Reflections on My 40-Year American Journey: The Path to Success through East-West Fusion
Author: Xiaoyan Zhang, Ph.D.
As a first-generation Chinese immigrant, whether it was in education, work, entrepreneurship, or raising children, I often felt the collision of Chinese and American cultures. It has brought me confusion and worry, but it has also continuously sparked inspiration, leading me to grasp the essence of life. The path I have traversed in my 40 years in the United States can be summarized in one sentence: seeking a path to success amidst the collision of two cultures.
What is culture?
We live in a threefold world: the physical world, the biological world, and the spiritual world. According to modern scientific explanations, the physical world has existed for approximately 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. Based on existing scientific evidence, the emergence of the biological world on Earth can be traced back to around 3.8 billion years ago. The spiritual world emerged with the origin of humanity and can be traced back to approximately 2 million years ago in Africa. Its biological foundation lies in the brain and the consciousness it generates. Although other animals also possess brains and consciousness, only humans, as advanced beings, can create written records of their life experiences and insights and pass them down to future generations through various mediums such as stone carvings, bamboo inscriptions, woodblock printing, paper, images, and digital technology, forming culture and civilization. Therefore, culture belongs to the realm of the spiritual world. Unlike other animals, humans, in addition to transmitting information through genetic inheritance in the process of biological evolution, can also propel social evolution through the inheritance of cultural and civilizational information, expanding the realm of the spiritual world.
Culture seems intangible, but it is ever-present. It is like air—you immediately feel suffocated and uncomfortable once it is absent. It is difficult to define yet understood by everyone. It is a set of social behavioral norms, and each one of us is a product of culture. Culture subtly influences the lives of every individual, endowing meaning to our existence.
Recognizing Strengths and Weaknesses in the Collision of Two Cultures
Born in an ancient civilization of the East, raised under the influence of rich Chinese culture, and shaped by the political environment in which China sought strength amidst humiliation over the past century, I developed my cultural upbringing, ways of thinking, and behavioral norms from a young age. The genes of Chinese civilization invisibly influenced my life, leading me to experience the collision with the American culture and behavioral norms that developed on the foundation of Western civilization.
In the United States, while studying, working, engaging in entrepreneurship, socializing, participating in community activities, and living in different linguistic contexts (both Chinese and English) and different spheres (personal, family, community, workplace, etc.), I naturally encountered the differences between the two cultures. Through interacting, discussing, and communicating with people of different races on various issues and making critical decisions, I have come to recognize my own strengths and weaknesses.
- Strong Analytical Skills, Weak Decision-Making Abilities
During the early stages of my business venture in the United States, in comparison to American business executives, I noticed the differences. While I had strong analytical skills, conducted extensive research, and had in-depth discussions with experts and friends from various fields, I often struggled with decision-making and was indecisive. This lack of confidence has inherited reasons. As a first-generation immigrant, I needed to be cautious and careful to adapt to the new environment while learning on the go. On the other hand, growing up in a collectivist society with a rich cultural tradition, everything was arranged by family and the government, leaving little room for independent decision-making. Additionally, strict adherence to social norms and expectations made me obedient from an early age, afraid of making mistakes, fearing failure, and most importantly, afraid of losing face and becoming the subject of criticism and ridicule.
The emphasis in American society is on individual rights and freedom, encouraging individuals to unleash their creativity. Being different from others is seen as an advantage rather than a disadvantage, something worth exploring. Parents pay attention to discovering and developing each child’s unique abilities, cultivating qualities such as self-reliance, self-confidence, independent decision-making, and accountability. One of my white friends once told me, “I may be wrong, but never in doubt.”
The lack of decisive decision-making skills can limit our development in the United States. The excessive analysis is a manifestation of a lack of confidence. Pursuing perfection should not be an excuse for indecisiveness; perfection is a process, not a destination. The entrepreneurial process is about working toward achieving perfection.
- Strong Thriftiness, Weak Resourcefulness
Chinese people are known for their frugality and thrifty management of households. I am no exception. Growing up in a poverty-stricken environment, I carefully weighed every expense, stretching each penny. The habit and ability to save money are important for entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur who receives investment and immediately buys a luxury car will raise a red flag for investors and make them more cautious.
However, I have noticed my own shortcomings in resourcefulness and salesmanship. Firstly, I am not good at selling myself, and discussing prices is particularly difficult for me. I always feel embarrassed and fear rejection, which causes me to lose face. On the other hand, in American companies, the CEO’s primary task is to attract customers, promote products, and the most important skill is to communicate the company’s strategic ideas and values to gain customers’ recognition, trust, and purchase. In the United States, this ability is cultivated from an early age. In my neighborhood community, it is common to see elementary and middle school students going door-to-door to sell candy for fundraising in support of school sports teams or charitable activities. Even if they encounter rejection, they leave gracefully and politely without feeling embarrassed.
One book about business negotiation made a lasting impression on me. After analyzing negotiation techniques in different countries and regions, the author concluded that “In business as in life – you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate”. Prices are determined by the market, and fair trade doesn’t result in losing face or necessarily being a bad thing.
- Strong Hands-On Abilities, Weak in Utilizing Professional Services
The United States is a highly specialized society, with professional differentiation in various fields and industries. This specialization in services can be very helpful for small business owners. Instead of getting entangled in trivial matters, entrepreneurs can leverage professional services and focus their energy on company development and product innovation, among other key issues.
During the early stages of my entrepreneurial journey, I habitually did everything and learned on the go if I didn’t know how to do something, believing that this approach would save money. I had a skeptical attitude towards services such as legal, accounting, advertising, maintenance, and consulting, considering them to be money scams. However, I later realized that this do-it-yourself approach, although seemingly cost-effective, led to missed opportunities because the most valuable resources for a small business are the entrepreneur’s energy and time. Utilizing professional services to save these resources is crucial for company development.
- Strong at Commenting on Others, Weak in Expressing Oneself
When chatting with Chinese friends, we often make various comments and descriptions about people of other races and ethnicities, including Caucasians, African Americans, Indians, and many more. One typical comment is that they talk a lot but lack in-depth knowledge, technical skills, and problem-solving abilities, even though they appear competent when speaking on stage. However, this expressive ability allows them to obtain more promotion opportunities within the company, leading to a feeling of discrimination and unfairness to their Chinese colleagues. Looking at it from another perspective, this also reveals the weak self-expression skills among Chinese people.
Through my entrepreneurial experience, I realized that the ability to effectively express one’s ideas and implement strategies and tactics plays a crucial role in personal career and entrepreneurial success. People who can only do things without being able to articulate their thoughts can only wait to be discovered by others. In a highly competitive society where everyone is striving for their own interests, few people pay much attention to others’ potential and development. Waiting in this manner only limits personal growth.
The difficulty in expressing oneself is closely related to the social environment in China. In a society where individuals are expected to prioritize collective interests, expressing, and promoting oneself is viewed as bragging. The reality of “the spoken word is treacherous” and “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” silently suppresses the development of individuality. Negative terms like “empty talk” in the Chinese context subconsciously imply arrogance when expressing personal thoughts, ideas, and plans. At the same time, people who enjoy commenting on others are more concerned about being judged by others and fear the consequences of saying too much. We need to break free from these cultural limitations, overcome language barriers, and make efforts to enhance our self-expression abilities to thrive in American society.
- Strong Hierarchy Consciousness, Weak Equality Awareness
American society has social classes and hierarchies, but its founding principle is the equality of all individuals, where personal success is achieved through individual effort to realize the American Dream. Inherited wealth and privileges are despised, while those who start from the bottom and succeed based on their abilities are highly respected.
Although we grew up in a socialist system that aimed to eliminate class differences, the concept of social hierarchy remains deeply ingrained in my generation’s minds. Among my childhood friends, everyone knew which family held a higher rank by observing the type and quality of the food and grocery supplies, cigarette, and wine, and government-designated hospital and ward for medical treatment. Wages and benefits in various industries were treated differently based on education level and job ranking. This environment has influenced my behavior even after coming to the United States. For example, when meeting new friends, Chinese people often ask about their occupation, and which school they graduated from, and then assess their worth and decide how to interact with them.
Regardless of background, treating others equally is a fundamental principle when dealing with people in the United States. Human dignity is inviolable. Exerting power over others, flaunting wealth, relying on seniority, or emphasizing social status will be met with internal disdain from others, even if unintentional.
Challenges in Nurturing the Next Generation
As first-generation immigrants, we pave the way for the next generation. When we came to the United States as students, we often relied on limited scholarships and part-time jobs to sustain our living. Our choices were very limited, and our primary focus was survival and stability. The next generation, however, has greater opportunities for development. They focus on realizing their own potential and doing what they want in life. The most important thing is not only to provide them with a good environment for growth and economic security but also to pass on the insights from the immigrant experience in American society to future generations.
Chinese education emphasizes meeting societal expectations for children (such as achieving fame and fortune, bringing honor to the family, etc.), while American education focuses on enabling children to realize their own values (such as personal happiness, finding meaning in life, etc.). This is closely related to the different environments in the two societies. The former prioritizes collective honor, while the latter puts individual rights first. The Chinese education system can produce many qualified scientists, while the American environment can cultivate self-made scientific geniuses.
Completely following the Chinese education system may suppress a child’s individuality and limit their innate potential. On the other hand, adhering solely to the American education system may lead to a child becoming willful and extreme, lacking the basic moral values, knowledge, and survival skills expected of a citizen. In a society like the United States, which emphasizes individual rights and responsibilities, your character determines your success in life. Therefore, cultivating a child’s character by drawing on the best values from both Chinese and American cultures is a path to success.
The Secret to Success in American Society
I believe the wisdom gained from cultural collisions can be summarized into two points to pass on to the next generation.
First, having a serious attitude toward work (Attitude Counts) is a good tradition for the Chinese people. At the same time, it is important to build self-confidence because confidence brings opportunities for development (Confidence Pays), which is something we lack. Every work or project outcome reflects the person behind it. No matter how much time has passed, whenever people see it, they can see the person’s abilities and attitude. If one approaches things with a careless or deceptive attitude, appearing shrewd but leaving a negative impression, they are likely to be excluded from participating in key projects, thus reducing their opportunities for career advancement.
On the other hand, no matter how capable you are, if you cannot confidently articulate your viewpoints, ideas, and methodology and wait for others to discover you, you may miss out on opportunities to lead important projects and be promoted.
Second, realizing one’s own value requires having a life plan. Children growing up in Chinese society are accustomed to having their lives, employment, and career development arranged by their parents or organizations. In America, however, individuals must rely on themselves to strive in society and realize their own values and dreams.
This life plan can be summarized into four levels: degrees are like bronze medals, abilities are like silver medals, networks are like gold medals, and thinking is like the ace. A degree acts as an entry ticket, where attending a prestigious school and achieving good grades make it easier to find a job. However, this is only a bronze medal, as once you enter the workplace, other newcomers are starting from the same line. If you only focus on doing your own job well, without caring about other matters in the organization, and just earning money to support your family, you are likely to miss out on promotions. If you pay attention to the challenges and problems encountered at work, actively think of solutions, leverage your strengths, go beyond the requirements of your job, and help solve difficult problems, showcasing your proactiveness and abilities, you pave the way for your own future development, hence, abilities are like silver medals.
The development of a company or organization relies on the collaboration of a team. If you can actively communicate with colleagues in all directions, establish mutual trust and respect, be a contributive team member, and continuously develop your network, then you can lead a team and undertake important projects. This ability, combined with a network of interpersonal relationships, is crucial for your future development (whether climbing the corporate ladder or venturing into entrepreneurship), thus, networks are like gold medals.
In American companies and various organizations, you will find a few key figures who are always thinking about the future direction of the organization and related industries. Whether in the field of technology or society, these individuals are crucial to the company or organization. The most important criteria for entering this core circle are accumulated experience and the ability to think ahead. Those who can reach this level will have boundless prospects. Therefore, thinking is like the ace.
Mr. Lin Keji, a philosophy professor at Peking University, pointed out profoundly that “while animals behave instinctively, humans have thoughts, which is one of the fundamental differences between humans and animals.” He further quoted a famous line from French philosopher Pascal’s “Man is a thinking reed”: “God created humans to think, which is their entire dignity and value. Their entire obligation is to think.”
Humanity, through the ability to think, has become the ruler of the world, and the transmission of thoughts has created brilliant cultures and civilizations. Every person’s life, whether intentional or subconscious, is spent in thought. It is important to summarize life experiences and insights and pass them on to future generations as an essential inheritance of society.
The Road to Success Lies in Combining the Best of Both Cultures
Summarizing the life experiences of a new immigrant over forty years in the United States, I deeply appreciate the importance of combining the best values of both Eastern and Western cultures, discarding their shortcomings, and cultivating personal character as the path to success. Being skilled in strategy and not fearing failure, daring to make decisive decisions; maintaining frugality while actively developing clientele and increasing income; not only relying on personal efforts but also utilizing various professional services to improve efficiency and quality; reducing the analysis and criticism of others and focusing on enhancing one’s ability to articular ideas and implement plans; avoiding subconscious displays of hierarchical views and striving to treat others equally, respecting others, and cooperating with various people around you for mutual success.
Trusting others is a true form of self-confidence. Confidence is not arrogance but an essential requirement for success. Studying the experiences of others is necessary, but finding the path that suits oneself is most important. In the United States, it is about the survival of the fittest, not just the strongest. In the process of change and self-transcendence, your path will open for more success.