Two Sides of One Coin

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 teaching, emphasizes the virtue of modesty and putting other people before “self,” while 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 and , 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.

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39 thoughts on “Two Sides of One Coin

  1. It’s funny, about two weeks ago I wrote a post about ying/yang and a comparison to “two sides of the same coin”. Also, I agree that the dominant American worldview is very “self” oriented, but that could change someday. Nothing stays the same.

  2. Thanks, John. I looked your blog but couldn’t find that post. I would like to read it!

    Yes, you are absolutely right. Everything is changing and nothing stays the same.

  3. Fabulous information Helen, and you have such a nice clear way of sharing it. Thanks so much!

  4. Well done… you made me think about the effect of the individualistic point of view, do you think it caused disharmony in the culture?

  5. Very interesting piece, Helen. When I was in China, the cultural inversions seemed everywhere around me, but most pronounced in the countryside. The most pronounced one for me was the variance in personal space. It seemed like everyone in China was right on top of one another (and me.) Perhaps that’s what happens with such a large population — although I spent most of my time outside the densely packed population centers.

    There was such a dearth of privacy — it did not seem at all important to the Chinese, nor did they think anything of approaching to look over my shoulder as I wrote in my journal. Perhaps they just wanted to see the funny letters I made.

    I noticed, by the way, the absence of eyes on the inverse, angelic figures you illustrated this piece with. Is there a statement implicit in that?

  6. Great article and lots of information Helen. Perhaps it would be helpful for you to send your father envelopes with all the information needed already on the envelopes. The are of letter writing has indeed become a long lost art, esp. with computers around, but it’s not completely lost. I still keep in touch with a number of penfriends around the world and we still write ‘real’ letters to one another and send them via the mail. I’m still supporting the postal offices.

  7. Helen, this is such a good piece and one tht we as Americans should know about. I wish there was someone who so clearly explain these same cultural differences between Americans and the Middle East cultures. There is indeed more than one way to look at things.

  8. Very informative. I appreciate this article a lot, Helen. I’m always interested to learn more about China. My husband’s best friend, Jamon, went to China five years ago to find a wife. He’d done that once before, but didn’t stay very long and the young woman was quite frightened over here. So he returned and made arrangements for the marriage to end. This time around, he stayed for several months. His wife enjoys life in Massachusetts and works in a restaurant at a job she enjoys.

    I had a Polish stepmother who came to the US when she was 35. It is very difficult living in another country, even if one comes as a child or young adult.
    Kthryn Esplin-Oleski

  9. Helen, this is so nicely written, and you did such a wonderful job of saying it all without being judgemental or critical of either culture. Being an American who grew up in Asia, I can very much relate to your article, and find myself more of the Asian mind set, having more of the ying characteristics than the yang. Sometimes American arrogance can be hard to handle, thank you for being so kind in your choice of words.

  10. Hi everyone, thank you sooooo much for all your comments!

    Iee, you raised a very good question. I think the sense of “self” is good. But anything practiced to extreme becomes evil. The situation in China is that the culture suppressed “self” to the extent that kill the individual characteristic, personal expression and creativity. That needs to be balanced.

    Adam, I completely understand what you are saying. Many people here feel lonely, but in China, you really don’t have any space to be lonely. You noticed the angels without eyes and that is very observant.

    Carol, yes, there are certainly more than one ways to see things.

    Kathryn, thank you for sharing the story. Yes, it’s not easy to live in another country, especailly there is such a cultureal difference.

    Mary, good to know you are growing up in Asian and can relate with my article!

    Again, thanks for all your very nice and kind comments!

    With gratitude,

  11. I love it. Something as simple as addressing a letter, and you’ve shown how it reveals so much about different cultures. Great work!

  12. Thank you. That is definitely good info that I will be referring back to in the future. I am always interested in the diversity of cultures.

  13. Excellent Helen, I am interested in learning more. I have read some buddhist writings. I think that only when we treat the world as one will the human race make progress. Peace!

  14. Maybe the absence of eyes implies absence of judgemental attitude toward the other side, in fact they are very close as united in a common goal..supporting one another

  15. Thanks for the article. I’ve been nosing around yin/yang for a long time. My teacher once told be a story of two little imps who lived on each side of a swinging door. They wanted to play together, so each would come to the door and push as hard as he could, but the door wouldn’t open. it was only when they learned to take turns that they were able to get together to play.

  16. Carolyn,
    thank you for your compliment!

    I would like to see the world as one garden with different colors of flowers. Because the flowers have different colors, they are beautiful! Otherwise, how boring it could be if they all looked the same color.

    I look forward to interacting with you more in the future!

    I like your interpretation of the angels without eyes as absence of judgemental attitude toward the other! Great insight!

    How cute is that story! I love it!

  17. Helen,

    Let me add one more voice to the chorus of praise.

    Thank you for a well-written and helpful article.

  18. Helen,
    I enjoyed your comparisons and insight. Not only did you inform, you did so delightfully!

  19. Very philosophical post Helen. I enjoyed reading it. I would love to visit China once..

  20. Helen, very interesting perspective put forth very well!! I have no doubt that you realize that generalizing about cultures is a risky proposition (as is generalizations about any group). But your examples of cultural behavior are compelling!

  21. Helen, This was a lovely article. It helped me personalize the ying/yang concepts, which had been for me more an academic construct. I wish for that perfect balance of the two within myself.

  22. Well written and very interesting article Helen! I am fascinated by Asian culture and I think Americans have much to learn.

  23. amazing post helen..i have always been in awe trying to understand chinese traditions and buddisht influences. as much as such things focus on the whole, you realise it so unleashes some kind of power within you – as though you draw power from the whole.

    i surely want to learn more about all this some day.

  24. Helen, with both my parents coming from Asia, I can relate closely to the ideas you present here. There is a fascinating relationship between the yin and yang cultures of the east and west — I agree!

    Well written piece, thanks for putting it out!

  25. An interesting analysis. My parents were both born in China but fled to Hong Kong when they were kids because of the Communist Revolution. After growing up in HK and then immigrating to America they became Christians. They went through quite a cultural and religious transformation over the span of their whole lives. I suppose they can’t really claim to be fully Chinese or fully Westernized.

  26. This was very inspiring and it does evolve questions about self. Thought the title was perfect.

  27. Helen,

    I enjoyed your post very much. I came across it while researching advice on Chinese etiquette as I just found out that my Medical Assisting externship will be with a Chinese doctor and her husband.

    I already made the mistake, based on my research, of shaking his hand without him making the first move.

    I was told by the office manager that most of the patients do not speak English so I’m now more nervous than ever about dealing with actual patients versus fellow students.

    Do you know of any sites specifically for Americans who want to be respecful of their employers and patients but have no exposure to the Chinese culture beyond philosophy classes I took in college and a similar world-view in that respect?

    You’re probably too busy for this type of question but I thought it was worth a shot.

    Joanna Weiss

  28. Joanna,

    There is a book called “Chinese Business Etiquette: A Guide to Protocol, Manners, and Culture in the People’s Republic of China” that may provide some helpful tips. I did not read the book, but I believe the general rules apply to certain extent. Good luck!

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