New Life News
Association of Chinese from Indochina
4707 North Broadway, Third Floor, Chicago, IL 60640. (312) 989-6927
January 1985 Volume 2 Number 1

Why Americans Act & Think Strangely or Why Indochinese Act & Think Strangely

Why do Americans divorce more, raise more disobedient children, disrespect elders and aggressively court the opposite sex? Why can arranged marriage work in Indochina and why are Indochinese shy with the opposite sex? Why do Indochinese refugees more often study computers and pure science than Americans who grew up in a technological society? To understand the answers to questions like these is the key to refugee ability to survive and thrive in the United States. And it is the key for native-born American-Indochinese mutual appreciation and resolution of common social problems created when a new immigrant group attempts to settle in a radically different culture. In that constructive, bridge-building spirit, this issue of New Life News addresses these questions for the examination of both its Indochinese and its native born American audiences.

The Key

The Key to understanding all these differences just mentioned can be found in comparing the states of technological development in the two respective parts of the world. Each stage of development involves its own problems and its own benefits. A culture has grown up around each of the two technological worlds to help people cope with these problems and best enjoy the benefits. First let’s paint a Chinese water color – using just a few brush strokes to show each technological world and the society and culture which grows around it.


Indochina’s life and economy revolves around small farms and small family businesses in small countries. To keep this relatively poor, but adequate economy running along smoothly, these sensible things happened and worked well enough to keep the system intact for hundreds if not thousands of years: parents could teach the children how to live and survive in this society in the same way that they and their ancestors had done it.

If everyone could agree on things and live peacefully together, this relatively successful system could survive and flourish.

To put it in different terms, Indochinese societies became traditional, respecting the old, worshipping ancestors, and following strictly the examples of the tried and true way things were done in the past. Change in society was slow or non-existent. There was no strong need to change.

Secondly, Indochinese societies saw the usefulness of conformity, sameness, homogeneity of culture and burying interpersonal differences and conflicts that did arise. This created a relatively comfortable, peaceful environment in which people could be happy and businesses and farms could be run successfully as they always had been.
The system did sustain itself successfully for thousands of years in China and Indochina until Westerners with an advanced technology invaded the East.


A hundred years ago when America was much less industrialized, life in the United States was not so dis-similar from the life just described above. But a technological industrial revolution which began in England and spread to the U.S. changed life drastically here. Factories proliferated; workers moved near the factories creating cities. arents working in factories could not educate their children while at the same time working in the family business or on the family farm, so schools also proliferated to act as substitute parents. The old American (similar to Indochinese) values of respecting tradition and respecting elders fell by the wayside.
Although Americans have always been more independent minded than Indochinese or even than Europe-ans, the new technological era made that characteristic quite useful for Americans, in order to keep up with the new rapidly changing technology. Americans had to be flexible enough to learn new life styles that went along with driv-ing cars, using telephones, in fact, using new machines, new ways of thinking and doing things that never stopped changing. Innovativeness, newness became new values to replace traditionalism and oldness. Ability to adapt to the new replaced ability to adapt to the existent as a new value.
With these two pictures in mind. It becomes simple to answer the questions below.


One important reason Americans of all ages respect their elders less than Indochinese do is that in a rapidly changing technological society the old becomes outdated and useless. In America there is a new idea, a new gadget, a new machine, a new technique invented every second. One cannot take a lifetime to master the timeworn traditions of old, but rather one must constantly keep pace with the new or be left behind. The elderly in America who have not kept pace thus do not possess the knowledge necessary to function in a world which is quite different to-day than when that older person was growing up. A glacially moving Indochinese society, however, allows people to accumulate knowledge continually for a lifetime without that knowledge going stale or becoming outdated. The youth in America are therefore worshipped rather than the elderly and the ancestors, for the youth possess the latest knowledge foster fresh outlooks and symbolize newness and change. Newness and change and mastery of the lat-est technology allows for success in an America rapidly changing and with most Americans fiercely striving to stay ahead of each other.

Why Are American Children Disrespectful of Teachers?

Again, one f the reasons is that America needs innovation, i.e., disrespect for institutions and traditional ways of doing things, to survive economically and socially in the rapidly changing technological world. Americans sometimes label this a “healthy disrespect”. America still needs the obedient, respectful factory worker too. But, these positions are filled by the less educated who have not learned to be “creative” or innovative. Such routine, disciplined positions are also filled by immigrants from traditional, respectful societies like those in Indochina.

It should be noted that too much disrespect, or the wrong kind of disrespect, is unhealthy and dysfunction-al in America, too. For example, sometimes unhealthy disrespect of Black Americans for American institutions arose from unhealthy white disrespect for the Black race. This resulted in an unhealthy economy in the South and in all America today using Black human resources economically inefficiently. The disrespect of Southern whites caused a monumentally dysfunctional Civil War along with human strife which has racked this country since. However, Black disrespect for American institutions has sometimes been creatively channeled to make positive changes in American society.

Why Do Indochinese Carry Their Young with Them Almost Constantly during Their First Years of Life? Why Do Americans Let Their Babies Play Alone In a Crib or Crawl Freely on the Floor, Sleep Alone In Their Own Room and Sometimes Even “Cry it Out” Without Comfort From Mother or Father?

In Indochina oneness with the family, interdependence within the family is valued because the family is an interdependent working unit running a family farm or family business. To go off on one’s own, leave the home, or think differently is not conducive to the efficiency of the family as a working unit. Early bonding to the family, learning to be emotionally and physically tied to the family is thus fostered through this close physical contact through infancy and even into early childhood.
In America, on the other hand, independence, self-reliance, and adaptability to changes in extra-familial environment are encouraged because these traits make survival and success in a rapidly changing technological environment more likely. In other words, the American baby is practicing for the type of society he’ll be living in: away from the family (no family business or farm) and in an environment which will dip, bend and curve unexpectedly like roller coaster ride with no one there to help. The successful American family does not prepare its off-spring to depend on it, because do parents not know where their children will work, nor do they know what the state-of-the-art technology will be at the time of job entry. American youth are generally on their own at 18, or the weaning process is rapidly brought to conclusion starting at this time of college entrance or job entry. To be “tied to ones mother’s apron strings” is therefore a negative value in America.

Why Do American Like To Divorce So Frequently?

Americans don’t like to divorce any more than Indochinese do. However, Americans’ rapidly changing, heterogeneous society makes high divorce rates inevitable. When a man and woman marry they may be truly close emotionally and intellectually. But the husband and wife are most often not together for large parts of the day as they are on a family farm or in a family business in Indochina. Even that would probably not be of too great consequence in Indochina, but the situation is different in America. Here the environment may be quite different for a husband working in one place and a wife working at home or somewhere else. In the U.S. every section of the country, city, every profession, every class, even every individual and family has its own character, values, ethics and philosophy. In Indochina everyone’s values are more or less the same so wherever a husband or wife works there’s no influence to change. But in the U.S. a husband going to school or working in an inner city social service agency may be pulled in one philosophical, emotional direction whereas the wife staying at home or perhaps working in a suburban doctor’s office may be pulled in other directions. The once close couple grows apart. There is less social pressure in the U.S. for the couple to conform to each other, because, as mentioned, independence and individuality are highly respected in a technological society. Furthermore, a woman in an advanced industrialized nation is more likely to be better educated and better able to find a job and live independently than in an agricultural society. The woman is economically freer to make her own independent decision as to whether she wants to stay with her spouse.

Why Don’t Americans Have Arranged Marriages?

Arranged marriages would not work in a heterogeneous society like the U.S. America encompasses thou-sands of relatively different value, religious, philosophical and personality groups which would not be compatible in a marriage. Whereas in Indochina, most people in a country have the same basic morals, values, religion, and philosophy of life. A blind match would probably work most of the time.

And, again, in the U.S. it’s the individual who is considered the important unit, and it is he or she who should make this marital decision. But in Indochina the family is most important, and the match should suit the family’s purposes, more than the individuals.

Why Are Indochinese Young People More Shy with The Opposite Sex than Americans?

Why does American society encourage dancing, condone courting and dating and public displays of affection between teens of the opposite sex? Why do American girls wear sexier clothes: tight pants, bikinis, low-cut blouses, etc?

Individual decisions on marriage are more often discouraged in Indochina (for reasons in the answer proceeding), and social structures were built through history to enforce that. Thus males and females are segregated as much as possible in school, in the market (women shop), and in recreational situations–coed dancing was often out-lawed in Indochina. Boys play with boys, and girls with girls. Family chaperoned dates or meetings are a break-down of the segregation, but still with family control. Girls are required to dress in a sexually unprovoking way: no lipstick or rouge, no tight pants, no bikinis, no low cut blouses and no hot pants. (City girls in Indochina were more “Westernized” in dressing and courting behavior, because they lived in a society more like that in an industrialized, technological society like America’s.) In short, the decision on the time and person to marry is left to family discretion in more traditional Indochina with little chance allowed for an individual to get involved in such things.

In America, marriages are not arranged by families, because the individuals decision is more important. Therefore, the young person must be taught the social skills necessary to court–to find a mate by his or her own doing. Thus American society encourages dances (school dances, church dances), allows its young women to dress and act more provocatively than Indochinese girls are allowed. Frank and open kissing and romance are taught and glorified through movies and novels; parentally approved teen magazines teach young girls how to make themselves physically and behaviorally attractive to young men. Also, effective means of contraception are readily available and affordable and understood by Americans (not as well as perhaps they should be understood, however), making sexual encounters among the unwed less dangerous and, as a matter of fact, less of an anathema than in Indochina. But America today is not totally liberated or educated sexually, and is in a transition stage between that of a pre-industrial society when cultural non-mechanical mechanisms of birth control made sense and an advanced af-fluent technological society in which non-mechanical birth control mechanisms are not as crucial to the control of population and the assurance of care for children of unwed parents. Cultural moves are more slow than technological advances and trial-and-error periods test new moves as to whether they will be useful or complementary in the new era. America is new in this shifting world of trial and error and useful moves, it might be said, have not been agreed and settled upon. Nor is it likely that constantly and rapidly advancing technology will allow moves to catch up anytime in the near future.

What is the Difference Between the Way Americas and Indochinese Choose a Career?

Of course language and cultural handicaps effect most refugees’ career choices and give many refugees no career choice at all. But the difference in the method of choosing for the better-off refugee lies in the types of skills and personality of the Indochinese vs. the American and in the differences in values. Indochinese society, being relatively unchanging, rigid and structured, creates a population which is more comfortable in and which values highly structured, clear-cut disciplines such as math, engineering, pure sciences and computer technology. Americans, in general, are more used to a free-wheeling, ever shifting, kaleidoscopic environment and they are therefore more often able to enter into the nebulous social sciences. Most Indochinese have been taught not to question and upset the stability of the system, and are therefore disinclined to study in disciplines that ask why people do things the way they do or that attempt to change the way people do things–psychology, sociology, anthropology, and social work.

Furthermore, in a economically marginal society where a major motivation is to feed, clothe and house ones family, the potential income from the prospective career is perhaps the major factor in career choice. In America, where families are small and almost all jobs here, including blue-collar jobs, pay enough to support self and small family relatively adequately, Americans often think of non-monetary considerations in choosing a job. Thus Americans, without the basic-survival mentality of Indochinese, more often consider such career values as intellectual stimulation, healthfulness of the career, degree of job stress, creative impact of ones work on society, work environment, or opportunity for emotional, intellectual, self-fulfillment. As Indochinese, like Americans be-fore them, begin to realize the implications of living in an affluent society, they too, will be less concerned with the amount of pay they receive in making a career choice. But meanwhile large families, lack of saved-up income and the time it usually takes for newcomers to climb out of inner-city, illegal, below minimum-wage and entry level jobs will force or scare most refugees into making career choices based largely on monetary considerations.

How is Volunteerism and Philanthropy Different in the United States?

First of all, volunteerism and philanthropy refer to helping others outside the family on an organizational level. Helping in Indochina’s family-centered society is done mainly within the family. Religious forms of voluntarism and philanthropy are significant in both parts of the world. But why do American wives, students, elderly among others volunteer billions of man hours, donate billions of dollars a year to help non-family members? First, America is a land of abundant resources and most Americans, even middle class Americans, have time and money to spare without fear of starvation or deprivation of clothing or shelter – the basic necessities of life. Not surprisingly, the very poor in America are more similar, then, to Indochinese in their helping habits. But why aren’t comfortably rich Indochinese so inclined to volunteerism and philanthropy? One reason is that in Indochina hunger, homelessness, lack of decent clothing, and educational deprivation are so prevalent and so close to everyone and so long-standing that there is a pervasive fear even among the rich that they too are vulnerable. In America, although malnutrition is not rare, hunger is rare enough to be newsworthy if it is discovered somewhere. Poor people are often fat (although possibly at the same time malnourished because of improper knowledge of good dietary habits), often own TV’s, radios, watches, stereos, musical instruments, toys for the children and substantial furniture and clothes. Some may even own cars or houses. Medical care is available too at a minimal and often quite substantial degree. Running water and electricity are taken for granted and free schooling through twelfth grade is universal. All these phenomena are characteristic of only the rich in Indochina. But the rich and middle class in the U.S. are not unaware that no matter whether good or bad fortune strikes, they will not starve or be left without shelter and minimal amount of comfort. Therefore, the primary life motivation is no longer to assure and reassure self-survival, but instead, surplus time and money can be used to satisfy secondary motivations: desire for love, intellectual activity, enjoyment of beauty and other excitements of the emotions. In other words, when one has everything in life, including real assurances against destitution, what more can one do in life? Life becomes boring and meaningless unless new goals, new enjoyments, new passions are cultivated.

Giving is one type of pleasure that Americans have thus cultivated in using their excess time and resources. Giving by volunteering to do some charitable work or giving money to likewise do some charitable work gives the sated American a sense of genuine meaningful achievement that could not be achieved by buying another car, an-other house, or another dinner on the town It extends a person’s goals when all basic survival goals have been achieved. It brings back the same kinds of powerful survival motivations that drive the person from the poor culture and some of the same good feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment that a poor man in a poor country feels when he achieves his goal of survival despite the odds against him.

Of course, volunteerism and philanthropy have different attractions for different people too. The elderly in America unlike in Indochina lose their status as useful persons – as explained above. To recover the respect, use-fulness and meaning in their lives, American elderly often find voluntarism and philanthropy an answer. Middle and upper class American housewives with small families, with little housework to do (with all the modern conveniences), with no need to help in a family business or family farm feel equally useless. Volunteerism puts meaning in their lives, too. College students without the obsessive motivation to find a job after graduation, because they will not starve or place undo burden on their families if they do not immediately find a job, can be freer to pursue their youthful idealistic values and join activist groups, movements and causes of all sorts.
Some unemployed American workers searching for a job may even volunteer as a way to make contacts, learn skills and to get their foot in the door. In America ‘,-he urgency of finding a job is not so great as to drive one always to the direct pursuit of employment; but instead the calm assurance that a job will eventually be forthcoming allows one the composure to take a circuitous route to employment, volunteerism, which might in fact be quick-er and more rewarding than the direct route.

It should be noted that Americans may become somewhat more like Indochinese in times of economic re-cession, and high unemployment. And those who remember the Great Depression or the poverty of the old country may be more like Indochinese in their behavior. But, for most, there remains an underlying confidence that basic survival is not a issue for concern and the volunteeristic and philanthropic motivations in American society remain strong. Another factor is at play here, too, though. In a complex, diverse, mobile, rapidly changing technological society, families no longer have the expertise or ability to provide the jobs, job training, financial resources, contacts and even entertainment to the same extent as in Indochina. Specialized organizations are often more capable and often do replace these and other family functions.

As an individuals orientation shifts from family to organization, the individual spends more time and more money on organizations including volunteer philanthropic activities in organizations which become, in a sense, the new family and which serve the same or similar functions as the traditional family. It is a sign of the times that A.C.I. and other such organizations attract members and support from the Indochinese community in America. A.C.I. is proud to be honored by the Indochinese community in this respected role.

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