a different mindset

This past week, I gave my students an assignment. Read a page about Joanne Simpson, former chief scientist of meteorology at NASA, who was the first woman to receive a PhD in meteorology. Then write three questions for Ms. Simpson.

The responses were mostly usual.*

  • Why you want to become a meteorologist?
  • Is meteorologist a difficult job?
  • At what age were you when you recieved the doctoral degree?

Some were funny.

  • How many clouds you seen before?
  • Is it scary to drive a airplane?

And some (well, one) were thought-provoking.

  • Do you want your children to become a meteorologist?

Do you want your children to become a meteorologist?

Hmm. Let that one sink in a moment.

At first glance, it seems straightforward. Is it an easy job? Does it pay well? Is it rewarding? But underneath is a cultural web that, especially to a foreigner, is actually quite complex.

Life in Hong Kong is very materialistic. As one of the world’s largest trade and commerce centers, Hong Kong is full of bright lights, tall buildings, giant billboards, and fabulous shopping centers. Attached to almost every MTR station is a mall, and, thanks to the British, one can find everything he needs—including foreign foods and western brands—inside the city.

In this way, city life is quite convenient, but it doesn’t come without a cost. Most Hong Kongers work 45 to 50 hours per week, with some working as many as 72 hours each week. In an effort to “help” their children, many parents push their children to become doctors, lawyers, or other high-salaried professionals. It is also common for women often marry not for love, but for money.

It’s a trend I’ve seen across Asia, and one that no Hong Konger—not even my students—can avoid.

But that’s not all.

Think about it. If given the same assignment, how many 9- to 13-year-olds in the States would worry about whether their parents wanted them to become a meteorologist? Although there would certainly be a few, I’ll bet the number of concerned students would be drastically lower in the States as compared to Asia.

The question is, “Why?”

The answer, of course, lies in culture. The Asian mindset is drastically different than that of us foreigners, particularly us American foreigners. How do I mean? Take the “American dream,” for example. Any man, black or white, rich or poor, has the freedom, equality, and opportunity to pursue and secure his own happiness. This is true even if one’s happiness conflicts with family preference or other obligations: if the individual is happy, all society will be happy.

Not so in Asia. In Asia, families focus on families, and harmony is key. Rather than think of personal ambitions, young people are programmed to honor their elders and respect their wishes, to obey without questioning, and, really, to not even think: you will do this because I said so—to disobey or even question means wrath and shame. To make matters more complex, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, young people often live at home with their parents and grandparents well beyond high school and live near their families all their lives. They are also expected to begin “paying their parents back” upon their entrance into the work force.

Without going into too much more detail, it is easy to see why Eastern and Western thought often collide. It’s a hard thing to wrap my mind around, sometimes, when I wonder if my local bus driver is happy and how he ended up in his career. Because maybe he’s never even thought about it. Maybe personal fulfillment in his career has never even crossed his mind. He is playing his role in his family and society, and that is all he has time to think about . . . And that is good enough for him.

So, M-, you asked a good question. Do you want your children to become a meteorologist? Do you want to emphasize individualism or conformity? Push personal development or family harmony? Is one mindset better than the other, or can we learn from both?

At least, it’s a question that made me think.

*Questions are quoted—mistakes and all—exactly as they were written by my students.

Sources found below:


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