An Acute Case of Disorientation: The Asian American Angle

Illustration: James Yang

“Be proud you’re Chinese. We have 5,000 years of history, and America only 200,” my mother admonishes me, and in the next breath, she reminds me, “Teacher says you can’t speak Chinese at home anymore. It’s hurting your mental development.” I am a stranger in my own birthland.

Thirty years later, working as an expat businessman in ostensibly my “true” homeland, China, I am still an outsider—a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). We Asian-Americans are a hyphenated race, culturally aware of both sides but not fully accepted by either. We are the diagonal mediator between the two orthogonal axes. Sometimes our oddity makes us stand out (the backhanded compliment “Your English is so good,” expressed in amazement by either axis), but more often than not, we are an acute angle in a right-angle world. No wonder we are disoriented.

However, during this time of division, where the consequences of misunderstanding and misinterpretation are more serious than ever in our interconnected world, Asian Americans can be a cultural Rosetta stone.

My father explained how the Chinese and American cultures are not opposites but rather are perpendicular to each other. He illustrated this point with the simple example of how the two cultures address an envelope. The U.S. envelope lays horizontally, whereas the China envelope is turned 90 degrees, standing vertically, matching the way the two written languages are oriented: English from left to right, top to bottom, and Chinese from top to bottom, right to left. 

Most of us can cope with differences in the orientation of an envelope, but what if we literally cannot hear one another? With the exception of a few polyglots, most of us will speak with an accent if we learn a foreign language after elementary school. This is not an issue with our tongues or vocal cords but with our ears. We literally cannot detect the difference in the phonemes after the language part of our brain solidifies around the sounds of our native tongue. The Chinese language has four tones, which a non-native listener has a hard time distinguishing, making the language sound singsongy. I remember waiting for the school bus to save me from further teasing as my schoolmates tried pronouncing my Chinese middle name, Yu. The difficult-to-pronounce Yu devolved into caveman pantomimes and gorilla grunts of “ooh ooh ahh ahh.” My 10-year-old brain could not understand that it was not the fault of my Caucasian friends that they could not pronounce the Chinese word because they could not hear the difference between how I said it and their attempts. As adults, we are less blatant but often still mock what we do not understand.

We Asian-Americans are a hyphenated race, culturally aware of both sides but not fully accepted by either.

It is not just the obfuscation of the language, though. That is just the surface-level, obvious difference providing hours of entertainment for white friends. There are endless variations of the envelope example demonstrating the orthogonality of Eastern and Western thought. Another simple example is how we list the cardinal points of a compass. In English, we say “north, south, east, west.” It is obvious that is the way it should be ordered, right? Well, the Chinese start with east and go clockwise: “. . . south, west, north.”

American social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett explored this “geography of thought.” He stumbled upon the fact that many Western psychological studies were based on white college students. When he expanded his research to include Asian subjects, he concluded that “human cognition is not everywhere the same,” and that Asians and Westerners “have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years.”

His aquarium experiment is my favorite. Subjects were asked to look at an illustration of an aquarium for five seconds, and then describe it. Western participants noted the foreground of the picture—several fish. Asian participants, however, focused on the background—kelp, bubbles, even the direction of the sunlight. In fact, they sometimes did not mention the fish at all. To an American, that is astounding, even obtuse. How can you miss the main point? But to the Japanese, context is everything. Americans are so direct, maybe even lacking subtlety? The researchers label the two frameworks as individualistic (I picture the rugged American cowboy) versus collectivist (the first word association for me is the Borg). Hmm, that does seem to explain the U.S. antimask response to coronavirus compared with Asia’s masking up for the benefit of society as a whole.

In the business world, this difference in the geography of thought maps to a whole lot of business ventures getting lost. Hard-nosed American executives exit their business-class transpacific flight and expect to walk into a boardroom to sign a contract with their Chinese counterparts. They ask simple questions and expect direct answers but instead get roundabout discussions that seem at best tangential to the deal. Then, just as jetlag hits, they are swept into a never-ending banquet of exotic—and sometimes frightening—delicacies chased with the paint-stripping alcohol baijiu. This dance is part of the Chinese business courtship to determine whether a partner can be trusted. The nebulous relationship forged over alcohol is more important than the contract, more valuable than gold.

Portrait of Alan TienTien (Photo: Courtesy Alan Tien)


Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, describes in his 1995 book, Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, that different societies have different levels of trust. On his scale, the United States is a high-trust society, where people follow the rule of law. They trust institutions and organizations, even if they do not have a personal relationship with them, because they believe rules and regulations will back them. However, in a low-trust society like China, people trust only family and close friends. The farther the distance from the core family unit, the greater the distrust. 

During my expat assignment in China—I worked there for eight years, including five as the general manager of PayPal China—I wished that my company and our parent company, eBay, had understood this fundamental disparity of trust. To some degree, we lost in China because of this failure. In the United States and Europe, PayPal thrived on a direct-pay model, à la eBay in the early days of the internet: The buyer paid the seller through PayPal, and then the seller sent the goods. If there was a problem, the buyer could file a complaint with PayPal to get his or her money back. This model assumes a high-trust society, where users believe the vast majority of people follow the rules. In fact, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, claims that eBay is a huge social experiment that proves people are good, since fraud occurs in less than 1 percent of the transactions. However, he failed to recognize what Nesbitt realized—that this experiment was run in the Western frame of reference. Once moved to a low-trust society such as China, this basic assumption no longer worked. Buyers did not trust the sellers, nor did they trust that the intermediating platform would make good on their guarantee. In China, the direct-pay model failed miserably, and PayPal should have adopted an escrow model, where a third-party middleman holds the funds until the buyer confirms the receipt and quality of the goods.

Hard-nosed American executives exit their business-class transpacific flight and expect to walk into a boardroom to sign a contract with their Chinese counterparts. Then, just as jetlag hits, they are swept into a never-ending banquet of exotic delicacies chased with the paint-stripping alcohol baijiu

Why did buyers not trust the sellers? From what I could tell, it was because they knew what they would do themselves. In a low-trust society, it’s OK to screw others as long as you are helping your family. A logical extension of that belief is nepotism. One of the many business books I read in preparation for my expat assignment in China recounted a Western executive who, as an example of his unbiased hiring practices, proudly proclaimed that he would not allow his son to work in his company. His shocked Chinese business partner viewed him as a “heartless father” for violating the Confucian principle of family first.

Once I was on the ground in China, further examples of how differently the two cultures view the world came to light. On Monday mornings in the United States, a standard question in the office is, “What did you do this weekend?” This is your opportunity to brag about your weekend-warrior exploits or how much more fun you had than your peers. When I would ask the same question to my Chinese colleagues, however, I’d get a very different response: “I painted the walls of our nursery in preparation for our baby,” for example. I would respond, “Oh, that’s great, but did you do anything fun?” and they would look at me with confusion. Fun was not something they sought or valued in their free time. This is changing with the younger, more Westernized generation, but only a decade ago, people bragged about how hard they worked and what they accomplished—not how much they played during their free time.

In his 2011 book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell attributes this difference of values to a history of rice cultures versus wheat cultures. In Western, wheat-dominated cultures, you really only had to work hard during two times of the year—planting season and harvesting season. The rest of the time was relatively undemanding, allowing for greater individualistic expression. However, rice paddies in the East required constant tending and cooperation. More consistent hard work materially affected output. Gladwell went on to argue that this cultural background, in addition to the Chinese numbering system being more conducive to learning, enabled Asian students to be better at math than Western students. As a Caucasian consultant once said to me in Chicago, “You Orientals are much better at math!” Whether my rice-based heritage helped, I cannot say, but I do know that my mom’s hectoring had a huge impact. While my white classmates were anointed as geniuses by their parents for getting a B+, when I came home with a 97 on my test—an A+, mind you—my mom demanded, “Where are the other three points?”

The Chinese believe in the virtue of hard work (and no play—it’s OK to be a dull boy). In fact, they accept that you should be compensated only if you are doing work. While talking to my masseuse or hairdresser in Shanghai, I was stunned by their schedules. They routinely worked 12 or more hours per day, six or seven days a week, and commonly lived on-site. But they were paid only when they had a customer. When I asked whether they got paid if no customers came in that day, they laughed at my naivete; why would they be paid if they did not do any labor? My worldview flipped. The “socialist” country China was much more capitalistic than our oh-so capitalistic United States.

China is not just more capitalistic; it is more in your face in everything. Walking around the streets is a full-contact sport in any city in China. All your senses are engaged as you are jostled by swarming crowds, your ears assaulted by honking horns and hollering hawkers, your nose flooded with the wafting of awful offal, and your eyes besieged by swerving scooters and flickering neon signs. Like This Is Spinal Tap, the dial is turned up to 11, but for all sensations, at all times, day and night. When you return to the United States, you wonder: Where is everyone, why is everything so quiet, and how do you get a nice hot bowl of noodles at 2 a.m.? The digital landscape parallels the physical world. While U.S. website user-interface design dictates simplicity and clarity, Asian websites jam-pack every available pixel with flashing and blinking content. A consultant once told me that when Google first ran usability studies in China, participants sat there looking at the simple search bar on a white page. The researchers asked the participants what they were doing. “Waiting for the rest of the page to load,” they patiently responded.

While my white classmates were anointed as geniuses by their parents for getting a B+, when I came home with a 97 on my test—an A+, mind you—my mom demanded, ‘Where are the other three points?’

We Asian Americans are lost, like the invisible content that will never load. Americans do not see us as they go about their business; we blend in with the background. Asians do not see us either; we are too westernized now. My best friend told me a story about his good-looking Asian American friend, who was used to turning heads, but when he went to a New York City club, he felt strange and disoriented. He finally put his finger on it: “They look right through me, as if I’m not here.” 

Asian Americans have been like ghosts in both Eastern and Western societies, not quite fitting into either. However, that disorientation will not go away by itself. If anything, East and West seem to be pulling farther apart. With our ability to see and comprehend the two different angles, we can accept our identity perplexity and embrace our role as the bridge between the two cultures. Though the geography of thought may seem orthogonal, a little mapping of the views and values can smooth out many misunderstandings and even derision. Maybe we can start with a compromise on the compass—getting everyone to say “north, east, south, west.”

Alan Tien, ’91, manages real estate in Northern California. He can often be found playing beach volleyball in Honolulu, the one place in the world Asian Americans (this one, at least) truly feel at home.