These days, nobody writes letters anymore. With Internet and telecommunication technologies, we have emails, IMs, and better yet, my folks in China are mostly writing SMS on mobile phones.
My dad in China, unaffected by whatever the technology, still wants to write letters to me. I would send him the pre-printed address labels so he doesn’t have to struggle to write my address in English on the envelope. Each time, I would remind him: “remember to put your own address on the upper left corner and put my address on the lower right corner of the envelope. This is the American way.”
Indeed, it’s the opposite way of Chinese writing the envelop. In China, we put the receiver’s address at upper left corner, and the sender’s address in the lower right corner. Even the order of writing address is opposite. In China, it starts with the country, then the province / state, then the city, the street address, and finally the name. In America, the name goes first, then the street address, then the city, the state, and finally the country.
While the cultural differences of the east and west are deeply rooted in religions and people’s belief systems, here is a peek at these differences from my personal point of view:
Dominated by Confucius teaching, Chinese culture emphasizes the virtue of modesty and putting other people before “self,” while American culture is characterized by individualism and personal identity. In addressing an envelop, Chinese acknowledge the other people by putting them before and above the “self;” while Americans, the other way around, proclaim the “self” as oppose to the others.
Chinese culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism and Taoism, which stress the individuals as the part of the whole; while American culture seems to more focus on the individuals that make the whole. So, in China, you write an envelop starting with the whole: the country – the province / state – the city – the street – the name; whereas in America, you start with the individual: the name – the street – the city – the state – the country.
Another notable example is the order of the first name and last name. Chinese put the family name first because it’s very important to honor the family and ancestors; while Americans put their own names first and family names last, because people may or may not know their ancestors. With a culture that is less hierarchical, some can even make up their last names.
This list can go on and on…. More startling examples include the emergency number, which is “911” in America, is “119” in China, and the directory number, which is “411” on this soil, is “114” across the globe. Whether they are mysterious coincidences or manmade mistakes, it does make me wonder if all these are part of God’s grand plan for humanity….
Seemingly opposite to each other, I see the east and west are the ying and yang of the universe. Chinese culture has more emphasis on feminine energy of the universe (ying), which includes humbleness, patience, letting be and motionless; while American culture accents masculine energy of the universe (yang): proactive, aggressiveness, goal-oriented, and taking action. They are two sides of one coin and we need the both to be one.