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Pet Sins May 2006

American and East Asian cultural expectations concerning the expression of anger

I am an East Asian man. I used to have a very close black American female friend. Once, when we were at a mostly white party, she felt she was being ignored by the white crowd because she was black. She immediately let her anger show on her face, glaring at the crowd the whole evening. Then everyone stared at her and tried hard to get her back into the conversation. She clammed up even more at that point. When I saw that happening, I tried to break the stalemate by steering the conversation in another direction, distracting the crowd and relieving her of having to deal with talking to people she was angry at, or so I thought.

But it seemed I totally misunderstood what she wanted. Some months later, my friend got angry with me for another matter, and then dredged up the incident at the party. She accused me 'kissing up' to the whites at the party because I "talked pleasantly" with the whites even though I knew she was upset at them. This accusation hurt me very much because I did it all for her. We discussed the matter. To her, the right thing to do when suspecting a race-related snub was to express displeasure in an obvious a manner as possible, because she is entitled to her feelings, and the white people deserve to know that they pissed her off.

My perspective is totally different, however. If the white people are racist, that probably means they intend to piss us off. If we show them we are pissed off, then we are handing them their victory on a platter. We gave them what they wanted. We let them matter enough to us to make us angry. So the best approach is to ignore them and treat them like their snubs didn't matter.

When my friend showed her displeasure, I saw it as a sign of weakness. In East Asian culture, it is considered unwise to show emotion in an unfriendly environment, and certainly showing anger shows that you have lost control, and your foes have won. But her cultural values are different from mine: in the American way, being able to express your anger shows that you are strong. Prominently expressing outrage was especially important for black people because they have been forcibly silenced for so long. By drawing attention away from her, I was diminishing the power of her anger. She wanted the crowd to know she was angry, and she wanted them to deal with it. So she was upset at me when I smoothly steered the focus away from her. I thought I was saving her from disgrace, but she felt I was invalidating her feelings.

I explained myself to her. I apologized for taking away from her public expression of anger, but I also needed her to understand why I did what I did. It was an insult to my honor for her to claim that I was an Uncle Tom without understanding the background for my decisions. I tried to explain how my cultural upbringing informed the choices I made in that situation, and that I acted in what I thought was her interests, and tried to protect her honor. She couldn't accept my perspective. We went our separate ways. I am not generalizing about all American women being like her. And there were a number of other unrelated issues that all played a part in choking the friendship, some of which were beyond my expertise to handle, and best left to the professionals.

But I would really like people to understand some aspects of East Asian culture before they cast aspersions on other people's character in such a manner.

1) One thing some Americans may not understand is that East Asians, especially men, take honor very seriously. You don't just accuse someone of something disgusting and lowdown like kissing up to whites, and then walk away. In the past, people have committed suicide to make a public statement in order to clear their name. Or they pursued the one who insulted them to kill him. Nowadays, we don't do that, of course, but it doesn't mean we like living with dishonorable labels like "Uncle Tom" foisted on us without real basis.

2) Another thing is the attitude towards anger. Chinese and Japanese history and fiction are full of stories of martial arts masters who scold their students for showing anger in combat. It is generally believed that anger clouds your mind and puts you at a disadvantage. Our teachers tell us: "If you want to win, don't get angry at your opponent." This attitudes extend beyond the training halls and battlefields to everyday life. On the other hand, American women in self-defense training are encouraged to use their anger to overcome their fear and fight for their lives. There are merits to both viewpoints. But they don't seem to tolerate each other.

It was a reality check for me. Now I can see why many cross-cultural relationships don't work out.