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Adding some sweet n’ sour sauce

| Wednesday, May 2, 2018

I met this person, a Chinese-American, at a career event. He told me that he attended high school in a region that was predominantly Chinese-speaking. Naturally, the question “Do you speak Chinese?” slipped out of my mouth. With his eyebrows slightly down-turned, he laughed at my question and answered “barely.”

A few weeks later, I browsed his LinkedIn profile, on which he indicated that he had “professional working proficiency” in Mandarin Chinese.

Standards for each category of language proficiency on LinkedIn might be ambiguous, but no one would mistake “barely” for “professional working proficiency.” I happened to speak with him a few more times, only to realize that “barely” was indeed an understatement — he could throw out basic phrases, just not enough to assemble them into coherent sentences for a conversation.

My curiosity was piqued as I also vaguely sensed his dissociation with China — maybe because he told me more than once that he held an American passport or maybe because he commented that one of our mutual friends’ opinions “sounded Chinese.” Even though my inquisitiveness died out soon, the possibility that he might have exaggerated his fluency in the language of a region that he disassociated with kept me pondering on the value of language, and even culture.

Against the backdrop of intense competition, exaggerations of cultural competencies are ubiquitous. After all, emotionally-gripping cultural narratives that people may not have experienced and proficiency in languages, even whose culture they consciously distance themselves from, make them appear more human and well-rounded.

“It’s like adding some sweet and sour sauce,” one of my friends said jokingly, “or teriyaki, salsa, whichever suits the taste of the main course.”

Frivolous and benign as these exaggerations might appear to be, I have ambivalent feelings about them. To many of us, the value of culture and its numerous components is intrinsic. We often hold certain perspectives only to realize later that they might have been informed by our past experiences. Culture transforms us in ways that transcend the lines of rigid descriptions on resumes. But exaggerations of cultural competencies fall into a grey zone, especially when the person uses them solely for personal gain. In this situation, culture no longer has inherent value but is dependent on how many other benefits it could bring about. It becomes instrumental — it becomes a tool.

In sociology, culture is defined as the beliefs and behaviors shared by a group of people. This collectivity adds gravity to culture as it lives through the tide of time and affirms a community’s shared identity. To disrespect culture and to manipulate it for egoistic gain thus neglects the importance of a group’s history and the inherent value of culture. My grandfather often recounts to me his early adulthood, which coincided with the Cultural Revolution. Every night, he and his co-workers, literate and illiterate, had to attend mandatory study sessions of the Maoist Thought. The richness of Chinese culture was reduced by the government then to a singular ideology, and its art, music, literature, social behaviors and other cultural elements were regulated and manipulated to serve for the furtherance of political goals.

Even though our fudging of culture-related skills on our resumes is not perfectly analogous to a regime’s manipulation of culture, we nonetheless relegate its value and collective gravity to a mere means to an end. We are simply treating culture like “sweet and sour sauce” that can be added to a main course.

But you can rarely find sweet and sour sauce in China — unless you go to KFC.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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