Understanding culture key to Asian, American progress

By Beth Reece DLA Public Affairs

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Characters featured in the animated movie “Kung Fu Panda” don’t look Chinese. They don’t talk like the Chinese, and their jokes aren’t Chinese, but they do help audiences understand the essence of that East Asian culture, a guest speaker said during an Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month observance at the McNamara Headquarters Complex May 13.

Dong Xiang, executive director of New Tang Dynasty Television in Washington, D.C., used two movies to teach HQC employees that truly understanding another culture is possible only when one understands that culture’s core values.

His second example was Disney’s “Mulan,” which is based on a well-known Chinese legend about a girl who disguised herself as a man and joined the Chinese army. Before production, Disney’s artists went to China and other Asian countries to study the landscape, architecture and facial features of Asian people. While it resulted in a movie that depicted China visually, it represented American values, Xiang said.

“Mulan is about a girl who disguised herself to prove her worthiness and prove that she was equal. Equality between men and women is a fine virtue, but that’s American culture. In other words, the movie is presenting American culture in a Chinese storyline with Chinese characters, while King Fu Panda presents East Asian culture through American characters,” he said.

After the main character in Kung Fu Panda achieves his dream of becoming a kung fu master, he is presented the Dragon Scrolls, a document only he can see that supposedly contains the highest techniques of the martial arts and the ultimate secret of kung fu. The panda opens the scroll and finds it blank, meaning he has to find his own path to success.

“This represents a core Asian value, one that differs from American and western culture, in which one must find their own way,” Xiang said.

The U.S. population will no longer have a racial majority by 2044 but will instead be a melting pot of minorities, according to Census Bureau projections.

“Therefore, it’s important that we learn from each other and work to understand other cultures,” Xiang said, adding that the world is changing fast and presenting problems that were unheard of one or two decades ago.

“The truth is: our challenges and problems are universal and increasing. The solution to these challenges is and will always be based on universal, timeless principles and virtues that are common to any prosperous and enduring societies throughout history,” he continued.

Xiang also used two paintings to illustrate key differences between American and Asian cultures. The first, an oil painting of the inauguration of George Washington, is filled with color and content. The second, a painting by Chinese artist Li Korean, is of water buffalo. It is black and white with plenty of white space.

“There’s not a single stroke of water in this second painting, but I believe you can see water. You can see how water flows. You can imagine the time of the day, the season and year, the surrounding landscape. In other words, you have a lot of room to imagine, a fundamental difference between eastern and western cultures,” he said.

Xiang acknowledged that understanding other cultures can be difficult. He was born and raised in China but moved to the United States at age 21 to attend college.

“Two children and 26 years later, I have lived in the United States longer than I lived in China. I know more about American history than the average individual, but I dare not say that I know what’s at the heart of American culture. Sometimes I still feel lost,” he said. “The same holds true for people trying to understand Chinese culture.”

The event also featured a performance of the Lion Dance, which is usually done for luck during the Chinese New Year or important occasions such as business openings and wedding ceremonies. A tea tasting concluded the event.