On Culture Shock and Culture Clash: It’s Really Not Cute To Be Stuck in Your Ways

While more and more people today are able to be introduced to other cultures through through first-hand experiences (i.e. interracial/cultural marriages/relationships, moving to a new region/country), there are those people who can’t quite get their minds opened up enough to adapt to any sudden and changing situations that could arise. As a result, drama starts, people are angry, a child (often present in such situations) is caught in the middle, and everyone misunderstands and hates the other party.

If it’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s avoidable drama. In speaking to my partner for this project Ivan, he could only agree and felt that people suffered unnecessarily for things that would not happen if they took the time to learn a few things beforehand. Even fictionally, such struggles can make one feel as if they were going through them themselves. While I can sympathize with fictional characters to a degree, a girl has to draw the line when they set themselves up for failure.

The Films

In the 2012 film The Karate Kid, you have the story of 12 year old Dre Parker, who with his mother Sherry, leave their hometown of Detroit for Beijing when her job transfers her and how he tries to adapt to his new life there. Now there’s already at least one thing that’s setting little Dre up for a rough time: he’s 12. As most of us know, middle school-age children can be a handful (yours truly is guilty as charged!), as their bodies are prepping itself for physical, mental and emotional maturity (at least that’s what’s supposed to happen).

Like the typical 12-year old, Dre is a bit on the boastful side, with a dash of stubborn and a dollop of  hard-headedness. His vices are what make it hard for him to even attempt to see the potential and beauty of his new home. Even when they are on the plane headed to Beijing, the dialog between Sherry and Dre makes it evident that he has not even been practicing basic phrases that could work for his benefit. Sherry then cues that stare black mothers make (if you happen to have one, you know exactly what I mean) that tells you you need to stop talking back and do what you were told or you are going to get it. She attempts to spur her son to practice with the gentleman sitting to their side, but it turns out he’s from Detroit like them. Welp. So much for practice.

If you get this stare aimed toward you, you better shut your mouth right quick or get popped right quick.

If you get this stare aimed toward you, you better shut your mouth right quick or get popped right quick.

Later in the film, Dre has a breakdown while he and his mother are around exploring their neighborhood. Not even a full week into living in a new country he acts as if he had been there for years. His mother tries to help and console him, but to no avail. But, given that Dre has thus far in the movie been constantly harassed and bullied by a group of mean kids, the new kid in a new school, surrounded by virtually complete strangers everywhere he goes, unfamiliar with the language spoken around him just as constantly and very homesick, my heart can sympathize with him. Ivan and I, while feeling for Dre, also determined that a small part of his anger was caused in part by his failure to look past the “old” China he thinks it is and see it as something new, both in the sense of this new chapter of his life and of the China portrayed in the film. Basically, his refusal to try and learn about China other than what his preconceived notions are block him from seeing how wonderful it could be. We understood that he is still maturing in his own right, but he is also old enough to start developing his mind for the better. As far as we could perceive, Sherry is a good mother who is making the best decisions for her and her son, and if she was able to embrace this heavy decision, then there was no reason he could not have made even the smallest of attempts to do the same.

Look at poor Jaden… don’t cry, it’s gonna be okay!

As for the film Pushing Hands, most of the people in focused are grown adults, so you would think they would have acquired some kind of flexibility somewhere along the way, right? False. This is glaringly obvious for one character in particular. Ivan and I chewed her out quite a bit, but some context is needed first to understand why. In it’s essence, the film is more about culture clash, but elements of culture shock do pop up frequently. It centers around a family living just outside of New York City, and the Chinese husband, Alex, recently had his father leave China to come live with them (them being him, his American wife Martha and their young son, Jeremy). At the start of the film the elderly father had already been there for a month, but tensions between everyone had long taken root.

It's obvious how Alex is a bit worn down by his wife and father's competition for his attention.

It’s obvious how Alex is a bit worn down by his wife and father’s competition for his attention.

It was mentioned that Ivan and I had a little problem with one of the characters, and in case you hadn’t figured it out, it’s Martha. Martha is basically the embodiment of someone who refuses to try at all in the face of cultural conflict. Unlike Dre, whose disdain for China decreases as his intrigue and appreciation increases over time, Martha is annoyingly rigid and uncompromising. Whether it is because she is an adult (and according to some would be far past the age where she would be open to change and flexibility) is only something to speculate on. What Ivan and I were able to figure out is that while she places all of the blame on her father-in-law for the recent tensions that have been in the household, she cannot see that she is the problem.

In the film, the father-in-law cannot communicate with Martha as he knows no English, so much of the interaction between them are through body language. One example is when Martha is up late working on additional chapters for the book she is writing, and despite the frustration everyone is feeling in the house, the father-in-law brings her a cup a tea to help her get through the night. She gives him a plain thank you. It should be noted that in this scene she says thank you in Chinese, but it is one of the only two times she says anything in Chinese. The other time she does is also a thank you towards her father-in-law, but it is laced with annoyance and not genuine gratitude. Despite this gesture of kindness on the older man’s end, a sign that he is trying to make it work between them despite their limited communication abilities, the cup goes untouched. At least at this point in the film it is plain to see that Martha is living by the 80/20 rule, or rather, the 20/80 if you put it in her perspective. Tensions do come to a head when the father-in-law goes missing while he went out for a walk. Obviously distraught by his wife’s lack of attention and concern, Alex goes on a rampage throughout their kitchen, tearing up everything in reach.

And Martha is left to clean up the mess...

And Martha is left to clean up the mess…

The Reactions

Turning it back to Ivan and I, we were pretty much in sync with how we felt from the way Dre and Martha were portrayed in their films. At least with Dre, we were pleased with him as the film progressed because we were able to see how he was growing and improving upon himself in his new surroundings, even though the film itself did not focus on this explicitly. At first, we didn’t like how he was not trying to work with his mother in adapting to their new life. It was evident that it was equally hard on her, being a single parent raising a child in a new surrounding, and being the age he is in the film we hoped that he would compromise somewhat. From our perceptions, Dre fortunately grows and opens up to China more after he starts his tutelage under Mr. Han, who teaches him both kung-fu and lessons to live by. By the time the big “showdown” happens near the end of the film, Dre has successfully changed his former way of thinking both about China and his own abilities for the better and is able to win the tournament and look forward to a brighter future in China.

Martha on the other hand frustrated us a lot. In one of our conversations, the topic of the treatment and reverence of one’s elders came up. In China, Ivan stressed how elders should always be listened to and respected, something Martha falls short on many times. Even if there was the language barrier between them, the aura she had around her relative to interacting with her father-in-law was never really positive. Honestly speaking, she never even gave him a (genuine) smile, or bright-eyed look that would show him her sincerity, and that’s something that is universally understood. Also, right before he wrecked the kitchen on the night his father went missing, Alex even told Martha these poignant words: “I grew up believing that you should care for your parents the way they care for you. My father is a part of me… why can’t you understand that?” Here, we can infer that for Martha to understand her husband, she needs to understand the half of him that comes from his father. But seeing as she doesn’t do that, she cannot fully understand her husband, which adds more tension between them than necessary.

For Pushing Hands, the ending is somewhat positive but vague as well. Alex’s father makes the decision to move out of the house and live alone so that there can be peace between everyone again, although the same decision is made between Alex and Martha (the father-in-law in not aware of this, but the thick tensions from the recent events in the house help him figure it out himself) as well. The rest of the family moves into a newer, larger home but leave an empty room for Alex’s father in case he should want to return. However, the entire ordeal everyone had to get through to get to this point could have been avoided, or at least less taxing and stressful had everyone tried to deal with the situation with more flexibility, namely Martha.

So what now?

The takeaway message is really straightforward, but it applies to everyone. If you’re faced with a sudden change, introduction to, or even intrusion of a new culture, it is your responsibility to educate yourself and make an honest effort to understand the things you don’t know. You don’t need to go all out and become fluent in a new language (but if that helps with communication then go right ahead!), or become an expert on the culture in which you are being affected by. You basically need to be a decent human being and try your hardest to make things easy for everyone and yourself. In our words, if you don’t make the best of whatever context where you are experiencing culture shock or clash, then you won’t be happy. Choosing otherwise is backwards and

that's not cute