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How to Talk to Asians

thinking asian


Ok, before anyone gets their hackles up over the title of this piece, a few points. One, I do not believe in any of those magical one-hand-clapping Orientalist discourse keys crafted for unlocking the ‘mysterious, exotic’ Asian mind. Two, as someone who has taken over one hundred trips within the continent and has lived in two countries in the region for nearly thirty years I am very, VERY aware that there is no monolithic, generic, singular ‘Asian culture’; that the sheer variety of cultures in the region probably surpasses any other in the world. Third, no one really knows what ‘hackles’ are anyway.


Rather, the title is inspired by two sources. One is the book “Can Asians Think?” by Singaporean Kishore Mabhubani, which posits the value of an ‘Asian’ take on, or response to, some of the problems and issues faced by modern societies, as opposed to the standard Western memes. And no, he is not actually questioning whether Asian actually think or not. The other was this recent piece by Nicolas Gattig in The Japan Times: 

Let me focus on the latter here.

obedient classroom


In the above article, the writer brings up a theme which consistently draws pointed commentary from Westerners living in, or actively dealing with, East Asian societies: the reticent Asian interlocutor (particularly in EFL classrooms) who does not offer up much opinionated, socio-political commentary in casual conversation and is subsequently accused of anything from lacking intellectual credence to being mindlessly acquiescent of the status quo (or fearful of the social/political consequences of critiquing the ‘authorities’). In popular culture, this is usually contrasted with the opinionated Westerner who apparently values frank, intellectually stimulating, ‘original’ commentary on big fat topics — and isn’t afraid to let you know it. (And if you harbour doubts about this description please visit any of the online forums utilized by the gaijin/gwailo/farang communities in the region).


Fortunately, Gattig rescues himself from what initially looks like intercultural discourse purgatory halfway through the article by coming to accept the positive aspects of his then-Japanese-GF-now-wife’s apparent lack of interest in the type of verbal showboating he originally engaged in. But many people never do get over this step. And many of them are language teachers.


Westerners: Forcing social critique into every encounter?


About 95% of my interactions are with East Asians, mostly Japanese, but also with colleagues, associates, students, and friends in or from various corners of the continent. Beyond functional interactions, most such conversations — always devoid of any Shaolinesque aphorism-infused bunkum — are invigorating, stimulating, and expansive, while involving only the rarest intrusion of sociopolitical or environmental flourishes. These are very unlike many interactions with Western associates, who seem compelled to force social critique into every encounter — done so, I suppose, to imbue their monologues with some justifying gravitas and profundity. Go figure.


Anyway, today, I want to take this notion of ‘important sociopolitical topics’ and ‘saying your opinion’ a bit further, and, later, apply it to the Asian EFL classroom. I will do this first by stating some unquestionable, inviolable, immutable axioms:


a) For men – If you are on a date and you start serenading her with your profound political opinions, your lady partner will automatically crave your genetic material. Bonus points if you offer a particularly complex and insightful analysis (e.g., “How about that Donald Trump! What a fascist!”) by giving her time to absorb your slogan by looking proud and confident of your eloquent contribution for a few seconds before you allow her to agree with you. When she duly offers up an “Mm” in response you can tell your friends the next day how you had a ‘deep political conversation with her’ and that she seemed ‘very bright’ and was ‘intellectually compatible’ because she appeared to agree with everything you said. This is every woman’s dream date.


bored date


(And as long as I’m wearing my date coach hat let me add this: In Asia be sure to throw some self-pity into the mix. This will make you an irresistible chick magnet throughout the entire region.)


b) For anyone living abroad – Locals just love to hear unbidden socio-political insights about their own countries from foreigners who’ve lived there for, oh, 6 months to a year. Expect automatic extensions to your teaching contract if you offer these nuggets to local teachers and administrators in your school because “their own press/education system/authorities don’t tell them these truths.” This way you can persuade yourself that your indulgent rhetoric about their country’s foreign policy failings for example actually serves to ‘help the locals’ – to civilize and enlighten them. Yes, you are Mother Teresa Lite. Local gratitude for your original and critically unassailable pearls of wisdom can be confirmed if your local friend or colleague replies back something to the effect that, “Oh! You know so much about our country, Mr. John!” because they really, really mean it (and, as we know, ‘other people’ never do irony).


[Sidebar] One topic that appears to be a near taboo with East Asians partners (I’m talking BF/GF/W/H relationships here) are those type of “I think we should discuss our relationship” encounters so central to North American one-on-one discourse. The reaction to the suggestion of such a facedown in the Far East generally seems to be along the lines of, ‘Why would you talk about a relationship? You have a relationship!’ with the implicit belief that talking about, or analyzing, your relationship is as incongruous and awkward as ‘dancing about architecture’ (not my line) or is serving as a prelude to a confrontation of Fischer-Spassky proportions. This is gleaned not only from my personal experience but also those of my Asian friends and colleagues, as well as Western friends in partnerships with East Asians. [End sidebar]


OK, let me tone down the sarcasm meter for just a moment…




Let me make some distinctions between some popular rhetoric about East Asians in particular and what my own experience with many people and institutions in the region tells me. First, let’s read from the Big Book of Popular Tropes as typically offered up by those people who tend to think of themselves as original/critical thinkers:

Reticence on hot topic, bigass ‘issues’ in East Asian EFL classrooms is due to some combination of —a) culturally conditioned subservience to the authority (especially of teachers), b) socio-political oppression, c) apathy regarding big social issues (unlike you, who really cares), d) the lack of an educational culture in which opinions and critical thinking are utilized or encouraged, d) conformity and the related fear of standing out, and e) the fact that sensitive topics are taboo because of ‘feudal’ moral codes.


Speaking what’s on your mind — a mark of childish compulsion?


My observations (many learned the hard way):

1)      In most Asian cultures, waxing eloquent on your great, puffy opinion in a classroom is considered a waste of everyone else’s time. Why would any student think that the purpose of the EFL classroom is primarily to allow him or her to espouse their personal agendas? Classrooms are for learning, not to listen to other students spouting their personal socio-political thought.


2)      The habit of ‘saying your piece’ on topics about which you actually know very little — but about which you pretend to be an insider — smells like you’ve just spent a night sleeping in the Great Dumpster of Ignorance. You will look like a fool and, generally speaking, Asians catch on to this hubris very, very quickly.


3)      In most Asian cultures, the propensity to speak what’s on your mind is not considered an innate critical-thinking virtue but rather is thought to be the mark of childish compulsion and indulgence. Sensitivity to audience, time, and place are considered paramount.


4)      In most Asian societies, offering up personal commentary on sensitive topics in a public or semi-public setting is seen as a Face (and Harmony) Threatening Action. It’s the equivalent of shouting out “I’m the toughest guy in this bar” – at an upscale hotel wine bar.


5)      East Asians do offer pointed, well-crafted opinions and  perspectives, most of which Mr./Ms. Foreigner would not be able to ascertain from being able to read only the local English press (talk about the old ‘their media is limiting their perspectives on reality’ chestnut!). Many are critical, insightful, original, and highly stimulating food for thought. But they are not likely to divulge such things until a suitable relationship has been established with you — meaning that you have presented yourself as a worthy interlocutor, and not as a team player for Enlighten The Savages.


6)     Cynicism does not go down well in most Asian cultures. Note that I said cynicism, not sarcasm. I understand that this is an essential element in the angry-young-Westerner’s verbal arsenal and may even be seen as an indicator of ‘caring about big issues’ back home, but when injected into East Asian discourse it’s like adding ice to a glass of beer. I definitely try to remove my garish cynicism cap when conversing outside of Western cultures.


Now a few related personal bugaboos…

save the world


Bugaboo #1. Why is it that ‘deep, important, serious’ topics are almost always associated with the socio-political sphere? I mean, toss out a trope in which you castigate name any authority figure here, perhaps pointing out how ‘politicians are corrupt’ or that the powers-that-be are ‘unconcerned about the people’, and Poof!, suddenly you’re having a ‘Serious Political Discussion’ about an important topic. Moreover, most anything uttered under this banner, now matter how mundane, gets pimped as an original, critical insight. You know, the kind that (cough) Asians aren’t supposed to make.


OK, while I’m riding this rhetorical horse… why is it so often implicitly assumed that if you aren’t pontificating upon heavyweight topics (“Nobody seems to care about the environment. The government should do more!”) then the only other discussion choices must be blather like food and/or shopping? To me, people who can draft insightful and interesting banter out of everyday topics are truly conversational artists (and would make David Byrne proud)!


“You might not want to blame your students or blame the culture”


Bugaboo #2. Why are students so often deemed as ‘highly aware’ or ‘insightful’ when they agree with you, the teacher, or echo the lines they know you want them to say? I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had in which Western teachers laud the critical thinking and originality of students who say ‘the correct things’, namely that which the teacher clearly believes. And, conversely, why are those few student souls who dare not to agree with Sensei and thereby offer an alternative perspective (particularly in defence of some local tradition/habit) readily disparaged as something akin to ‘drones — products of their educational system’.


Sure, the locals never do irony.


So if you intend to bring monumental, world-saving, epoch-marking topics into the East Asian EFL classroom you might want to think three times about it beforehand and, even then, make sure that the participants, setting, physical environment, and activity backgrounding creates an air that is conducive to some meaningful interaction. But, if the responses are muted, limited to catchphrases, or tepid to the point that most utterances simply toll the mundane highway, you might not want to blame your students or the culture. It may be you that is driving on the wrong side of the road.

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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