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Understanding Family Dynamics across Cultures- Aaron Bell & Stephanie Purtle

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The Jardine apartment complex is home to many international K-State students. While living in Jardine, Aaron Bell has had the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of neighbors, which includes four young Chinese women. Aaron has been blessed with the opportunity to experience numerous cultures by traveling across the world, but he has yet to travel to Asia. These frequent encounters with his new Chinese friends has left Aaron interested in learning more about the Chinese culture, and this intercultural interview project was the perfect opportunity to conduct more research. While deciding on a specific topic, our major interests included Chinese family dynamics because of the differences between the American family and our preconceived notions of Chinese families. We specifically wanted to know more about the “one child policy” of the Chinese government, and the overall differences in family dynamics, i.e. how they discipline their children, and how their families reflect the larger cultural norms. Understanding how different families function is imperative to being an effective intercultural communicator because our family influences our individual identity and can work as an intercultural barrier if the differences and similarities are not recognized and understood (Kagitcibasi, 73).


C. Kagitcibasi’s article, “Family and family change” discusses a few key concepts we used to develop our research questions. First he introduces modernization theory which predicts, “…there is a convergence of the diverse patterns in the world toward the Western prototypical pattern and thus whatever is different from this pattern will be modified in time to resemble it” (73). This theory assumes economics is the primary influencing factor in procreation. If a family is poor they need children to support them in their old age. This is called a utilitarian motivation to procreate. When a family is more affluent, they no longer need children; rather, children are an expense. The family’s money stops moving upwards towards the elderly and is funneled to the younger generation. When the flow of money is redirected towards the children, the reason to procreate is no longer utilitarian but rather psychological. Psychological motivations for having a child are feelings of pride, love, and other emotional benefits to the parents. An example of this is found in Saleem Qureshi’s article, “The Muslim Family: The Scriptural Framework”. In the Muslim family children give and receive much love (55).

Some believe that when children are born for utilitarian purposes they are more loyal to their family and more collectivist, and when they are born for psychological reasons the child is more independent because they lack financial obligations to previous generations (Kagitcibasi, 80). Modernization theory will say that with economic growth, collectivist societies will become more like Western individualistic societies because of the shift from utilitarian to psychological procreation motivations. Therefore, from these readings we developed our first research question: Would Vivi’s family resemble a more Western family prototype as a result of her family’s affluence?

Assuming modernization theory is correct in predicting China’s shift to more Western values, there are many discrepancies between Western cultures and Chinese culture. If Vivi’s family is more Western, and therefore individualistic, we then wanted to ask another more focused research question: How do Chinese parents discipline their children? Both of us were under the impression Chinese parents rarely needed to discipline their children because the child seldom acts out. Why do Chinese children behave without fear of punishments like time-outs and spankings? In the article “A comparison of child-rearing practices among Chinese, Immigrant Chinese, and Caucasian-American parents” Chin-Yau Lin and Victoria Fu explain, “Traditional cultural values and practices still have an important influence on Chinese child-rearing practices, in spite of rapid social and political changes” (432). Therefore, despite modernization theory, the traditional value of obedience to parents persists. But how is the value of obedience maintained? The article “Love & sex: Cross-cultural perspectives” explains, “In most Western, independent cultures, there is a belief in the inherent separateness of people. These cultures value individuality, uniqueness, and independence. Most non-Western, interdependent cultures, on the other hand, insist on the fundamental connectedness of human beings” (11). This feeling of connectedness may be why a child is obedient despite a lack of extrinsic motivations available to most Western children.

From our readings we developed some research questions which ultimately led us to a hypothesis. Our first research question was: Would Vivi’s family resemble a more Western family prototype as a result of her family’s affluence? Our more focused research question was: How do Chinese parents discipline their children? Upon researching the answer to these questions, we then developed our hypothesis: Chinese children are more obedient because the culture continues to greatly value collectivism over the Western value of individualism despite the predictions of modernization theory.


We interviewed Aaron’s neighbor, twenty-year-old Ying Ying “Vivi,” Chen, an international student from China majoring in marketing. We decided to work with Vivi because Aaron had known her for a while and wanted to get to know her better. We were unsure how she and her roommates would react to a man they did not know all that well showing up at their door unannounced; therefore we decided to approach Vivi together. The interview was conducted over a series of three meetings. For the first interview we treated Vivi to dinner at Pat’s Blue Ribbon on October third and spent one hour and thirty minutes discussing the differences between Chinese and American family dynamics.

The second interview was more informal. Because Aaron observed Vivi getting out of a taxi with her groceries, we decided to take her grocery shopping the next week. This was a perfect opportunity to interview her a second time, and she got a free ride to the grocery store. This interview took place over two-hours while we shopped in-between questions. Finally, for our third interview Vivi answered several follow-up questions over the phone during the final stages of our project, which took approximately twenty minutes on October twelfth.

Of Aaron’s four Chinese neighbors, Vivi is the most fluent in English, which led to minimal communication difficulty and barriers. Besides simplifying our vocabulary and speaking slightly slower, the main adaptation we made was to not simply ask a question, but first give an example of how the typical American family works and follow the example up with the question. Instead of asking “At what age do parents let their daughters date?” we rephrased the question with an example first. “In America, typically parents have rules that set age limits for their children to date. Mostly for girls, and it is typical that a parent will say their daughter cannot date until age sixteen. Do you have a similar age that your parents give permission to date, or how does that work with age and dating?” This helped illustrate what we meant when a question was confusing for Vivi because she did not share our American context.

One problem in the interview was gratuitous concurrence. This is when two people do not understand each other because of language barriers, but pretend to understand for the sake of niceties (Hall, 147). This problem, however, was not limited to Vivi. We both found ourselves nodding our heads and pretending to understand so we did not seem like ignorant Americans who cannot understand people with accents. In reality this was not beneficial to either party. Vivi was excited to help us, in part, because it would give her an opportunity to practice English, and when we were not honest it did not help her learn.

We also worked to be culturally sensitive about information that shocked our own cultural sensibilities. While both of us consider ourselves to be very liberal, when Vivi casually referenced mandatory abortions for those who already have a child, we were shocked. In our culture abortion is such a controversial issue, and it was startling to think of it as mandatory. However, both of us tried to communicate surprise rather than passing judgment. We then tried to leave the subject be, just in case it was an uncomfortable policy for her to discuss.

Overall we both enjoyed ourselves very much and thanked Vivi for being gracious enough to volunteer her time. Initially both of us were worried we would be hindered by the language barrier much more than we actually were. We were also concerned with awkward silences and coming across as insensitive Americans. However, she put our fears to rest and was wonderful company. We look forward to keeping in touch with Vivi.


We asked Vivi how long she has been in America, and she explained she arrived here in August. To us this indicates she is still strongly tied to her culture because she has nott been away for too long. She told us her father is a boss at a company that produces pharmaceuticals, and her parents had plenty of money to send her to America to study, in addition to Vivi already having studyied at Oxford. Also, her parents have two children. This is unusual, obviously, and she told us her parents have to pay lots of taxes because of her brother. She confirmed her parents are affluent.

There were many answers from Vivi that indicated traditional Chinese values. She was well aware that sons were supposed to inherit the family’s money, and take care of their parents in old age. She said if they did not have a son, the daughter took over this position by default. She also tried to explain why she is 22 years old in China, and only 20 in America. It was complicated, and it confused both of us, but it is evidence indicating how different Chinese culture is from Western cultures. These answers showed us an increase in affluence has not, so far, changed the Chinese culture to a Western culture.

The cultural value that would most strongly indicate Westernization in China is collectivism versus individualism, and should China become more Western, they would also become more individualistic. Vivi was able to shed light on this idea. When we asked her what a Chinese wedding is like, she told us they were simple ceremonies and perhaps a dinner for your friends and family. Here in America a wedding is the bride’s “big day”, and all attention is focused on a grand event that is meant to be once in a lifetime. We think Chinese weddings indicate a collectivist culture because they do not gush over the bride and make a “big deal” for just two people. In addition to this, Vivi told us gays tend to stay in the closet. While this happens in America all the time, she made it seem as if they just could not deviate too far from the norm so as not to make others feel uncomfortable and to not draw attention to themselves. The most telling evidence, however, is when she told us children were welcome back in their parents’ homes long after American parents feel their child should be grown and out of the house. It seems Chinese parents do not stress individualism like American parents because they do not see their children moving in at an older age as failure on the part of the child. These answers indicate Vivi’s strong collectivist background.

Vivi then told us about being punished by her parents. She said there was some spanking, but not much. Apparently parents let their children stay home alone at very young ages; Vivi’s brother was left home alone at the age of six. This is because Chinese children do not seem to act out to the point their parents could not trust them to be left alone. We asked what her motivation was to obey her parents, and she told us that if they were disappointed in her she would feel horrible. It appears that the possibility of hurting her relationship with her parents is a much bigger consequence than a time out or having a privilege taken away. We think this obviously has to be a result of her collectivist upbringing.


Vivi’s affluence affects her family dynamic and her socialization. Because modernization theory believes the more industrialized a nation becomes, the more Western the family becomes, Vivi is a good subject to interview for the research question: Would Vivi’s family resemble a more Western family prototype as a result of her family’s affluence? We believe the answer to this question is no, for the most part.

Our interview with Vivi did support the Kagitcibasi’s ideas of the utilitarian and psychological reasons for procreation. Vivi’s parents actually have two children. This may be because China’s “One Child Policy” allows for families to have two children if the first born is a girl, (Olesen, 2). However, Vivi explained her parents “just wanted another child,” and the government charges them more in taxes as a result. Her parents are not relying on her for financial security; to the contrary, having children is actually costing them money. Vivi’s parents funnel their money to her and her sibling, and she will not need to funnel her money to them. Here parents were motivated to have her and her sibling because of psychological motivations like love.

We can tell Vivi’s family was able to have children for psychological reasons because of their affluence, and modernization theory says this changes the procreation motivations to psychological rather than utilitarian. Does that mean she will reflect the Western prototypical family? No, her family is still very Eastern. Vivi is not independent like most children born out of psychological motivations. She knows she could move back into her parents’ home whenever she needs to, no matter how old she may be, and that would be acceptable if not encouraged. Whereas Americans’ individualism tends to establish an age in which children should be living on their own. Vivi also plans on living in the same community as her parents when she eventually settles down. This is not too different from many American children, but it seems to us to be more prevalent throughout Chinese culture than it is here. But more importantly, the way she describes the Chinese customs shows us her collectivism (Logan, Bian, & Bian, 851). It was obvious to her why you would not come out of the closet when you are gay, and why a giant wedding was silly. She is very collectivist. This data proves her affluence has not changed her Eastern value of collectivism to a more Western value of individualism. Our first research question was answered, which led us to our second research question: How do Chinese parents discipline their children?

After our readings we wondered if Chinese families rear more obedient children because of their collectivistic upbringing, and we believe that Vivi’s interview confirms this initial belief. When we asked Vivi the main difference between American and Chinese families regarding children, she replied “Americans listen to their children and to their reasons. In China you only listen to your parents and do what your father tell you to. American children are brats.” When a child is raised to be independent they sometimes, if not frequently, disobey their parents and do what they want because they are trained to think for themselves, which often times can lead to only thinking of themselves. In the Chinese collectivistic culture, we were surprised to find that there is not much negative reinforcement used to discipline children. Children simply obey so they do not disappoint their family or harm the family name (Raffaelli & Ontai, 301).

This is a reflection of their collectivistic values; it shows the child is not only thinking of what is best for itself but also for the family as a whole. This answers our second research question: How do Chinese parents discipline their children? For the most part, Chinese parents do not have to discipline their child because the child tends to be more obedient.

With both these research questions answered to our satisfaction, we felt confident in confirming our hypothesis: Chinese children are more obedient because the culture continues to greatly value collectivism over the Western value of individualism despite the predictions of modernization theory. Vivi’s responses proved our hypothesis to be true. Of course there are some theoretical flaws to our study. We only had the opportunity to interview one Chinese woman and used inductive reasoning to develop a general principle to apply to every Chinese family. This sample size is obviously too small to be representative.

In addition to answering the research questions and hypothesis, Vivi surprised us several times with facts and opinions we had never heard. One thing we found surprising was divorce in China. She did not even let us finish the question; when she realized where we were going when we asked about divorce rates she cut us off and said no. She was not angry or defensive; she just knew it was not an option in her culture. Her quick response and certainty in her tone was interesting. Both of us did not think divorce would still be such an issue in China, and we believe Vivi may be attempting to “save face” for her Chinese culture. Vivi was quick and confident with her answer in the same way the two of us would answer, “Sure, there is divorce” if someone from another culture asked us the same question.

Finally, one thing shocked us: she said all white people look alike to her. It never crossed our minds that this would be the case. Whites have a wider variety of hair and eye colors, and we thought this would make it easier to differentiate individuals. Upon further reflection, we realized this was logical because she has only lived with mainly Chinese individuals (her ingroup), and she has had much less experience with Whites (an outgroup). One of the most fundamental ways in which we create ingroups and outgroups is by physical appearance. This has evolutionary roots. Obvious physical differences helped identify outsiders whose intentions could not be predicted and therefore could pose a threat to the group (Dovidio, 2004). Despite understanding the evolutionary function of ingroups and outgroups, we are still kind of surprised we all look alike to her.


Through our research and interview with Vivi we were able to answer our research questions and hypothesis. Would Vivi’s family resemble a more Western family prototype as a result of her family’s affluence? We found Vivi’s family had maintained their Eastern values such as collectivism. How do Chinese parents discipline their children? We found Chinese children need few extrinsic motivations for discipline because of their strong Eastern value of collectivism. Finally, we confirmed our hypothesis: Chinese children are more obedient because the culture continues to greatly value collectivism over the Western value of individualism despite predictions of Modernization theory. Both of us are grateful for this experience. We have achieved a better understanding of Chinese culture and made a new friend. The two of us feel we have had little opportunity to learn about Eastern cultures in the past, but now we are significantly more confident in our intercultural communication skills.


Chen, Vivi, personal communication, October 22, 2007, <> Chin-Yau, C., & F. Victoria (Apr., 1990). Special Issue on Minority Children. Child

Development, Vol. 61, No. 2, 429-433.

Dovidio, John F. et. Al. (2004). Contemporary Racial Bias: When Good People Do Bad Things. In Miller, Arthur (Eds.), Harming Others (pp. 141-167).

Hall, B.J. (2005). Among cultures: The challenge of communication (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.

Hatfield, E., & R. L Rapson (1996). Love & sex: Cross-cultural perspectives. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Kagitcibasi, C. (1996). Family and human development across cultures: A view from the other side (pp.52-71). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Logan, J., F. Bian, & Y. Bian (March, 1998). Tradition and Change in the Urban Chinese Family: The Case of Living Arrangements. Social Forces, Vol. 76, No. 3, 851-882.

Olesen, Alexa (2007, January 23). China Sticking to One-Child Policy. The Washington Post. Retrieved October 22, 2007, from < article/2007/01/23/AR200712300398.html>.

Raffaelli, M., & L. Ontai (2001). ‘She’s 16 years old and there’s boys calling over to the house’: an exploratory study of sexual socialization in Latino families. Culture, Health, & Sexuality, Vol. 3 No. 3, 295-310

Waugh, Earle, Sharon Abu-Laban, & Regula Qureshi. (1991). Muslim Families in North America . Alberta, Canada: University of Alberta.

Appendix: Interview Transcript

What is your name?

Ying-Ying “Vivi” Chen

Where are you from?


What is your major?


What is your email address?

Do you have facebook?

Yes, type in Ying-Ying

When did you come to the United States and how long will you be here.

Came in August and will only be here 1 year for exchange program.

How old are you? I know that in Korea kids are considered to be 1 year old when they are born. Is it the same in China and if so, how old are you here? There?

Here I am only 20, but in China I am 22.

Explain that more, because I don’t see how you can be two years older. It makes sense to be one year older if you count birth as one year, but explain how you are two years older in China.

I was born November 13. At this time I am 1 year old. Then, at Chinese New Year in

January I turn 2 years old.

So, even though you were only 3 months old, you were considered to be two years old?

Yes, that’s right.

So, now, when is your birthday… when does your age go up a year? At Chinese New Year or on November 13?

In November.

Here, we have a few birthdays that are significant. For example, when we turn 16 we can get a drivers license, and when we turn 21 we can drink alcohol. In Mexico they have a huge celebration for girls 15th birthdays. What age is most important in China?

When you turn 18, then you are adult. Also, we celebrate 10, 20, & 30 but not 40. The word for 4 is similar to the word for death in Chinese, so everyone hate 40th birthday.

(Interviewer note* from here it got confusing… did not really understand but we tried over and over.)

Here, we make a big deal out of weddings. How does a wedding work in China?

In china you have to ask government for permission to get married. Then you invite

friends & family … have a lunch when people give advice.

What age do people get married in China? Younger or older than people here?

25 years old is common to get married.

What happens when people get divorced?

No divorce.

So do you know of anyone who is divorced?

I only know one parents who got divorced.

Are there many homosexuals?

Secret gays… They don’t tell everyone, but they are there.

Would you ever consider marrying someone from a different culture and if so what would your parents think?

I had English boyfriend in Oxford but my parents didn’t like it. I am ok but my

parents would disagree.

Why do you say that? I know that Chinese and Japanese don’t like each other, but why?

We hate Japanese, I don’t know why but my teacher said we have to. Japanese

killed 400,000 people in 3 days.

How many people are in the typical family?

Most familys only have 1 child. Parents really take care of their child. Long time on

school, go home do homework… so busy

Tell us about your family. How many brothers sisters do you have?

I have one older brother.

But I thought the one-child-policy makes that illegal.

My father pays government a lot of money so it is ok. If you pay government, it’s ok

but other people look down on you for it.

We are interested to hear more about this One-Child Policy. What happens if you get pregnant with a 2nd child but you cannot pay the government a lot of money to have it?

You go to the hospital.

When people leave the hospital, are they sad or is it just a part of life?

It is just a part of life.

How long has this been going on?

30 years.

How many generations of families live in one house?


So, who takes care of the grandparents?

The Son. The boy is responsible to take care of parents. If there is no boy then girl.

How does inheritance work? In other words, who gets the money when the parents die?

The boy is the only one who gets something. Boy is more important. Girl doesn’t get


What do your parents do? Where does your Dad work?

Parents are boss of company, businessman.

Would you consider your family to be rich?

(aaron) of course… they pay the government lots of money for the 2nd child and she is studying here in the US. Most exchange students are rich.

Yes. We have enough money for me to come here.

What type of business do they have?

Make medicine.

What is the currency of China and how does it relate to the Dollar?

RMB is lower than the dollar. 7 RMB  = 1 US dollar.

Do you parents teach you about sex or is it taught in school?

Parents never talk about sex … learn about it from tv/movies/books. Teachers don’t

talk about it either. Mom will change channel on tv when people are kissing.

If no one is teaching about sex, are their a lot of teen pregnancies?

Teen pregnancies are more and more common.

TV here in American is often based on Sex. Is there much sex on TV in China?

No, not really much at all.

What religion do most people in China follow?

Most Chinese have no religion, but some are Buddhist.

Is a certain gender considered more important? Are girls and boys treated equally?

The son is responsible for taking care of widowed parent, but this is not the

responsibility of the daughter. Money is left for the son only.

Do you have a car in China?


Do a lot of people have cars?

Yes… more and more have car.

Oh, So a lot of people have cars?


About what percent of people have cars?

30% have cars.

What stereotypes do the Chinese have of Americans?

Americans are fat but nice. Better than Japanese!

What is the major difference in the schooling?

After high school big exam. Depends on a lot of stuff like where you go to university

or if you can get a job. It’s a lot of stress.

Well, what about family heirlooms? In other words, does your mom give you a necklace that she wore when she was a girl? Or do you have something that used to be your grandmas?

No, we don’t have this.

Here, we have some important holidays. For example, Thanksgiving and Christmas are both really big family holidays. What is your biggest holiday and how do you celebrate it?

Mid autumn day- families get together for dinner and watch a very big show on tv. People from around the world people come home from all around the world. Also, we have Chinese New Year.

How long do you get a break from work or from school?

15 days off from work. 1 month for university students.

What is the biggest difference you have seen between the American and Chinese family?

Americans listen to their children and listen to their reasons. In China you only listen to your parents and do what father tells you to. American children are brats.

I know that some marriages used to be arranged? Do they still have this or do you get

married because you are in love?

Older tradition – falling in love now… but in some small places it is still arranged.

Thinking about your parents, what roles do they have? For example, here it is typical that the father is expected to make the money while the wife takes care of the house/family. Is it the same in China or how does it work?

The same. Father works and Mom takes care of family, but mom’s are working a lot


Mother always follows fathers lead and children also have to do what they said.

When the kids are in trouble, what happens? Do you spank kids?

Sometimes use spanking, but not much.

Well then, how does punishment work?

Kids will be sad if she disappointed family

In the US we don’t let kids stay at home alone for much time until about age 11 or 12. When do parents start to live their kid at home in China?

My brother stays at home alone and he is 6. My parents just tell him don’t play with


That’s funny, we say the same thing here. “Don’t burn the house down.”

In the US, it’s typical for parents to have rules for their kids to date. Mostly, parents start to let their kids date around age 16? Does your culture have a similar circumstance?

Yes, age 18 but we are not crazy about dating.

What age do most students move out of the house?

It’s ok to stay until 30, no problem.

Once you move out are you out? Can you come back after college?

You can move back whenever you want. My mom wants me to get married and live at home with her.

Do you get along with your brother?

No, Brother and sister always fight. My brother is like my puppy… I throw something and

tell him to take it.