"Face" It: America Has Problems in Asia
October 14, 2006
Americans are sometimes accused of being tone deaf to the intricacies of other cultures. As a married team with Asian culture living in the closest possible proximity to American culture, we have a few serious ideas on the state of U.S. and Asian diplomatic relations.
As Secretary of State Rice departs on her trip to Asia this week, we thought this might be the time to review some differences between Americans and Asians.
But first some necessary generalities might be reviewed. These generalities come from the work of well known experts in the cultural differneces between Asians and others including Professor Stella Ting-Toomey, Geert Hofstede and Newsweek Beijing Bureau Chief Melinda Liu.
Americans generally see themselves as individuals with many rights. An American man or woman lives unto him (or her) self amid a sea of other individuals. We in America are the nation of individual rights human rights. America is the land of rugged individuals, “Go West Young Man,” and John Wayne armed with a six-shooter. Americans sometimes dive right in. “Fear Factor,” the TV show featuring Americans without any qualms in doing anything, makes Asians squirm.
Asians often see themselves as part of a vast group dynamic. The family, the village, the church or other community unit is primary. Japanese and others are loathe to dive right in unless there is a group dynamic to do so. During World War II, Japanese kamikaze pilots had no problems selflessly giving their life for the Emperor in a suicidal way, while Americans couldn’t grasp the concept of what they were doing at all.
Asians listen and observe. Americans discuss, talk, emote and share their individual feelings.
Asians have a theory of the human body: we all have two ears for good listening, two eyes for careful observation, two nostrils for evaluation of smells, two hands for working, but only one mouth for eating and talking. If someone in the Asian group talks too much, a wise elder might wonder aloud, “Think if he had two mouths.” Overly chatty Asians often earn a derisive nickname like “bigmouth.” An Asian adage we’ve heard is, “While one talks, who do you think must listen?”
As observers, Asians sometimes become adept at non-verbal communications. Quickly raised double eyebrows might mean “yes,” while the American might start with a complete sentence and rush into a paragraph or two of how they agree or disagree.
The key cultural concept that Americans often forget, misunderstand or flat have never heard of is “face.” Many Americans do know that “loss of face” means a loss of self-image or pride. But that is only the basic level of understanding.
Asians believe in losing face in terms of dishonoring the family, the group, the country or the culture. Asians also believe in “giving face,” a concept many Americans (even many American diplomats) have never grasped. “Giving face” means negotiating a way for the other fellow to have enough maneuvering room to escape from a potential embarrassment with a “win.”
Asians are “win-win.” Americans are “I win, you lose.”
This entire preamble may seem silly until we consider a few cases important to the current situation in U.S. and Asian relationships and diplomacy.
In April 2006, China’s President Hu Jintao visited the United States and the White House for what was expected to be a grand and honorable reception of the People’s Republic of China at the hands of the American hosts. From the very start of the prestigious White House lawn event, China and President Hu lost face. Several times.
Newsweek's Melinda Liu started her report on the event this way: "First a snub, then a gaffe, followed by disruptive heckling...."
The official White House announcer said in his booming voice that the band would play the "national anthem of the Republic of China" -- the official name of Taiwan, which Hu considers a renegade state..
During President Hu’s address, an internationally well known Falun Gong activist, who had famously heckled President Hu’s predecessor, spoke up loudly.
Shrieking, "President Hu, your days are numbered!" and "President Bush, stop him from killing!" the tirade went on for more than three minutes. Hu lost face. In fact, unaccustomed to the U.S. campaign trail, he became so flustered that the president of the United States had to console him with a reassuring "You're okay." Hu lost more face.
At the end of the ceremony, with all the cameras sill focused upon the two presidents, Hu attempted to leave the stage via the wrong staircase. He was yanked back by his jacket. One columnist said, “Hu looked down at his sleeve to see the President of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant child.”
Last July, at the height of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, the U.S. Secretary of State had a scheduled trip to China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. Naturally, in the heat of war, the Americans scrubbed the entire trip, save the Malaysian piece.
Asians we know were very offended – each nation lost face and all Asia lost face, they say.
Making things worse, the U.S. Secretary of State went to Malaysia for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers. Instead of visiting with heads of state in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and Hanoi, the Secretary of State went to a club meeting of Foreign Ministers and played the piano for the assembly at dinner (Brahms’ Sonata in D Minor, 2nd Movement).
For right or wrong, the Secretary of State rushed back to the Middle East, it seemed, to deal with the troubles of Israel; a small and insignificant nation in the eyes of many in the vast populations of Asia. We lost face.
Now North Korea has defied everyone and has developed long range missiles and has reportedly exploded a nuclear weapon. What do they want? Well, first they want to keep their failing regime. One way they see to do that is to keep their face. The North Korean want stature; and some of them think they have achieved that in some way by jostling the world community, especially the U.S.
The North Koreans want to sit at the bargaining table with the United States on an equal or seemingly equal footing. But we have insisted upon six party talks, refusing to give them what they crave the most: face.
Finally there is, what some call, lowly and insignificant Vietnam. The average per capita annual income is all the way up to almost $800. The Vietnamese consider this a great achievement. Vietnam ushered in a new and more progressive government last June. They desperately crave some recognition from America. In July, the Secretary of State was a no-show. This week, the Vietnamese government wonders, “Why isn’t Secretary Rice stopping here?” Never mind that Vietnam is not key to the North Korean crisis. Vietnam sees only another snub. Loss of face, they say.
Many have said to us, “Who cares what these repressive Communist rulers (in China, North Korea and Vietnam) think of us or if they ‘lose face’?” We believe we have to deal with these Asian nations and peoples until these regimes change; and offering an example of our principled, democratic American behavior with some sensitivity and grace is greatly in our national interest.
The President of the United States plans to go to Vietnam in November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. The Vietnamese have great hopes that they will soon be admitted to the World Trade Organization and granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) from the United States.
Vietnam has been holding in jail Mrs. “Cuc” Foshee, an American citizen, for more than a year without charges. We have great hopes that the president will secure her release.
And we applaud and thank the President of the United States on his planned trip to Vietnam. We want the U.S. economy to share in all the benefits of Vietnam’s anticipated growth.
But we all need to remain mindful of our American commitment to human rights and our American values in the process of expanding the “Vietnam Economic Miracle.” Vietnam remains a Communist nation with limited or no human rights as we understand them.
Already the Vietnamese fear that the president’s visit will not mean much; that perhaps this is all about a photo opportunity and not real diplomacy and dialogue.
And how could they get that idea? Because no real high-level dialogue has taken place with the new Vietnamese leadership to date. And Asians are used to losing face in the American diplomatic shuffle.
Honglien Do is Vietnamese by birth and now an American citizen. Mr. Carey is former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc., and has lived in China.