Cultural Reversal

When as a young boy I immigrated to the U.S. more than 50 years ago, I found that the Americans and the American society were very much different from the Chinese and the Chinese society in Mainland China and Hong Kong where I was brought up.  Besides the language, there were differences in many areas, such as:

  • Developing casual and long-lasting friendship
  • View toward elders and authoritative figures
  • Degree of self initiative and aggressiveness
  • Willingness to speak up in a group audience
  • Willingness and acceptability to blow one’s own horn
  • View toward dating and marriage
  • View toward opportunities
  • Frugalness
  • View toward fate, fortune, destiny, etc. 

In this article I will discuss the last difference only, i.e., view toward fate, fortune, destiny, etc.  I couldn’t figure out a simple term to designate this difference.  I considered terms such as superstition, feng shui, astrology, scientific versus non-scientific analysis, but discarded every one of these terms, because they are too limited and too binary for the purpose of my discussion.

What I am referring to is the Chinese tendency when making a decision to rely on external factors such as the calendar, dates of various events, relative arrangement of various objects, palm readings, burning incense or feeding of paper money or food to idols, and potential coincidences of events.  For example, an engaged couple trying to choose a wedding date would consider the birthdates of the bride and groom, someone moving into a new office would consider the relative placements of various furniture and placement of mirrors on certain entrance ways or windows, offering paper money and food to idols at a burial ceremony, getting the blessing of a palm reader before starting a new business venture or personal relationship, being married to someone because fate destines you to marry that person, or expecting a third calamity when two calamities have occurred recently since bad things always come in threes.

I am not saying that there is no scientific basis whatsoever related to the potential prosperity of a business depending on how furniture is selected and arranged in its new office.  Proper selection and placement of furniture could create a more appealing atmosphere and therefore could attract more customers.  Similarly, the orientation of certain rooms of a house toward the sun could make a house more comfortable.  For example, a house whose major bedrooms with windows facing west, where the afternoon sun is, would be hotter, more uncomfortable, and would require more energy to keep the house cool during hot weather months.  That was why I discarded a simple term like superstition or non-scientific to describe the Chinese tendency or behavior.

I think that in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was a fairly large gap in the amount of belief in fate, fortune, destiny, etc. when comparing the behavior of Chinese and Americans.  The Chinese definitely believed more in fate, fortune, destiny, etc.

This however began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Astrology came into vogue in America, so that by the late 1970s, most newspapers have astrological columns.  For example, the Asbury Park Press in its “Jersey Life” section has a daily article (except on Sunday) called “Star Forecast” that provides the horoscope for persons born on that day; the horoscope uses the positions of the planets on that date to infer individual character and personality traits and to foretell events of that person’s life.  Radio and TV talk shows would frequently mention the astrological signs of various personalities.  Sometimes it seems like that one is not part of the “in” crowd if one doesn’t pay any attention to his or her own astrological sign.

Astrology by the mid 1970s already became so widespread in the U.S. that 186 leading scientists published an article entitled “Objections to Astrology” in the September/October 1975 issue of The Humanist.  The concluding statement of that article states “It should be apparent that those individuals who continue to have faith in astrology do so in spite of the fact there is no verified scientific basis for their beliefs, and indeed that there is strong evidence to the contrary.”  Astrology probably reached its peak in political influence during President Reagan’s term of office when Nancy Reagan frequently consulted with her astrologer before any major White House decision.

This shift in the American society to believe in fate, fortune, destiny, etc. goes beyond astrology.  Evidence for this can be seen from the results of the Gallop poll conducted June 6-8, 2005 that found that 73% of Americans believe in the paranormal.  In the poll, believing in paranormal means that one believes in one or more of the following 10 phenomena:

  • Extrasensory perception (41%)
  • Haunted houses (37%)
  • Ghosts (32%)
  • Telepathy (31%)
  • Clairvoyance (26%)
  • Astrology (25%)
  • Communication with the dead (21%)
  • Witches (21%)
  • Reincarnation (20%)
  • Channeling spiritual entities (9%)

The percentage after each item is the percentage of respondents who believe in that particular phenomenon, and the percentage of respondents who believe in at least one of the above 10 phenomena was 73%.  The results are statistically relevant across lines of “age, gender, education, race, and region of the country.”  Interestingly, the scores for Christians and non-Christians were, respectively, 75% and 66%.

I don’t know what the corresponding percentages for today’s Chinese Americans would be (or for today’s Chinese).  My conjecture is that the percentages for today’s Chinese Americans (or for today’s Chinese who live in the cities) are either similar or even lower than 73%, whereas 50 years ago, based on my own observations, the percentages for new Chinese immigrants to the U.S. (or Chinese) who believe in fate, fortune, destiny, etc. could have been higher than 73%, and in any case, they would have been significantly higher than the corresponding percentages for Americans of that period.  Thus, a “cultural reversal” seems to have occurred during the second half of the 20th century.

What are the reasons for this cultural reversal?  Let me offer a guess.  There is probably not a single dominant reason, but several contributing reasons.

  • Fifty years ago, Chinese Americans immigrated from a Buddhism-prevalent society where beliefs in some of those phenomena are often common.  They immigrated to the U.S. which was more modern and more scientific.
  • The Chinese immigrants saw the great opportunities offered by the U.S. and that those opportunities could be seized and realized through their own hard work.  They therefore believe less in fate, fortune, and destiny.
  • The 1950s and 1960s were prosperous years for the U.S., with the country emerging as the dominant world power from the perspective of economics, science and technology, military, and politics.  The sufferings of World War II and the Great Depression were not in the memory of the new American generation.  Relatively speaking, they didn’t have to grow up struggling hard to make a living; they didn’t need to rely as much on their own hard work to make a living.  Fate and destiny seem to bring their “fortune.”
  • Again, relatively speaking, because of the economic prosperity of the U.S., young Americans didn’t have to grow up worrying where their next meal would come from or how they can afford education.  They have more time to spend on various “leisure” activities, including faddish activities such as astrology.  Mass media communications also exploded during the last 50 years, so that any faddish activity that might have started out locally, could quickly become a national phenomenon.

Of course, the pendulum in belief in fate, fortune, destiny, etc. in the American society could swing backward.  As the world becomes more flat (in the sense of Thomas L. Friedman’s book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century) and there is much more serious economic competition from the rest of the world, Americans as a whole would need to work harder.  They would need to rely more on themselves; fate and destiny will no longer bring their “fortune.”  The required hard work will reduce their leisure time to engage in faddish activities.  Furthermore, astrology in the U.S. may no longer be a faddish activity.  On the other hand, with emerging prosperity and with the explosion of mass media communication in China, I wonder whether the same factors that caused the pendulum to swing in one direction in the U.S. during the second half of the 20th century could cause the pendulum to swing similarly in China during the first half of the 21st century.  In other words, could it be possible that there will be another cultural reversal in the future?

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