to take Asian History in Action with Mr. Kersten in sophomore year, which was another great eye opener. By the end of my sophomore year, a couple friends and I started up Greenpeace (we established it as an official branch at HKIS) and now, we have around 100 members! Next semester I’ll be taking Service Society Sacred as well. All of these decisions I have made throughout my high school career may be attributed to the things I learnt during Humanities in Action.
I’ll be continuing my journey to social consciousness in college for certain. I have decided on majoring in Environmental Analysis – as it is a broad major that provides insight in the science and ethics of our environment. I have planned on applying early decision to Pitzer College (a member of the Claremont consortium in California). This school really reminded me of what was taught in humanities. They emphasize their core values, which are social responsibility, intercultural understanding, interdisciplinary learning, student engagement and environmental sustainability. Pitzer is a college that wants their students to leave college with the ability to utilize their major in a manner that will change and transform the world. One of their supplements truly exemplifies this: “Propose a solution to a global or local issue in our world today using our core values.” I feel as though if it weren’t for Humanities in Action, I would never have fallen in love with this college and their core values. I truly hope that I will be accepted!
The reason why I decided to write this email to you two is because, I’d simply like to thank you both for inspiring me to do more for the world and for teaching me the true meaning of selflessness. You two are some of the few teachers that have genuinely made an impact on my high school career. The things you two have taught me are things that I will carry with me through my life.
I always ask underclassmen whether or not they took or are currently taking Humanities in Action and always pester them with questions on whether or not they’re enjoying it. It always happens to get me excited! 🙂 It’s funny, every time somebody does something just because their friends are doing it, people simultaneously yell “GROUP SCRIPT!” I’m sure nobody will forget this course, so I hope you two continue to teach at HKIS for as long as possible and continue inspiring kids.
Thank you and I hope you both have a well-rested October break!
All the best,