Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Culture Shock is Good for the Soul

Written by: on May 23, 2015

I am glad Amy Chua wasn’t my mother…for a lot of reasons! First, I think I would have been a great disappoint to her. And I would have been miserable, because I have no musical talents, I have average intelligence, and my values (friendship, service, fellowship) would have clashed with Chua’s program for my life. But, I have to wonder, if Amy had been my mother, would I have found hidden musical talents I was unaware of? Maybe I would have ended up being a straight A student in high school! And maybe I would achieve a doctorate at age 25 instead of waiting till my 50s. Who knows? What I do know is that I am glad I had the mother I had who was a great encourager with high expectations, which fit my personality better than if she had been a drill sergeant. But, I have to admit, I can only speak from my own experience, within my own family, within my own culture. Which begs the question: Can I actually say that my way and my experience is the best way?

These are some of the underlying questions that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother[i] confronts us with. Where many people found this book disturbing, I found instead a wonderful case study of the challenges of cross-cultural understanding and adjustment. For most Americans, what Chua describes so blatantly conflicts with their Western cultural practices, that it brings an immediate negative reaction. That reaction comes naturally for most Americans when faced with different cultural practices, due (I believe) to our narrow, insulted and limited cross-cultural experiences. I’ve often seen this in the “ugly American” syndrome where Americans painfully exhibit their inability to adjust the different cultures of other countries. This is why I think Amy Chua might provide a way to help us re-examine and evaluate our reactions to and our inability to adjust to other cultures.

Chua stands in an “in-between” position that demonstrates the challenges and frustrations when attempting to translate cultural practices and attitudes into a new situation. Being raised Chinese, Chua had the full experience of that culture’s parenting practices, lifestyles, worldview, and attitudes. However, having been raised in the United States, Chua also has a clear understanding of American culture, attitudes and practices. Her ability to see things from both sides is what makes this book such an insightful read (and allows to her push buttons that cause such critical reactions). Amy knew (from her American experience) that many of her habits of teaching and motivating her children would be viewed as extreme, harsh, and down right cruel, while at the same time knowing from her personal experience these methods can also be considered as “normal” and often prove to be effective. She also knew that such practices did not devastate children as was often thought by her American counterparts. Her seeing this from both sides helps us to see the intricacies, nuances and challenges of navigating cultural difference. These cultural landmines are what every cross-cultural missionary and second-generation immigrant must go through and must try to figure out. Chua illustrates that being “in-between” is rarely a happy place.

Being able to empathize with and adjust to a different culture is one of the hardest things for us to do as Americans. I often wonder if the reason for this is the fact that the United States so dominates the world with its culture, while rarely allowing space for other cultures or influences, that most Americans just are not aware that people in the world might do things differently. I have seen this time and again when I’ve taken people out of the country for the first time: their shock and amazement that the rest of the world is not just like ours. Travel is often the beginning of cultural intelligence. But what Chua presents – the stark differences in attitudes and practices in even in very private parts of life (like childrearing) is often beyond the capacity of many of us to even begin to understand. Because we are faced with stark differences, our tendency is to react rather than to listen, to learn and understand. Because of cultural differences, I think many Americans never travel – or they leave once and can’t handle the fact that where they went is not like what they are familiar with – that they never venture out again. (This is probably the reason for that strange comment that I’ve heard so often from American travelers (the drives me crazy!): “It was dirty!” Really? You were in the city ROME! The city with the Coliseum and the Vatican and St. Peter’s and the Spanish Steps…and all you have to say is that it was dirty? I think you should stay home!)

What Chua’s book suggests is that every culture is different and from the outside it will make little or no sense, because it is not a part of our experience. Other cultures will always beg the question: “Is it necessarily wrong? Or is it just different?” Just because I might not have enjoyed growing up in a similar situation or being a part of that particular culture’s practices, does that mean its bad, wrong or without value? The real question we often fail to ask is: Why is my experience a better gage for how everyone else should act or live? And the most important question is whether we are willing to take the time and effort to understand, and maybe appreciate, another’s cultural practices without making quick judgments. This might also allow us to humbly examine our own assumed culture habits that might be in need redemption.

Who knows, I might have been a famous concert violinist/brain surgeon! Really!

[i] Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), Kindle.

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

10 responses to “Culture Shock is Good for the Soul”

  1. Deve Persad says:

    It’s never too late for violin lessons, John! There may yet be a little virtuoso to unleash. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it provided a significant contrast to the textbook we just finished reading and it was humourous. But it does raise some excellent questions, some of which you highlighted well. Your comment was: “This is why I think Amy Chua might provide a way to help us re-examine and evaluate our reactions to and our inability to adjust to other cultures.” In my opinion this emphasizes one of the central ideas and battles we face as a North American culture, that ability to see beyond ourselves. What makes this ironic is to recognize that most North Americans originate from a cultural heritage that is from another part of the world.
    Thanks John, I better let you get back to your brain surgery!

    • John Woodward says:

      Deve, I think you hit it right on the head. North Americans tend to be totally clueless to their cultural heritage, not only generally across the American societies, but it even goes into our churches. I have written often of my churches thinking they are only following the NT, without any influences from outside. This lack of cultural or contextual background has been both divisive within the church and unhelpful in evangelism in a new context. That’s why this book might be a good training tool for helping people began to grasp something of their own cultural blinders! Thanks for your comments, Deve!

  2. rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks, John,
    Your post is excellent and you have captured the heart of the message we can take away from “Battle Hymn.” It is a wonderfully written narrative of living between two cultures. It is more than a glimpse, the book gives great insight into the impact and value of heritage and how culture lives out in every day life. I was a little amazed but not totally surprised in reading about the reaction Chua received from “furious emails” to talk show hosts. The book was undoubtedly intended at least in part for American parents; the problem is in America we perceive of western culture as right and expect that those who are different will come around. Fortunately Chua did set it straight, “My book’s not about telling other parents what to do. … Battle Hymn is just my family’s story. And it’s partly about my mistakes, my own transformation as a mother” (Afterward)

    In my opinion, you caught the central and greatest take-a-way when you said. “I found instead a wonderful case study of the challenges of cross-cultural understanding and adjustment.” Think of the possibilities of learning to live in our culturally diverse world; what to give and what to take, what we should assimilate and when we should celebrate differences, being able to discern when we stand strong and when we relax, after all, it is true we live in constant cultural diversity.

    • John Woodward says:

      Thanks Ron for your wonderful comments. Whenever I write my post, I always wonder if I am thinking totally crazy thoughts. It is good to know that others come away with the same insights and thoughts! It is exciting to think of the times we live in as opportunity to live and learn from other cultures…more so than ever before…if we would only be open and willing to take the time to learn and to interact! Thanks for your thoughts and your great insights, Ron!

  3. John,

    Great work here, my friend. Thanks for your good thoughts on Chua’s book.

    Your thoughts on many Americans’ ways of looking at other cultures are spot on. I have seen this damaging attitude many times, and it always breaks my heart. How much better than judging another culture would it be if people would appreciate the differences. I am so grateful that all cultures are not the same. How boring that would be!

    I loved reading this week’s assignment. I was fascinated by the commitment to the children, by the amount of resources that went into raising these children, and by the openness that Chua had in the end of the book to listen to her children. I also loved that the whole family contributed to the making of the book. I think that every new parent should read this book; there is so much to learn from it.

    • John Woodward says:

      Bill, I too loved this book! Kind of wish all our books for this program was this much fun to read (and quick!). There is so much in this simple story – culture, family, education, goals, etc. etc. It could be a great learning and training tool for a lot of different groups of people! Thanks again for your kind comments!

  4. John, though I have never done a cultural intelligence assessment on you I would have to say that she would probably rank fairly high. You point out things within your post that is truly an American cultural naïveté of other cultural differences. I too am often astonished at how people travel to other countries and the beauty, splendor, and romance is eclipsed by the dirt, the smell, and the fact that they don’t do things the way we do at home. But we only say this because we are accustomed to our home been our home. Going back to our book on Valentine and special geography, we see that people gravitate back to their familiar spatial orientation. This is unfortunate for immigrants who, like Amy, attempt to bring their culture into a setting that combats everything at their culture stands for. As you indicate in your post Amy was very much aware of her struggle as she knowingly says she was “up against an entire value system-rooted in the enlightenment, individual autonymy, child development theory, and the Universal declaration of human rights.” Though Amy had a high level of cultural intelligence knowing the difference between America and Chinese culture people who read her book did not have the same cultural intelligence. She talks about the backlash of her book and how people criticized her bitterly as a crazy woman, witch,and even a child abuser. Yet I viewed the YouTube videos of her daughters speaking and they seem to be psychologically healthy and academically motivated to be the best they can be. Hummmm???

    • John Woodward says:

      Thanks Mitch! From the “cultural guru” of cohort 4, I take this a big compliment. I love to learn about cultures…I guess from my travels and my love for “place” (the newness, uniqueness, the feel and taste of new places) I’ve approached culture probably a lot different than most Americans. I would be interested to see how I do on a Cultural IQ test! Thanks again for your comments!

  5. Miriam Mendez says:

    John, great insights! You hit it right on the mark—can I actually say that my way and my experience is the best way? Yes, it does conflict with western cultural practices, but is the “western way” the world’s way—the only way? Absolutely not. Americans tend to measure anything and everything only through the “American way.” This is not bashing the American way—but clearly there are many other ways to see things. I appreciated your comment, “This is why I think Amy Chua might provide a way to help us re-examine and evaluate our reactions to and our inability to adjust to other cultures.” Great post. Well you may not be a concert violinist or brain surgeon, but you certainly are an exceptional photographer! Thanks John!

    • John Woodward says:

      Miriam, thanks for your comments! From you, I take this as a high compliment! I am actually thinking of using this book for some of the training for our team members to prepare them for cross-cultural awareness! Also, you aren’t a bad photographer yourself!
      Thanks, Miriam!

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