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Turning Bricks into Jade

I have done a lot of cross-cultural training over the years for people heading off to work in China, and one of the resources that I turn to again and again is Turning Bricks into Jade: Critical Incidents for Mutual Understanding among Chinese and Americans. Edited by Mary Wong and others, this book is a collection of “critical incidents,” or stories of cross-cultural conflict and misunderstanding between Chinese and Americans.

As we wander through the minefield of these critical incidents, we are introduced to interesting people, who, in fact, turn out to be people very much like ourselves.

We meet Reneta, an English teacher who decides to wander off on her own during a school outing, much to the consternation of her school officials. She can’t understand why they won’t let her walk around the park by herself (she likes to be alone sometimes), and they can’t fathom why someone would want to be alone. Needless to say, feelings are hurt on both sides.

We meet a group of foreign teachers on their spring trip to Hangzhou who don’t understand why their school officials won’t give them a straight answer about why they have to take public transportation instead of riding in a private bus. There’s a perfectly good reason (as there usually is), but fear of losing face prevents the officials from telling them directly.

We meet teachers and business people trying to figure out if they’ve just been told “no” or not, and students struggling with Chinese roommates who seem to have different definitions of privacy.

These stories are followed by analysis of the incidents and possible interpretations, based on the competing values and worldviews of the Chinese and Americans involved. Nearly all of the incidents center around different notions of face, relationship, hierarchies, and reciprocity, the very points at which our two cultures most often go “bang.”

Even though the book came out in 2000, it is still extremely helpful for anyone currently working in China, and wishing they were better at figuring out what’s really going on around them, and for those preparing for work in China. It can be used individually, or in training/orientation setting.

This book is a great resource for individuals who have regular interactions with Chinese, whether in China or at home.

Image credit: Sharilyn Neidhardt, via Flickr

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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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