How Culture Impacts the Way We Are Raised

What was your childhood like?

No doubt this question can provoke a wide range of emotions and memories, depending on what you experienced as a child. 

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Photo courtesy of Tampa Band Photos via Compfight cc

During our formative years, our parents have the greatest amount of influence in our lives. We are dependent on them to dress us, feed us, and sometimes just keep us from hurting ourselves! But as children, what we don’t realize is that we’re not merely offspring of our parents. We’re also offspring of the culture into which we were born.

Let’s explain it this way.

As children we inherit the physical attributes of our parents. We are reminded this is true every time someone says, “He looks just like his father!” or “She looks just like her mother!” (In case you were wondering, I look more like my mom.) We also inherit some of the expressions and behaviours of our parents. Without even thinking about it, we repeat the things they say and mimic how they act.

Just as we naturally take on the characteristics of our parents, we also naturally take on the characteristics of our culture. We observe the way people around us think, talk, and act. And these things often leave a lasting impression on us.

Our thoughts and attitudes are influenced by our culture. I had a recent discussion with a Norwegian friend of mine about leadership. As we talked, I discovered that our experiences with leadership in our home countries were vastly different, which in turn led to contrasting perspectives on how a leader should lead. 

The way we express ourselves is often a reflection of our culture. This is probably most easily observed in the sub-cultures within one particular nation. For instance, one of my Chinese friends told me that he can tell which part of China someone is from just by the way they speak. Not only by their accent, but also by their vocabulary. 

Our culture can also affect how we look. The clothes we wear and the hairstyles we choose are a classic example. Culture defines what is “cool” and what is “out of fashion.” My wife and I sometimes will joke about the clothes we would wear if we stay in China until our forties or fifties. (I would wear grey collared or button-up shirts, and she would wear purple dresses with high heels.)

To some degree, all cultures are comprised of socially accepted “rules” on how we’re supposed to live and how we’re to perceive the world around us. As children, we don’t know anything else except this one culture.

But as we grow older, we slowly begin to discover that there are other cultures out there that exist. We meet families that do things differently. We find out that other parts of our city feel different. And we discover that people act and speak differently even within our own country.

My Western/Canadian culture was never that important to me until I decided to live here in Asia. I started interacting with people who think very differently from the way I was taught to think. When my worldview collided with theirs, I automatically assumed that they had it wrong. 

Though I didn’t have the words to express this a few years ago, I can now acknowledge that I simply felt more comfortable doing things the way my culture taught me to do things. And in some ways I still feel safer within the borders of my own culture.

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, in Riding the Waves of Culture, explain it well this way: “A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish. We live and breathe through it.” 

As a foreigner living in China, I often feel like a fish out of water. 

When I walk the streets here, I see so much that contradicts my culture. So many things don’t fit into my paradigm of how things “ought to be.”

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the important thing isn’t to retreat to the safety of my culture, but instead to engage Chinese culture with the same curiosity that I once had as a child. To be one who learns rather than one who judges.

I will always love and appreciate the culture in which I was raised. Now it’s time to go love and appreciate another one.

How has culture impacted the way you were raised? What are some of the things you’ve noticed about different cultures? What parts of culture are easier to accept than others?

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13 thoughts on “How Culture Impacts the Way We Are Raised

  1. Very thoughtful post, Chris. Worth the wait 😉

    As an Asian Australian (Chinese person born and raised in Australia), I feel culturally different all the time. Though I’ve been exposed to Western culture, I still can’t fathom not taking off my shoes at home.

    Growing up, I thought “Asian culture was best”. Like many typical traditional Asian parents, my mum made me practice mathematical sums outside of class. She marked my work and whenever I got one sum wrong, she would shout in Cantonese, “Wrong!”. My parents tried to drill into me that there was a logical answer to everything and that there was (is?) a reliable path to success (think good education, good job). This recurring childhood incident certainly left its mark on me. Up until a few years ago, I genuinely thought there was a right answer to everything. I was far from a positive person of Chinese descent, fretting over trying to perfect my image; for instance to land reputable job and trying to come up with the “right” answer to arts tutorial questions, even asking the “right” questions to the tutor.

    You are so right when you say there are other cultures out there and we can learn from them. If we take the bit of initiative to go where we have never gone before, chances are we will discover a new town, new people and a whole new way of life. Transportation tends to be convenient these days, so that helps. The turning point for me came when I realised I was not happy and when I saw how some Asian Australians who were more Western than me did what they were passionate about so confidently. It also came at a time when I started spending less time at home and more time exploring Melbourne – away from my comfy house and culture. Sometime around this time, I started writing seriously. I think gaining confidence to approach other cultures has something to do with it as well.

    Can we ever forget about our culture and how we were raised? I doubt so. After all, culture is the backbone and starting point of all our stories.

    On the subject of clothes, most of my clothes are bright and colourful, reminiscent of the styles that Asian international students in Australia wear. I’m always mistaken as one of them. Then again, I am from Singapore and Malaysia in some sense…

    Sorry for the long story. This topic resonates well with me. I will stop here, I feel like I’m writing a book. Have a good week ahead, Chris 🙂

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Mabel! 😀

      I can really identify with the feeling that “Asian culture is the best.” And the longer I’m on this earth, the more I feel that we ALL look at our own cultures/nations this way. We feel we’re the best because, for the most part, that’s all we know.

      I didn’t even touch upon all the other types of cultures there… family culture, societal cultures (e.g. university, professional world), urban vs. rural cultures. We could talk about culture for forever! No wonder you have so much to talk about. 😉

      • I share the same sentiment with you there. Over the past years as I’ve grown older, I’ve looked back at my culture more and more – how I was raised and what are/were my Chinese/Asian values in the past and present. Yes, this is the kind of culture that we will truly know – we were born into it.

        Indeed, culture is everywhere. Some people think about and refer to culture in the form of ethnicity and cultural costumes. But really, culture is the study of every day life. You know it, those topics you can write about 🙂

  2. I grew up with two different cultures. One might think that the german culture and the Finnish culture are similar as both countries are not that far away from each other but the differences are there. Finnish people are more shy, don’t say what they want, are more together with the nature and enjoy silence etc. Germans are pretty much the opposite in many thinks.
    Through this experience in my youth I was rather open to new things when I started dating my Chinese wife and went to china. Sure, many differences feel strange and I have in the back of my mind the feeling that their view is wrong but then again I remember how I grew up.
    I still feel more comfortable doing things how I learned them, even though they are actually a mix of two cultures and now a third is mixing in as well which is confusing my family and friends 🙂

    • That’s so cool that you grew up with a mixture of two cultures. I have some German friends and I know they can be pretty direct with their communication. Are you more indirect or direct? 😀

  3. Really thoughtful post! Where we grow up definitely impacts on us. Even between my husband and I there are cultural differences in the things we ‘learned’ as kids. You’d think Americans and Brits would be very similar .but there are definitely differences. In Asia the differences are so big between here and the UK, it would be easy to think we’re right and China is wrong. Luckily I don’t often think that as I have a good appreciation for things just being ‘different’ and not ‘wrong’. Though I have to admit there are some things here I just think “You should change that” (e.g when my Chinese colleagues have a baby and they can’t shower for a month and all this other stuff. Then they moan they can’t take a shower and I just want to scream “Take a shower then!”. Wooops). But I completely understand there must be many things I do that are weird to Chinese people- for example I do stand up for myself and don’t just accept everything my boss or HR or someone else says- they must think I’m a nutter!

    • Thanks, Joella!

      What are some of the major differences between Americans and Brits? I visited England once and I found that the humor was pretty different. Though it could’ve just been the people that we were hanging around. 😀

      Haha, I was also quite surprised when I found out about the rules for mothers with newborns. No showering and no leaving the house for a month?! It’s a wonder they don’t go crazy!

      I’ve also had some experiences where I’ve done something that seemed strange to Chinese people. This one time I was cutting up a watermelon for some Chinese friends of mine. Instead of cutting it into big pieces with the rind still on, I cut it up into cubes. My friends gave me weird looks and told me that they never eat watermelon that way. I guess I can be weird, too! 😉

  4. First of all, I absolutely love the name of your blog – it made me smile and it is easy to remember!

    I love the topic of your post!! It makes me realize too the cultural influences can also impact the way your act and react to a particular situation.

    For example, in Taiwan, where I currently live, people can mask their emotions quite well. Generally, Taiwanese usually never show anger or frustration and find it difficult expressing their opinion to their boss, parents, etc. Growing up in Canada, we are encourage to express our feelings, opinions, and thoughts, even though they may not be the same as someone. Thus, I am a person who usually expresses her opinion but since moving to Taiwan, I have learned to do it more calm and collectively and do it as a ‘suggestion.’

  5. Hi Chris, a really nice post once again. =) I am particuarly interested to know how the Norwegian friend thought about leadership as opposed to yourself, and how Chinese might consider it too.

    Leadership here is a funny thing. In some ways I think people like to make a show of how equal everyone is, yet at the same time it is very autocratic and everyone listens to the boss. I’m still trying to figure it out.

    And what ARE you doing in China, I haven’t quite found out yet? Or do I have to read to the start of the blog to get it? =)

  6. I think the main reason why I moved to China is that I wanted to feel like a “fish out of water”. I wanted to experience culture shock and a explore a culture completely different from my own. Since I’m going on almost two years now I find myself getting annoyed by cultural differences more and more, but then I remind myself why I’m here. Being around people who are new to China really helps me realize how new and exciting everything is, and opens my eyes to how fun and different China is from home.

    • That’s cool that you came here for the culture shock! Haha, most people I know don’t have that sort of mentality.

      It’s a really good point you made about being around people who are new to China. They come in with fresh eyes, whereas those of us who have been in China longer can get a little jaded or cynical about the things we see and experience on a regular basis.

      On the flip side, it’s also helpful to be with people who have been in China longer than you, so that you can learn from their mistakes and avoid some of the mah fan that you might run into without their guidance.

      No matter whether you’ve been in China for two months or twenty years, there’s always something we can learn!

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