AN INTRODUCTION TO BASIC ASIAN VALUES
By Arthur Hu, March 9, 1985 © 1985, released to open source, please attribute rules.
One of the most central features of a culture are its values. Values are the standards by which one may judge the difference between good and bad, and the right and wrong things to do. Though some values are universally shared among all cultures, it is the contrast and differences in values of different cultures that can account for the interactions and perceptions that occur between different cultures.
Traditional values are a common thread among individuals in a culture. Stereotyping comes about because of common behavior patterns that are based on common values, and distortion and misperception can come about as a result of misunderstandings of those values. Stereotyping can also be dangerous because people are individuals with their own values which may vary a great deal from the traditional ideal. Values can vary quite a bit depending upon one's generation, class, education, origin, among other factors. For example, there is considerable difference in what might be called "traditional" and "modern" American values.
Although each distinct Asian culture actually has its own set of values, they all share a common core, which is probably best documented in the Japanese and Chinese traditions, and by philosophers such as Confucius, whose writings had considerable influence throughout Asia. In the Asian American experience, these values interact with what might be called simply "western" or "Caucasian" values, but if one contrasts the values of America with those of Europe, it can be seen that these are really "Modern American" values that provide the best contrasts.
Asian values are very much inter-related. They all support the view of the individual as being a part of a much larger group or family, and place great importance on the well-being of the group, even at the expense of the individual. American values, on the other hand emphasize the importance of the well-being of the individual, and stresses independence and individual initiative. Although it may seem that values such as education, family, and hard work are shared between cultures, these values manifest themselves quite differently in the two cultures.
Some Asian values are so important that some of the cultures, especially the Japanese have given them names of their own, and are used commonly. Here is a list of some of the most outstanding values:
Ie (japanese) - The family as a basic unit of social organization, and as a pattern for the structure of society as a whole.
Education - The whole process of child rearing and education as a means of perpetuating society, and of attaining position within society.
Enyo (japanese) - The conscious use of silence, reserve in manner.
Han (chinese) Conformity, and the suppression of individual attriputes such as talen, anger, or wealth which might disrupt group harmony. (Chinese)
Amae (japanese) - To depend and presume upon the benevolence of others. A deep bonding in human relationships between one who is responsible for another, and one who must depend on another.
Giri (japanese) - Indebtedness, obligation and duty to others, reciprocity.
Gaman (japanese) - Endurance, sticking it out at all costs. Self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
Tui Lien (chinese) - Loss face, shame. The final standard as to how well one lives up to these values.
Family and Education
Probaly the most notable aspect of the modern "Asian Model Minority"stereotype is that of the academic overachiever. A number of asian students have done conspicuously well in terms of test scores, gifted student programs, admissions to prestigious schools, academic awards, and in classical music. Though obviously not all Asians fit this pattern, this trend can be attributed primarily to the basic notion of the family, and the central role that education plays in the family.
Great importance is placed on child rearing, and education is a fundamental aspect of this. Asian parents are more likely to spend much more time with their children, and drive them harder, sometimes even at the expense of their personal time and ambitions of the parents themselves. Though Americans might consider Asian parents to be dominating, parents in turn are expected to give children all the support they can.
While it would no be unusual for an American parent to hire a babysitter to watch the kids while they go out, or expect their children to put themselves through college lest the parents sacrifice their own stand of living, this is much less likely in an Asian family. Living in an extended family is not unusual, and filial piety, respect for parents is a very important principle.
Unlike the youth orientation in American culture, age and position are most highly respected. The Asian family has within it a heirarchy which is a mirror of the structure of society as whole. For example, the parent child relationship is carried further on to ruler and ruled, employer and employee. Education is the most valued way of achieving position, an success in education is viewed as an act of filial piety. In imperial times, examinations were the only way to achieve position in China. Even in America, education is seen as a key to social mobility, and economic opportunity. Education for their children was a major reason why many immigrants came to America from Asia.
Reserve Conformity and Harmony
Another aspect of the modern stereotype is that of the silent, unassertive Asian, uncomplaining, unemotional, docile and cooperative. With the American sexual typing modes, this may also lead to the perception of Asians as being less masculine, and more feminine since males are expected to be more aggressive and assertive than females, a particularly good example of crossed-values.
Since the well-being of the larger group is most important in Asian cultare, great importance is placed on maintaining harmony. The greatest virtue that can achieve is not greatness of one's self, which is viewed as being selfish and self-centered, but of fulfilling his or her role in the whole of the family or group. The achievement of an individual may be seen as really the result of the effort of one's family, or group.
In the name of conformity, one tries not to draw attention to oneself by showing off his talent, riches, or anger. Conflict is to be avoided. Society is viewed as an extended family whose relationships and obligations are to be preserved. Official position is honored, not personal stardom. Frugality is sometimes a manifestation of this as one lavishes money not on one's self, but on children, or friends. Maintaining harmony also creates a bias against change and "rocking the boat", as opposed to American values, which encourage change.
In following these principles, Asians may show tendencies to hesitate to accept invitations, especially the first time, choose items of lesser value when given the choice, and not be assertive in situations where they may speak out. In employment situations, they may be less likely to join unions, ask for raises, or change jobs. This may also affect Asians being less likely to be promoted into management, and as a rule, underpaid when compared to Americans of comparable education and experience. Especially conspicuous in American culture is the relative absence of Asians in popular entertainment and sports.
Benevolence and Obligation
In a culture that emphasizes consideration of others, benevolence and obligation must be present to reinforce relationships. Asian societies tend to be very hierarchical, in contrast to American culture, where in some cases it is not unusual to consider teacher and student, or even parent and child as equals. Asian hierarchical relationships involve a lot of obligation, and what might be viewed as dependence or domination. But a good deal of responsibility and benevolence is expected in return. While children might be obligated to follow their parent's wishes very closely at the expense of their own independence, the parents are also expected to raise support, and educate them far in excess of what might be expected by American standards.
Similar relationships are expected between man and wife, employee and employer, and ruler and ruled. When measured against American values of equality and democracy, this may have resulted in the "diabolical" and "despotic" nature of some stereotypical Asian media characters as a distorted perception of the power given to those of position.
Among those of equal position, there is still the principle of reciprocity, that goodness given out will come back, and kindness received should be paid back. One is expected to be humble and modest, and to attempt to please. One is expected to be on one's best behavior in the presence of others. An extreme example of reciprocity is the care taken by couples at Japanese weddings to record all gifts so that all the gifts may be reciprocated.
Endurance and Sacrifice
Asians are often seen as a hardworking lot. This is certainly true of those striving to excel in education, and of the early immigrants who toiled under extreme conditions to make it in America. Much of the racism that was directed at Chinese laborers was because of their willingness to work so hard for so relatively little. The extent to which Asians are willing to endure and sacrifice has long fascinated the west, keeping alive the samurai, kamikazes, and the ninja among American Asian stereotypes though these particular traditions are hardly typical of Asians. Even the Japanese Americans of the famous 442nd in WWII were the most decorated unit of the war. All of this does get a bit old when people like Ronald Reagan speak about the "hard working Asians", but this pattern does make one wonder.
Endurance, and sticking it out at all costs is really central to the extent to which all the other Asian values are carried out, and what distinguishes Asian values from values in other cultures that look at first similar. As opposed to cultures which emphasize the well-being of the individual, and are less likely to involve sacrifice as a matter of course; one's own situation is secondary to that of the group as a whole. Maintaining one's obligations, good face, and harmony are more important than personal comfort. Endurance is a measure of self-control and inner strength. Sacrifice is made for the sake of others. Complaining is seen as a sign of weakness, and this may lead to the view of Asians as being uncomplaining, and their being less vocal as a group than other minorities.
Loss of Face, Shame, and Honor
Losing face is one of the better known Asian concepts among Americans. Unlike individualistic cultures, shame and honor go far beyond the individual, and reflect directly upon ones' family, nation, or other group, and so is taken very seriously. Maintaining good face is a kind of measurement of how well one has maintained faith to traditional values, and ones' social standing among others. It serves as a strong control mechanism which reinforces all other Asian values.
Although in America, persons are expected to be open about themselves, even about things which may be potentially embarrassing, keeping face can cause many Asians to be much less open about themselves; possibly leaving an impression of inscrutability. The first Japanese immigrants generally did not maintain communication with their relatives in Japan because of a feeling of shame that they were not able to return in wealth as they had set out to do. Embarrassing episodes in family history are likely to be suppressed and not readily admitted. This also manifests itself in the reluctance of Asians to seek psychiatric services, since public knowledge of a psychiatric visit is perceived as admission of sickness.
By understanding the underlying Asian values which underlie the behaviors of Asians, one can avoid the common trap of first judging another by one's own values. The values of another culture should not be judged immediately as inferior, or wrong, but as being simply different, after which a more objective view may be taken. In the case of the "model minority" stereotypes, in fact, positive valuations may have exceeded the negative ones, Although things could be worse, this tends to mask real social problems, such as Asians being underpaid and. under-promoted, and the ignoring of the plight of less economically fortunate Asians who face real economic and cultural problems integrating into mainstream society.
From the standpoint of minorities, on the other hand, the correctness and effectiveness of ones values may depend upon who writes the rules. Just as Americans doing business in Asia must do so with awareness of the local values and customs if they are to succeed, so must Asians who live here adjust to American values and customs. In a society which stresses competition between individuals, and emphasizes independence, behaviors such as reservation, and expectation of benevolence from others may well put one at a disadvantage, even though education and endurance are perceived as an advantage.
Increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to characterize all Asians as holding to these traditional and somewhat stereotypical values, as Asians are starting to appear in the popular arts, and sports, and other fields that they have traditionally been absent from. There are Asians who are assertive and verbal, ones who are better party people than studious overachievers, and there are Asian organizations dedicated to social change instead of silent acceptance of condition. However times change, these basic Asian values are likely to continue to be a strong influence among Asian Americans, and as they continue to integrate into American society, perhaps mainstream America as well.
Note: I wrote this as the result of a research project I did for the progressive Asian American Resource Workshop in Boston with a couple of other members who helped with the research. Though this was written back in the 1980s, I think it still holds up well with the passage of time as the Asian population has increased immensely since then, and Asians still find themselves baffled by American and Asian culture, depending on which base they had grown up with. I find that as someone who grew up in the 60s in a basically white culture, but with strong parental Asian influences, most Asians end up working with both sets but often not understanding the basis and interaction between these often conflicting values.