I and We

self and collectivism

In a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed the demands of being a selfless mother and how that could change one’s perspective of “self.” The concept of the “self” and “ego” is influenced by culture. This sense of “self” varies widely depending on the values celebrated in one’s culture. One key aspect of cultural differences known to intercultural communication experts is the concept of “individualism” and “collectivism.” These two categories are used by the field of intercultural communication to identify the way cultures define “self.”

In the west, such as in the American culture, the concept of individualism prevails in society. In the American context, people value individual thoughts, individual rights, and believe each person should be entitled to their own uniquess and self-identity. In this context we value self-reliance and competence to accomplish something all by oneself. If the American “self” were to be displayed in a pie chart, I believe it would be filled with 100% of “me.” In the east, such as China, the concept of “self” may include our inside circles of family and close friends. To a Chinese native the concept of self is rarely isolated as one individual. Often, individual thoughts and actions are dependent on our inside circles. Individuals are also accountable for their inside circle. In the Chinese context the concept of “self” is a collective being. In the Chinese self pie-chart, the percentage of “me” as the individual unit may only be about 50% or less than 100%.

I recall a dorm conversation I had with a friend in our first year of college. We discussed our goals and aspirations leading to our self-identity. I said to her that “I believe I don’t own 100% of me to myself- my parents own at least half of me because of everything they have given me.” My friend had a very strong reaction to that comment and immediately retorted, “I definitely don’t think my parents own half of me, I own all of myself.” I remember the surprised look on her face when she heard my comment and my words probably made me sound like I came from a different planet. In some respect, turns out that I do come from a different planet with contrasting values.

As I mature and am getting to know more and more young mothers, I also see the different values of self affecting their definition of a mother. An Asian friend of mine commented to me recently, ” my daughter is my everything and I devote 100% of myself to her, I can’t understand why some mothers can be so selfish to sleep-in and not watch their child 24-7.” My Asian friend was shocked at how much American mothers value taking time to themselves and spending time with friends leaving their child to a nanny. Similarly, I have an American friend who is also a new mother and is so frustrated by the lost of “self” after taking duties of a thoughtful mother. Seeing this in the light of my own circles, especially my mom and mothers from her generation, Chinese mothers could be completely selfless and are willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the wellbeing of their children. To these mothers, “self” means 90% my son and my daughter and maybe 10% me. That is not to say that American mothers won’t do the same for their children, our approach is just, different. To the American child, a Chinese mother could be overly protected and dependent, not enabling the child to have strong independence.

It is very possible that this type of parenting approach is changing in China as women become increasingly independent and career focused. However, I still hold strongly that the concept of self varies across different cultural values which would inevitably influence our self identity.

The Cost of Diversity and Exclusion

What is cultural competence? This is often the question I get when I try to explain to someone what I want to do. Through my own intercultural experiences and learning, I have come to identify cultural competence as the mental agility to be non-judgmental toward a culture that is different than their own and ability to analyze why they are different without applying judgment based on one’s own cultural context.  Often, it is much easier to understand the value of cultural competence when one is traveling to a foreign country and given the opportunity to interact with a new culture. Of course it would be helpful to learn about Japan, if I am traveling to Japan, or China for that matter.  But, when it comes to building cultural competence at home, it is much more complex when one is interfaced with multiple cultures and varying levels of international experiences in the domestic workforce.

This is especially true for places like California, where the workforce is increasingly diverse with natives that are well traveled and immigrants from other cultures. Cultural competence in this multicultural context is not just about the mental agility to learn about one culture and adapt to one work style, it is also important to have the agility to tolerate differences and adapt to diversity. The parameters of diversity could include cultural background, country of origin, educational level, professional and personal experiences, gender, age, and sexual orientation. These are all factors that make individuals unique, whether they live in the same country or not.  Every single U.S. workforce I have been employed at was made up of multiple cultures from different country of origin or with Americans who come from different parts of the U.S. Many workplaces are proud of the diversity they have hired and enjoy checking off the diversity box to make them feel good and look good. However, this degree of diversity is undermined when inclusiveness and the mental agility to recognize and adapt to different work styles are missing. In some cases, when diversity is involved but, people’s individual unique perspectives and cultural backgrounds are excluded, this could be quite costly for the workplace. Many people may have the presumption that because we are constantly exposed to diversity in our personal life or in the workplace, we know how to work with diverse backgrounds and have the sensitivity to tolerate differences.

 For instance, a U.S. team that is made up of a manager from a metropolitan city in the east coast, subordinates who are a mix of Americans from rural California, Californians of African, Japanese and Hispanic descent, have completely different work styles. Their differences could come from their heritage, personal upbringing or geographical differences; and professional experiences. In every single way, this team was the most diverse in the organization. In theory, each team member’s unique experiences and perspectives could compensate for what was missing from one another. The one with a government and policy background complemented the other team member who has a corporate business background, and the one with direct experience serving the target population compensates for the policy-only background that was missing the grassroots perspective, so on and so forth. In reality, the manager was not able to adapt his management and leadership style to accommodate the different perspectives in his team and team members felt their perspectives are excluded by management. As a result, this team failed miserably as a group who are not able to work effectively with each other. The ineffectiveness of this team led to 50% staff turn-over and the manager had to hire a brand new team with members that are more like minded. In this case, the cost of diversity and exclusion include unsuccessful teams, staff turnover, employee dissatisfaction, all of which could amount to a high dollar amount for the company.

Many studies have attempted to prove the value of diversity in a company and how diversity leads to better decisions. While this is true when diverse perspectives are included in the decision making process, but diversity alone by default does not make better decisions. Inclusion has to be part of the equation. A colleague of mine has told me the frustration he experienced as a Malaysian and his American boss. The American boss prefers to communicate work instructions to him via email. While he misinterprets her written directions, he is wondering “why can’t she just talk to me!” His boss is also wondering “why he performs so poorly when I have clearly given him explicit instructions!” Why should an American manager who likes to communicate via lengthy and explicit emails with a Malaysian subordinate who prefers to communicate in a one-on-one meeting, hire someone who behaves differently if she cannot accommodate these differences? Why doesn’t she just hire a like-minded staff who knows how to read and interpret lengthy emails with explicit directions?

I think as the workforce becomes increasingly global, whether abroad or at home, the key to maximizing diversity is to emphasize inclusion as part of the company’s business strategy. Don’t just hire different shades of color, and turn them into the one single color (the corporate culture), celebrate this diversity and allow people to keep their natural colors!Image

The Risk of Minimizing Cultural Differences

In 2008, I accepted a job to work with a non-profit organization in Oaxaca, Mexico and lived in the country for close to two years.  At the time, I had previously visited the city of Oaxaca and traveled to Mexico for a brief tour. When I was preparing my move from San Francisco to Oaxaca, I did so as if I was moving to San Jose or other nearby cities. I left my job in San Francisco on Friday and started the new job in Oaxaca on Monday.

In the past when I traveled to a foreign land, I did my due diligence of studying the culture, customs, and researching extensively about my destination. However, I did very little to prepare myself mentally for Mexico. I didn’t even bother to read the Oaxaca guide book a friend had given me before my move. By then, I had already lived in different parts of South America and traveled to various parts of the continent. I was overly confident and thought that if I can survive Paraguay and Bolivia, Mexico is no big deal. I was so sure that with my “deep” knowledge of the Latin American culture and ability to speak Spanish, adapting to the Mexican culture would be a piece of cake, right? I had no idea how wrong I was until I learned it the hard way.

I came to the Mexican workplace with all of my American habits- I was blatantly blunt and direct in my communication, offered unsolicited criticism or constructive feedback left and right, ate lunch at my desk rather than mingling with the rest of the group, and was obsessively focused on achieving results and delivering work on time. Then, my guiding principle was “I came here to do my job and not to make friends.” Eight months later, I realized in Mexico I can’t do my job until I make friends with everyone. During the first eight months of working in a Mexican environment, I was tremendously frustrated by how everything I have come to know as competent in the U.S. did not have a place in Mexico. I was surprised and at times offended, when people arrive at a meeting an hour late, or sometimes they might have forgotten that there was a meeting. I was furious when people did not deliver their work on-time as promised and therefore affecting my productivity. I didn’t understand why I became the “love of my life” or “amor de mi vida” in Spanish, to the local lady who was selling homemade tamales in the street corner. At the time I thought to myself, how insincere it is for you to call me the love of your life when I am just a passerby. I was perplexed about how a native could be so offended when I slipped an ignorant comment about how corn is not as valuable as other crops in the economy. I had no idea that diminishing the value of corn is close to the equivalent of undervaluing the national identity of Mexican patriotism…..of course a native could take offense in such disrespect to their cultural identity!


El Centro, Oaxaca City

I dreaded going to work and was so discouraged by the fact that my good intentions brought so much unproductivity. The frustration was of course two ways and my employer was just as equally affected as I was. We had come to agree to end my contract working at the job because it felt nearly impossible for us to get along well and work together. I broke down crying in front of my door steps when my Irish gringo neighbor Shawn, who had lived in Mexico for over 20 years, came by to console me.  He said to me “you know, this whole business of making friends with everyone in Mexico is like the lubricant and social fabric of Mexican society…. all of the chaos and dysfunctions of Mexican society can only make sense when we are nice and friendly to each other, that is what keeps everything together here.” Though it made some convoluted sense to me at the time, I did not completely grasp the profundity of this insight until a few years later after having studied the subject of intercultural communication.

What Shawn meant was that relationship building is a core value in Mexico and in order to build trust and rapport, one has to be friendly and approachable. And, in doing so one must be indirect in our communication so that we don’t express disagreement or criticism openly in Mexico. It is a very high context culture which requires a lot of relationship building within the group in order to understand the nuances of one’s communication and read between the lines of what is being said and omitted. This is in direct contrast with the American directness which requires communication to be openly explicit so that people don’t have room for interpretation of what is being said. Once I had a conversation about cultural differences between the U.S. and Mexican culture with a dear friend of mine, Meli, who is Mexican American living in Mexico City, and she used the most suiting analogy “The U.S. is a very sign culture where you can see a ‘No Parking’ sign on the same street within a couple of feet apart…. In Mexico, there are no signs and you won’t know you are driving the wrong way until you see another car driving full speed coming toward you!”

Five years later, in reflecting this experience I come to understand the risk of minimizing cultural differences. It was dangerous for me to assume that all Latin American countries share similar behaviors just because they speak the same language (in reality Spanish in Bolivia could be quite different from Mexican Spanish) and share some important values such as family. Since I mistakenly presumed that Mexico was not that different from all the Latin American countries I knew I prevented myself from being completely open minded. As a result of the close-mindedness, I became less observant and aware of the cultural differences in my environment. If I had paid more attention, how could I’ve missed the fact that it is hard for  Mexican natives to say no directly and the strategy to dance around that gracefully without offending someone. Had I dismissed my judgment about the tamale lady’s insincerity by calling me the “love of my life,” I would have respected this customary greeting ritual with one another in Mexico.  The cost of minimizing cultural differences to me was nine months of misery in Mexico and the gain is the new found wisdom of being open minded!

My Mexico story did not end on a sour note. In the second half of my time in Mexico, I worked with a local women activist organization promoting the human rights of indigenous Mixe women in Oaxaca. That experience was much more pleasant, after I took in my Irish neighbor, Shawn’s advice to make friends first. I became more curious about the local culture and showed a personal interest in my coworkers whom I respected a great deal. I learned to flex a little bit of my open mindedness muscle, when I found my-self in the middle of a business meeting with a group of women and men human rights activists, one of the human rights lawyers was a new mother and showed her breast openly to feed her new born daughter in the middle of her heated discussion about how the machismo culture contributes to gender-based violence in Mexico. At that time, I recall admiring the scene and was grateful to be in a cultural context that allowed for this to happen rather than judging the inappropriateness of open breast feeding in a business meeting using my American mind.


Indigenous Mixe Women in rural Oaxaca, receiving training on domestic violence.


Working alongside indigenous women leaders in the Oaxaca office.

I am closing with lots of questions to you ( yes, you who is reading from Mongolia to Senegal!)- how do you become open-minded? what do you do in order to continue to grow your open-mindedness muscle? Do you agree or disagree with the cost of minimizing cultural differences? Please share your thoughts and experiences!

Tortilla Paraguaya or Okonomiyaki?

In the beginning of 2014 I left my office job to take one year of creative sabbatical and explore the issue of cross culture and how does one go about building emotional empathy and mental competence to understand cultures that are different than theirs. Having worked nearly a decade in social justice causes in three continents- America, Latin America and China, I have experienced a sufficient dosage of frustration and failure in coping with a new culture at work. I have come to understand that cultural differences could be a major barrier in one’s ability to work effectively with team members who do not share the same cultural context. Before I dive into how we approach cultural competence (which will be defined in a later post), first, I’d like to ponder about culture itself. What is culture, how can it be such a powerful force that dominates the behaviors of millions of people from the same nation? Are we that different from each other as one human race?

First, I’d like to dwell on the latter question. When I lived in Japan as an international student during college, I tutored English to the children of a Japanese family. They were about 10 and 7 years old. One afternoon, we decided to have a cooking lesson in English and they taught me how to make one of their favorite dishes- Okonomiyaki. The dish is made with a mix of various vegetables that are thinly sliced and mixed in a batter with flour, and yama imo or mountain yam, a starchy root. After the batter is mixed, it is pan fried like pancakes. It is then served with a special okonomiyaki sauce.



Three years later, I lived with a Paraguayan host family during an internship with a local non-profit organization. My host mom taught me how to make Tortilla Paraguaya, a similar pancake-like savory dish that is served half the size as Okonomiyaki and with much less vegetables. My host mom would whip up a batter of minced onions, carrots and lettuce and fry it in a greased pan to make me a little snack when I come home from work. Her cooking would fill the room with the fragrance of onions sizzled in oil, which would inevitably weave into the nostrils of my host dad from across the two story 6 bedroom house. The three of us would join at the dinner table to share this snack and chat about our day in my broken Spanish. Sometimes we were joined by one or two of their grown children or abuela who lived next door.


                                                                   Tortilla Paraguaya

A few years later, I found myself in a Chinese kitchen in Inner Mongolia with a group of Northern Chinese natives, whom worked with me on a community development project in the region. One of the women showed me how to prepare green onion pancakes.  It is also made with a batter of green onions and pan fried in a similar fashion as Tortilla Paraguaya, except you replace the spatula with your bare hands to flip the pancake. Tonight, I found the key ingredients for Okonomiyaki and Tortilla Paraguaya in myfridge and decided to merge the two. I replaced regular flour with amaranth flour. Amaranth is an ancient grain native to Mesoamerica, which I learned about when working in Oaxaca, Mexico. As I was preparing the Tortilla Paraguaya/ mini Okonomiyaki, it occurs to me that if a Japanese person saw it, they would call it Okonomiyaki, a Paraguayan would call it Tortilla Paraguaya, a Chinese person recognizes it as green onion pancakes, an Indian person may associate it with a roti. While so many cultures could share a dish that looks very similar, each has their own name, flavor and cultural tradition of eating it. As a human race, we could be so alike, yet very different. For example, both Jamaica and Guatemala are relationship based cultures that value having a positive and amiable relationship with one another over the desire to accomplish results in a deadline driven environment such as that of the U.S. Building relationships that could reconstruct trust that was lost in the civil war of Guatemala is very much different from creating respectful relationships that will construct trust and respect in the post colonialism society of Jamaica.

While the distance between cultures are shrinking, the risk of  us  minimizing these important differences are widening. As thoughtful global leaders in this generation, how could we have the sensitivity to be empathetic to each other’s culture and the rational cognitive skills to analyze these differences in a humble way?

This blog is inspired by the above question and created as a space for the global community to discuss, share and debate on how cultural diversity plays a role in our lives. What are your thoughts on cultural differences? Do you tend to see similarities when interacting with a foreign culture? or do you only see differences?