Is this cultural? It’s a question I’ve heard over the years as readers have poured their hearts out to me in confessional emails, seeking advice for their intercultural dating woes.
While it’s not always possible to discern the truth from a simple email report, the fact of the matter is culture does matter in intercultural relationships. I’ve known for years that cultural differences can affect how people view dating, marriage and even family, once writing that ignoring cultural differences in a cross-culural relationship is actually harmful.
That’s not to say culture is always to blame when things go wrong in a relationship between, say, an American woman and a Chinese man. But because we view the world through our own cultural perspectives – psychologists call this our “cultural lens” – it’s important to understand these differences. In some cases, what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” depends on where you were born and what your culture values more.
So when acclaimed author Gish Jen contacted me about her new book “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap,” I couldn’t wait to read it.
Through stories and anecdotes, including her own personal experiences, Jen helps readers understand the East-West culture gap, focusing mainly on differences between America and China. She writes about the distinctive selves that tend to dominate in these countries, and how our worldviews can lead to completely different perspectives on life. Along the way, Jen challenges some widely held beliefs, such as the idea that China just isn’t as innovative as America. She also points out what some of us have always known – that, in fact, Americans are a pretty weird bunch compared to the rest of the world.
If you’re as fascinated with culture as I am and happen to be in an intercultural relationship that spans China and America, “The Girl at the Baggage Claim” should be required reading.
It’s my great pleasure and honor to introduce you to “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” through this interview with Gish Jen.
Here’s the bio from her website:
The author of six previous books, Jen has published short work in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and dozens of other periodicals and anthologies. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories four times, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award, her work was featured in a PBS American Masters’ special on the American novel, and is widely taught.
Jen is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been awarded a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study fellowship, and numerous other awards. An American Academy of Arts and Letters jury comprised of John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, and Joyce Carol Oates granted her a five-year Mildred and Harold Strauss Living award; Jen delivered the William E. Massey, Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in 2012. Her most recent book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.
You can learn more about Gish Jen at www.gishjen.com, and follow her on Facebook. Her book “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.
You wrote in your introduction about how much culture and self have informed your writing, stating, “Never has a book so begged to be expanded upon until finally I gave in and allowed it to grow into this one.” Could you tell us more about what inspired you to write this book?
I wrote this book because I could see that as globalization brings us closer, people from different parts of the world are not less baffled by each other, but more. I could see that people working and studying in Asia had trouble understanding the people they lived among; I could see that American teachers were really struggling with their Asian students; and I could see that this was only the tip of the iceberg– that the East-West issues in fact shed light on tensions felt by a great many people throughout the world. And I knew that I could articulate what was up in a fresh and interesting way.
You wrote, “Culture is, after all, the trickiest of subjects”. Could talk more about that and how you were able to find an approach that you were comfortable with for this book?
Culture is one of the most successful of human adaptations. It has enabled us to survive in every part of the globe. But it works best when it’s internalized–when it’s tricked us into believing that its truths are “the” truth, that our way of being human is “the” way, and that other ways are wrong. Cultural psychologists know there is a cultural divide when they feel irritation. They know that the deeper the irritation, the deeper the divide. But while they have trained themselves to use that irritation to guide their research, most of us just register the irritation. We don’t want to understand it; we want to reject what’s irritating us.
I am lucky in being bicultural. I have grown up knowing both sides — and, I will say, have always found more humor in the disconnects than distress. In writing this book, I often thought about moments of discombobulation and how to explain them. It’s story-based, not theory-based.
Anyone reading this book might encounter a number of surprising facts — for example, “the counterfeiting of money was once so rampant [in America] that a nineteenth-century editor exclaimed that we seemed ‘liable to be called a nation of counterfeiters!’” Could you share with us something you uncovered in your research that surprised or shocked you?
Oh, so many things. But to give just one: I was amazed by the Chinese counterfeiter who had knocked off Rothko so successfully he fooled the chairman of Sotheby’s! Also that the poor counterfeiter was paid such a pittance, while the gallery that sold the art made millions.
When I was reading your book, I couldn’t help thinking about the intercultural relationship issues I’ve heard about from Chinese and Westerners. What do you think are some things people can do to help bridge the East-West cultural gap in an intercultural relationship?
As in all things, progress begins with understanding. Just yesterday I met a American woman who said my book really helped her marriage because it helped her understand what her Chinese husband lost when he came with her to the US. I don’t know that I could advise her as to what to do with her knowledge exactly, but I have to think that an understanding heart is essential.
Your 2017 calendar has included an impressive lineup of author events. How have audiences responded to your book?
I am thrilled to say that I have gotten tremendous response from all sides. Dozens of students studying or working in Asia have told me how much my book has helped them, and dozens of teachers with Chinese students have told me this as well. So, too, have lawyers and businessmen working in Asia. Interestingly, one of the groups that has responded most strongly has been the parents of children who have married an Asian spouse. Their desire to understand their son- or daughter-in-law is really touching. And interestingly, too, it hasn’t only been all about the Asia-U.S. gap. A huge number of people from other backgrounds – Irish, Polish, Greek, you name it – have found clarity in these pages, including many who have been in America for generations. In response to the part of my book about naming, for example, one woman told me that the women in her family were all named Eunice. And the discussion of how different cultures treat their elderly really hits home for everyone.
What do you hope people gain from reading your book?
I hope that people will come away with a new perspective, not only on culture, but on life itself and what it might mean to live richly and deeply.
Thanks so much to Gish Jen for this interview! You can learn more about her at www.gishjen.com, and follow her on Facebook. Her book “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.