A Prism of Isms

When I do orientation programs for new teachers in China, I usually include a presentation entitled “A Prism of Isms.”

I got the idea from a great book titled “The Whole World Guide to Culture Learning” by Daniel J. Hess. One of the culture learning activities that he suggests is identifying and comparing the various “isms” that influence the culture learner and the host culture.

In the class, we brainstorm all of the “isms” we can think of, then identify which ones have influenced our world views and which ones have influenced the world views of the students in Chinese university classrooms.

These are some of the primary “isms” which we identify:

Confucianism teaches that society will be harmonious when interpersonal relationships are harmonious. If everyone behaves according to the proper rituals, all will be right in the world. Humans, who are by nature good, can be perfected through education and training. This is one reason that education is so highly valued in Chinese culture.

Daoism is an indigenous Chinese religion that seeks a harmonious relationship between man and nature. One of the things Daoism emphasizes is the concept of “non-doing.” Problems in life don’t necessarily need to be tackled head on; they will usually sort themselves out. Be patient. Smoke a cigarette. This usually drives Americans crazy. (See my post “I’m off to Fix Something.”)

Buddhism teaches that humans are rewarded according to their deeds. Want a baby? Burn incense to the goddess Guanyin. Want to do well on an exam? Pay a visit to the temple. This is one reason that Buddhist temples tend to fill up around Chinese New Year. Participating in temple rituals increases the chances for good fortune in the coming year.

Given that Chinese culture is, for the most part, a collective culture, which places a higher value on the group as opposed to the individual, it might seem counter-intuitive to include individualism in this list. But this individualistic impulse is strong among China’s youth, and student essays are filled with the phrase “kao ziji kefu kunnan.”  I must rely on myself to overcome all difficulties.

Despite years of Marxist and atheistic indoctrination, traditional Chinese folk religious beliefs are alive and well the belief in the spirit world remains strong, even among so-called sophisticated city folks. A survey of university students on how many of them believe in ghosts would reveal surprising results. Or as a student said to me once, “during the daylight we are all atheists, but as soon as the lights go out in our dorms at night, we become animists.”

Collectivism puts the needs of the group ahead of the individual, and the individual is expected to make sacrifices for the good of the group. The individual’s identity is rooted in who a he/she is as a member of the group, not as an isolated unit. “Whose are you?” (what group do you belong to) is a more important question than “who are you?”

Pragmatism dismisses the notion of moral absolutes. Decisions are based on what works.

There are probably more true believers in Communism at the University of Wisconsin than at People’s University. That being said, Communism (which is really Marxism/Leninism/Maoism) still exerts a powerful influence on Chinese young people today. This is seen in the belief that the state should retain an immense amount of power, and in an ongoing envy of those who are rich.

What are the major “isms” that have influenced how you view the world?

A Tribute to My Father

Sam Pittman in hatedit

Twelve years ago today, my father died.  Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001, in Roseville, Minnesota.  Speaking them before 600 people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  The first part of this tribute was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean as I flew home from a vacation in Thailand.  

This is my annual tribute to him.

The call you dread and fear and never expect comes.  It’s mom.  “Joann, your father died this morning.  Please come home as soon as you can.  I need you.”  Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones.  One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone.  The words keep shouting in your soul.  “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern.  You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.

But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again.  “Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.”  “Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.”  With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time.  He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.

Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost.  Lost in sadness.  Lost in pain.  I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us.  How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey?  One hour at a time, one grace at a time.  “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase.  To added affliction, He addeth more more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.”  Then it hits me.  Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace.  Sustaining grace–John Piper describes it like this:  “Not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this—the grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain.”  Will the sadness and the tears and the pain ever go away?  Probably not.  But then again, neither will the grace.

So, my beloved dad is gone.  What to say?  The words that scream loudest from my soul are simply, “please come back.”  I know he’s in a better placee, but I still want him back here. There are too many words and no words.  But following are a few—just a few of the special things I remember about my dad.

He had a sense of humor.  He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and he was never in danger of taking himself too seriously.

He was a servant.  He would do anything for anybody anytime anyplace, from bringing coffee to my waking mom every morning to fixing church roofs to shoveling neighbor’s driveways.

He was humble.  In a stuffy academic world, he was just himself.

He was generous.  If there was a financial need, he gave. His giving to us seemed limitless and it gave him great joy.

He was compassionate.  His heart was tender and easily broken by the pain and suffering in the world.  Last month in Beijing, we visited a clothing market that the government was ready to close down.  The peddlers were selling their goods at rock-bottom prices.  In a crowd frenzied over the best bargain, he kept asking, “what will happen to these poor people?”

He loved Jesus.  Quietly and simply, he ordered his life grounded in that love.

He was a wonderful father and I miss him so very much.

Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give will be when I come to the end of my days and people say of me, simply, “she was just like her father.”

Goodbye Dad.  I love you and miss you more than words can express.


If you knew my dad and have any special memories, please feel free to leave a comment. (For those of you receiving this by email, you need to click open the site in order to leave a comment.)

Two Things I Don’t Miss

Two months ago today I flew out of Beijing to begin a longish stint back in the US of A. For a variety of reasons, both personal and professional, I will be based in the US and travel often to China, instead of the other way around — as has been the case for the past 4 years.

I miss Beijing and my friends there A LOT, but following the news out of China last week reminded me of a couple of things that I don’t miss: the pollution and trying to get a taxi.

Beijing’s ‘Airpocalypse’ Spurs Pollution Controls, Public Pressure (NPR)


Chinese air pollution hits record levels — in pictures  (The Guardian)

One of my favorite websites, Tea Leaf Nation, did a story on the difficulty of hailing a cab in Beijing, particularly during rush hour in a piece titled “At Rush Hour in Beijing, Riders Beg, and Many Taxi Drivers Say “No.” 

This problem had gotten so bad in my neighborhood that it was impossible to get a taxi between 7 and 9AM or between 5 and 7PM. Whenever someone would suggest an appointment at 8 or 9AM my heart would sink because I knew I would have to leave at 630 or 645 if I had any chance of getting out of my neighborhood. And sometimes, even if they were empty cabs on the roads, the drivers would just wave as they drove by.

Two things I really don’t miss….

The Genius that was China

I am currently teaching a course on Chinese history and culture at Taylor University in Indiana. In my class this morning I had the students watch episode 1 of a fantastic (but old — 1990) TV series called “The Genius that was China.”

Here is the description of the series, from the Hulu Plus site:

China in the 13th century was the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced civilization on earth. NOVA looks at how China achieved what it did, and what in Chinese politics, culture and economy kept it from doing more. 

The full episode is also available on YouTube:

If you are interested in learning about some of the scientific and technological inventions and innovations of ancient China, I highly recommend this series.

When I teach Chinese history, my focus is on connection points between China’s past and the present. In re-watching this series to prepare for this class, I was reminded of the key role it played in shaping my understanding of China.

The other episodes are:

The Genius that was China, Part II: Clash of Empires (YouTube)

The Genius that was China, Part III: Threat from Japan (YouTube)

The Genius that was China: Will the Dragon Rise Again? (Hulu Plus)

Click on those links and prepare to be educated.




The Golden Rules of China

I was going through some old files on my computer this evening and ran across this list that a Chinese friend gave me years and years ago of 12 so-called ‘golden rules’ of doing any kind of business in China.

I don’t know where he/she got it, and I can’t even remember who it was, but I had a good chuckle reading it. Perhaps you will too. And I’ve also been involved in enough negotiations to appreciate the ring of truth…

1. Everything is possible.

2. Nothing is easy.

3. Western business logic does not apply.

4. It is a fun project if there is no deadline.

5. You must persist — things will come your way eventually.

6. Patience is the essence of success.

7. “You don’t know China” means they disagree.

8. “New regulation” means they found a new way of avoiding something.

9. “Internal regulation” means they are mad at you.

10. “Basically no problem” means BiG problem.

11. When you are optimistic, think about rule #2.

12. When you are pessimistic, think about rule #1.