By LARRY ROMANOFF – August 30, 2020
This article is merely a curiosity dealing with language and culture but may be of interest to a few readers, and perhaps of occasional assistance in assessing comments made by others. My observations were prompted by my notice of a few persons commenting here who pretend to be something (or someone) they are not, in particular one person masquerading as a Chinese. It isn’t common, but perhaps interesting. Let’s look at a few cultural differences and see where this takes us.
Canadians and Americans particularly, in spite of their “melting pots” of peoples and cultures, generally display little to no understanding of other cultures and tend to interpret differences through ideological lenses and their lack of a culture, usually resulting in misunderstanding or misinterpreting comments or points of view, often arriving at conclusions that are wrong.
In your face
As one example, a high-ranking American politician said recently that the Chinese need to rid themselves of what she termed their “shyness and lack of confidence”. It was beyond the limits of her understanding to realise that what she was seeing was neither shyness nor a lack of confidence, but modesty, one of the more charming characteristics of typical Chinese and Asians generally. American women as a class are not modest, are typically neither “shy” nor lacking “confidence” and tend to have a bolder “in your face” attitude compared to Asian women.
Thus, a typical Chinese female pretending to be an American girl would probably do it badly, and an American female pretending to be native Chinese would have no idea how to behave and would likely fool no one. In this same context, a Frenchman pretending to be a German cannot fool an Italian for very long. The national characteristics of peoples are powerfully affected by their culture and religion, with traits emanating directly from the psyche and not easily imitated. The fundamentals are simply too different.
Judge not that ye be not judged
As another comparison, many nations of people, the Chinese being a prime example (but perhaps Asians generally), do not judge others, at least not in the way Westerners do, because the tendency to judge (as good or bad, right or wrong) is largely a Christian trait, not a Confucian or Buddhist characteristic. We see this in all comment sections here where judging, and often judging harshly, is ubiquitous. It is especially easy to identify Americans: “I don’t disagree with you because you have a different point of view. I disagree because I am right and you are wrong.” It’s even worse than that because in a large number of instances “You are not only factually wrong but morally wrong.” Hence the rudeness, the nasty personal attacks, the name-calling, the often obscene insults directed to those presenting a differing point of view. And, usually, the greater the gap in viewpoint the more vehement the attacks and insults.
This is especially true of Americans of low intellect but, to be fair, the US is the only country in the world where a full 75% of the population is below average in intelligence. Another kind of American exceptionalism.
Spare the rod and spoil the child
This is also true with punishment, the Christian and Jewish religions (perhaps primarily Christian) responding in this manner when someone is “wrong”. Confucianism and Buddhism focus on gentleness, forgiveness and correction, while Christian Americans know in their hearts you deserve to be pummeled mercilessly if your wrong position disagrees with their right one. Hence the violent attacks, and they know they are righteous because God is on their side; He wants heathens to be destroyed. It’s a short step from here to racism, isn’t it?
Another cultural attitude that is primarily Western but especially American, is the tendency to solve all disputes with a hammer. A difference of opinion or viewpoint is not something to understand or discuss, but to be eliminated, usually by force. Thus, if I disagree with you, I am not only factually and morally wrong while you are correct and righteous but I deserve to be beaten until I accept your version of the truth. Hence, the insults and name-calling. This is so true that even if I know I am wrong, the mere fact that I dislike what you say is sufficient to produce the same attacks. People in many other nations, Asians in particular, are more likely to try to understand your point of view and negotiate a meeting-in-the-middle, while Americans, living in a black and white world, are generally unable to do this. In any disagreement, they need a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’, an attitude that exists almost no place else. This American cultural attitude is not easy to disguise and the Chinese attitude is extremely difficult to falsely imitate.
Having “the last word” is another trait common to Americans (actually Canadians, Aussies and the English too), stemming again from the black and white mentality and the need for a winner and a loser. My parting shot at you is my way of “winning”. Asians almost never exhibit this characteristic. If they feel unable to discuss and negotiate a happy medium, they will almost inevitably (and quickly) drop the subject and will almost never make parting provocations. Americans are generally much more aggressive, often seeking open conflict; others avoid this and look for areas of peace rather than war. There is also what I might call a “disguised parting shot”, where I avoid open conflict and name-calling and pretend to be understanding and accommodating but where I take multiple cheap parting shots as I go out the door with my halo intact. And I still win. But no Chinese have such an attitude.
Heartaches by the number, insults by the score
I took the time to list a sample of insults posted to my article: A Few Historical Frauds. (1) I hoped posting that list might improve the environment, but sadly no change. If you haven’t seen enough insults and want more, click on the link and see my list at comment #550.
By their idioms ye shall know them.
Language also plays a large part in national characteristics in a multitude of ways, and hence also in the identification of people and their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. One of these is metaphors and idiomatic cultural references. I was in a meeting where an American couldn’t fathom the puzzled looks after stating that a number was “in the ballpark”. But he was in a country that doesn’t play baseball and in a room where no one knew what a ballpark was. Idioms and slang exist in all languages and cultures and are equally poor travelers in all of them. One American was denigrating the ability of Chinese to comprehend English, claiming none of them seemed to understand anything. I had difficulty explaining to him that most Chinese will understand when you say, “I was angry”, while not everyone will understand “Like man, I was some pissed, you know?” Idioms, metaphors, and much slang, are deeply cultural.
Another notable one is references to the Jewish ‘holocaust’. Very recently there was a substantial effort made in China (on Weibo posts) to create sympathy for the Jews and their ‘persecution’. It failed miserably and the posts were deleted. Chinese have little knowledge of, and even less interest in, the suffering of the Jews since they have had their own holocausts – which were much worse, and the Chinese culture does not look favorably on pity-collection by whining. But the point is that while Westerners, and particularly Jews, might make frequent references to the Jews’ ‘holocaust’, this is a purely Western construct and has no meaning in China nor in much of the world. Similarly, references to Hitler or Stalin as the poster-boys of atrocities will fall on deaf ears in most of the world, and if Chinese want an atrocity poster-boy, they will use either Americans or Jews, or maybe Japanese, their version of history being at odds with much of the West. Chinese never make reference to ‘Nazis’ or ‘Huns’ and they never refer to the Japanese as “Japs”. These are American and/or Jewish racist constructs.
Thus, even a cursory examination of metaphors and cultural references can often positively identify a person’s ethnic background or at least negate the possibility of some backgrounds.
From a recent comment posted on an article here, by a person purporting to be Chinese:
“It is all about socioeconomic status. I can f… your daughter or your wife and turn them against you tomorrow if I wanted to.”
No Chinese would ever express such a sentiment. Forgive me if I offended you by repeating this.
Puella, puellae; puellae, puellarum . . .
Another part is language construction itself. The Cyrillic languages, as with Latin, have declensions for their nouns which in part substitute for the prepositions in the English language. This means the endings of nouns change according to their use in a sentence. As an example, ‘puella’ means ‘girl’ in Latin and is used when the subject of the sentence. ‘Puellae’ can mean the possessive – ‘of the girl’. So whereas in English we would say “the girl’s dress”, Latin will say “vestis puellae”, the change in spelling eliminating the preposition.
To be or not to be
Another of these is the verb “to be”. English has only one such verb, but Chinese, Italian, and some other languages have two such verbs, one literally meaning ‘to exist’ and the other meaning ‘to be in a place’ or to have a particular feeling. English says “I am” at the mall, which is a bit silly because it means I exist at the mall, but the language has no other way to express this sentiment. Italian has ‘essere’ – to be, and ‘stare’ – to be somewhere or feel something.
We all make mistakes
These items are important in identification because foreigners who are not fluent in English will all make mistakes, but the kinds of mistakes they make differ markedly according to their native language since they rely on the construction and grammar of that language. Because Russian has the same noun declensions, the expression is “I go store”, whereas English says “I am going to the store.” The words carry the identical meaning but the method of construction is different. Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, will do this, but no Italians or French.
I once had occasion to look at a letter in the hands of a police officer searching for the ‘Chinese’ person who wrote it. It required only a few seconds to know the writer was not Chinese but a Caucasian, and not a very smart one. The writer clearly wanted to leave the impression of being Chinese but, in his assumption that Chinese would make grammar and other mistakes in English, and having no knowledge of languages or cultures, had no idea what kind of mistakes they might make. The best he could do was to imitate the kind of broken English that a sorely uneducated English person might make.
The reason I mention this is that one person commenting on this website, pretending to be Chinese, makes precisely this mistake, believing Chinese would make some grammatical errors, but clearly having no knowledge of the kinds of errors they might make. He does his best by inserting occasional and very obvious mistakes common to uneducated English Caucasians while in other posts manifesting an excellent command of English. The errors are actually glaring and laughable because, while Chinese will indeed make grammatical errors, they would not be of that nature.
I’m a Canadian, eh?
Negative questions are another identification point, such as “You’re not going to the party, are you?”. “Yes.” Well, yes what? “Yes, I’m not going.” Think of the expression, “I’m a Canadian, eh?” The last word has no use and carries no meaning. It’s just there. With the negative questions, most people read the first part “You’re not going to the party” as a statement, the remaining words merely useless emphasis, and thus they respond in the affirmative, meaning “Correct. I agree with what you said.” Since very few languages have this negative construction, they can be useful in identifying the speaker.
Mrs. Schrödinger’s Ferrari
There are a great many other national characteristics that affect both behavior and language. Germans are engineers, cool, precise, no nonsense, formal and reserved, high respect for quality. My desk can be next to that of a German woman for five years and I will still refer to her as ‘Mrs. Schrödinger’. The familiarity of a first name is for family and the closest of friends. And the cat.
Only the Germans could build a Mercedes or BMW; extreme engineering, generally faultless quality and reliability. With my Mercedes, I can go downstairs every morning for 25 years and I know my car will start when I turn the key. On the other hand, only the Italians could design and build a Ferrari or Lamborghini; breathtakingly beautiful, sinfully sexy, and stupidly fast. And, with my Ferrari, I go downstairs every morning and have no idea what will happen when I push the button. Similarly, only the French could design and build a 4CV, and only the Americans could make an AMC Gremlin. This is much more than nothing; these innate cultural characteristics affect the most minor portions of behavior as well as the way different ethnicities speak and write.
Hasbara and Friends
There also exist some curiosities about Jews, most noticeable in the apologists of events or when covering up crimes. In my mind, I seem to separate them into two categories. Many Jewish writers produce articles and books which are exemplary in terms of accuracy, caution, lack of exaggeration and overstatement, revealing even of substantial felonies but at the same time non-judgmental and non-provocative, dispassionate, quintessentially human, characteristics I envy. A good example is Ron Unz’ article on Chinese Melamine and American Vioxx. If you haven’t read it, you should. (2) But the apologists, the historical revisionists, the Jewish Misinformation Committee, Hasbara, (and I have no way of knowing how large a group this is), lie with a consistency that qualifies as a template. The approach is the same, the manner of creating facts from invisible threads and weaving these together to form false conclusions, the universal tendency to blame the victim, the uncanny ability to introduce irrelevancies and sow confusion, the veiled use of shame and fear to push others off their positions. These tend to be so uniform that when they occur it is often possible to almost instantly identify the ethnicity of the author.
Believe as if you were on fire from within
There is also something interesting about passion as expressed in articles or reader comments. The passion of Americans exhibited in these pages stems primarily if not exclusively from ideology. Many of the more fiery articles and comments are from the primitive instincts and emotions (typical of the Right-Wing brain) in areas touching politics, religion, racism. On these topics, reader comments are passionate Cro-Magnon attacks as if responding to mortal danger. It may be true that, in the case of these people, any challenge to their positions does in a sense represent an existential threat, one to be repelled with an excess of verbal firepower. For non-Americans (or non-Neanderthals generally), passion is a positive reflection of a deep and abiding concern or conviction for some topic while for typical Americans passion in a positive sense mostly reflects a powerful desire for more bombing.
Following from this (and from much more I haven’t covered here), it can be surprisingly easy to identify the ethnic backgrounds of some people or at least to limit the range of potential nationality and ethnicity. And it is usually quite easy to identify and separate real Chinese from the pretenders.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 32 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’. (Chapt. 2 — Dealing with Demons).
He can be contacted at: email@example.com