Cultural Understanding through Differing Modes of Expression

West Side StoryUnder the Hawthorn Tree

       I was partnered with a Chinese student from Beijing Normal University for a project for cross-cultural understanding through film.  Yao Xueying, preferring to be called Emily, and I explored each other’s culture through these two films. We held our conversations through Skype video chat.  Screen shot 2013-04-12 at 8.53.14 AM    Specifically, we found both similarities and differences between our cultures through the theme of impossible love.  Both couples in these films fell in love at first sight and developed a loving relationship, but with drastic differences.  Upon asking why these differences occurred in the film, we found underlying commonalities between our two cultures.  We found characteristics traditionally known as “Chinese” in West Side Story and vice versa.  West Side Story is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, so naturally the love in this film is expressed anything but indirectly.  Under the Hawthorn Tree shows the characteristically Chinese way of expression, hanxu. By analyzing Under the Hawthorn Tree’s indirect way and West Side Story’s direct way of expressing love, Emily and I were able to find groupism and individualism in both the American and Chinese culture.

IntroductionMeeting and Dying

Both Maria and Tony & Jing and Sun experience love at first sight. However, neither couple can be together.


West Side Story

Made in 1961, depicting New York City in the 1960’s.

Follows Tony & Maria’s passionate love affair.

Under the Hawthorn Tree

Made in 2010, depicting the Cultural Revolution (1960’s).

Shows Sun & Jing’s relationship through indirect expression.

The Differences Shown in the the Two Films:

West Side Story shows the direct, individualistic mindset common in America.  I felt that this movie would showcase our characteristic melting pot and the resulting history of racism, lack of a collective feeling and picking out the “other.”  Immigration caused a certain uniqueness of the American culture that lacked uniformity.  In Under the Hawthorn Tree, continuity present that is inclusive of everyone.  Within the context of the Cultural Revolution, this film shows the expectations on the Chinese to act as a group and be equal to one another.  Being individualistic was not accepted.

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Jing and Sun hold each end of the same stick, indirectly holding each other’s hand.

The above collage shows both the first and last scenes that these two couples are with each other.  Jing and Sun from start to finish express their love indirectly through gifts in the name of the “Revolution.”  There is a social constraint in effect from the expectations placed on them during the Cultural Revolution.  Even when Sun was on his deathbed, Jing felt too uncomfortable to express her true love to him.  However, Tony and Maria immediately express their care for each other and inform their families.




Maria sings, but Jing only whispers.

Maria sings, but Jing only whispers.



Additionally, Jing is so unaccustomed to expressing herself that she refrains from even telling her own friends.  On the other hand, Maria sings about her excitement and love for Tony in her song “I Feel Pretty.”




Natalie Wood was "brownfaced" to play the role of Maria instead of casting a Latino actress.

Natalie Wood was “brownfaced” to play the role of Maria instead of casting a Latino actress.

Racism has and still is a prevalent issue in America both in our contemporary popular culture and history.  I found racism relevant in this context because it was a key topic Emily and I discussed in our conversations.  I have never seen racism portrayed in Chinese-made films, but almost every movie made in America points out a racial feature of a character. Not only is there racism evident in this film with the biased treatment Officer Krupke showing the Jets (white, Polish descent) favor over the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants), racial slurs from both gangs towards each other, but racism within the creation of the film is evident.

  During this time of film production, white actresses and actors were cast to even play minorities because producers were afraid minorities as leads would bring ticket sales.  Also, they believed the audience would relate better to a white actress.

Anita_Roof_America song

The Sharks are singing “America” on the roof, using simple, but direct language.

In this scene, the Sharks are singing the following lyrics:

“I like to be in America
Ok by me in America
Everything free in America
For a small fee in America”

The lyrics are simple and elementary compared to the Jet’s song “Gee Officer Krupke” that includes more complex words like “delinquints,” “neurosis,” and “psychologically disturbed.”  Obviously, these lyrics show a higher education within the whiter gang.

Unfortunately, these bits of racism are not overexagerrated, especially for the 1960’s.  There was not equal opportunity for colored immigrants like that available for white immigrants.  I felt that this movie helped give a clearer image of the stereotypical “American Dream.”

Since immigrants came in groups, clustering with what was familiar, they retained their individual cultures within America.  As much as America did experience a “melting pot,” there was a lack of collective identity like that in China.

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 Lyrics from “A Boy Like That” sung by Anita and Maria in West Side Story show a sense of “otherness.” Anita is corrected in this song to not generalize the Jets.

Need to be different

Maria tries on her unique dress; Jing is the only worker to have new boot

Individuality is emphasized in West Side Story as Tony pursues a job instead of running around with the Jets.  Maria hopes that her dress will help her stand out at the neighborhood dance.  Both Maria and Tony want to break “tradition” and the social norms to be together, acting apart from the group.  However, in Under the Hawthorn Tree, Jing is hesitant and insecure about wearing the new boots Sun buys her because she will be the only one wearing them.  Standing out apart from the masses during the Cultural Revolution was a risky move.


Why do these differences occur in these films?

Emily and I then asked why we had these differences.   We explored our countries’ origins and the difference between the ideal and the reality.  This answered questions like “Are racial problems a major, prevalent problem in China like in America? Why or why not?”  and “How do responsibilities of the characters explain their actions?”

China has shares 3000 years of one main ethnic group in the same region, causing unity and continuity.  America is a country of immigrants with a personal history tied to other continents.  Since the day of cowboys and indians, America has distinguished themselves apart from those different than them.  From what Emily explained to me, this problem is irrelevant in China.

“You promised me you’d behave. The decision about your job as a teacher will be made soon… If there are problems at this critical moment, your career will be ruined and your whole life too.” – Jing’s mother

Then, Emily pointed out that we could analyze the expression of love through the level of responsibility that the characters take on.  The characters could not safely express themselves in Under the Hawthorn Tree without running the risk of public humiliation, like what is seen being done to Jing’s mother.

Jing takes on much responsibility and obligations for her family through both working and her school performance. She hesitates in dating Sun because of this great responsibility. With her unfortunate family background that is not in political favor, she has to walk on egg shell.  Strong family values keep her loyal to her mother (Confucius, a consisten influence throughout China, America does not have a consistent ideology that we actually stick to).

However, Maria does not take much responsibility. She just arrived off the boat and doesn’t understand fully the differences between the two groups and tries to rectify her idealic expectations of the free opportunity in America and the reality of segregation.  Emily informed me that she learned about immigrants’ expectations in coming to America.  At first  immigrants have big dreams and foresee bright futures which is the “American Dream.” America was seen as a place where immigrants could realize their dreams, to pursue wealth, and gain opportunities.

Sun is also shown to not take on much responsibility.  Like Maria, he cannot fully understand and relate to Jing’s situation since his family has political favor.  Jing must consider her family first and foremost, but Sun and Maria do not.

In Conclusion:

The take away message that Emily and I have had through this project is that we cannot generalize an entire country  with characteristics because each contained elements of the other.  Upon discussing these differences, we found similarities and elements of groupism and individualism in both films.  Both films show family values, but in different settings.  In Under the Hawthorn Tree, Jing’s family clings to each other to survive political persecution during the Cultural Revolution. In West Side Story, both Maria and Tony have familial ties to their respective gangs.  Both Anita and Jing’s mother’s function as supporting actresses show groupism in both cultures.  Both Bernardo and Anita instruct Maria on family values.

“Please, we are family. Now go home.” -Bernardo

Furthermore, the following Jets’ song contains lyrics and shows behavior with a group mindset.

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Maria blames others and does not wait

On the left, Maria and Tony are being “married.” On the right, Maria pulls a gun out on both the Jets and Sharks in dismay over Tony’s death.

Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 6.59.20 AM

Jing and Sun sit respectfully and listen to Jing’s mother.

Although in showing and expressing their love for each other, Maria and Tony show a lack of groupism and individual choices as they ignore their family and social values.  Maria and Tony marry themselves, consumate this love and plan to run away together without her family’s consent.  In Under the Hawthorn Tree, Sun respects the wishes of Jing’s mother to stay away from Jing, so Jing can concentrate on bringing her family out of political disfavor.  He states that he will wait forever to be with Jing and that he will love no other.  The course of events in West Side Story is less than a week when Under the Hawthorn Tree is over a year.  In the picture to the right, Maria points a gun at both the Sharks and Jets, blaming them all for the death of Tony.  If she and Tony had upheld the social norms, he would have been alive.  She is unable to find reason beyond blaming others.  In Under the Hawthorn Tree, the option that Jing’s mother sets is the only option considered by both Sun and Jing.  They do not place blame on anyone for their situation, they accept their situation and make do with what they can do.  Both Sun and Jing do not resist the norms of the Cultural Revolution.




Separated by a river, Sun and Jing hug each other through the air.

Separated by a river, Sun and Jing hug each other through the air.

On a spiritual level, one can explain this point by saying that Jing and Sun accept how they can view each other because they are separated by time and distance.  Sun is much older than Jing; Jing is extremely young. Thus, they are separated by time.  Then, they are separated by a river, living on opposite sides.  Also, they are ultimately separated by Sun’s death, unrelated to other humans and without blame.  Both time and space are natural phenomenons and it is part of traditional Chinese culture to not resist nature’s path.


Then, you can see individualism in Under the Hawthorn Tree when Jing goes to go to hospital to find Sun to find her own love, chooses to “sleep” with Sun and decides to wear her new boots.  Although, Sun gave gifts (volleyball uniform, nuts, hawthorn berries, a new pen and boots) to Jing in the name of the “Revolution,” he was specifically giving gifts to her.

“It’s not a gift, I’m just saving ink for the Revolution.” – Sun