Dear Abby, Dear Abby: Cultural Differences

In class this week, we had “Dear Abby” as our theme.  We started with John Prine’s Dear Abby, Dear Abby, which makes fun of those who write in with their complaints.  Although the song is funny and, of course, each letter writer needs to take self-responsibility as Prine’s repeated chorus suggests, we all know we need help sometimes.

So students in small groups considered a real letter sent in to the Dear Abby’s column.  Each group had a different situation.  The students gave suggestions how the letter writer might solve his or her problem.  Most of their responses showed compassion and were not too different from Abby’s common sense advice.    After the students had shared their suggestions for each problem and classmates could add ideas, I showed the students Abby’s answer to each letter.  Students then decided if they agreed with Abby’s suggestions and if there were obvious cultural differences in their approaches.  Especially two situations showed real cultural differences between how Americans and Chinese approach problems.

Actually a third one caused problems, and I removed it from the following classes.  It dealt with bride maids and bridal showers.  Most of my students speak such good English that I forget they don’t understand some of the concepts that seem normal to me.  I knew right away there was a problem when the students acted out a little scene of what they understood of the complaint to Abby.  The flower girl was taking a shower when the maid (as in bride’s maid) came in to tell her that the charge for the bridal shower would be $100.  When couples get married here, they don’t have bridal showers or bridal parties with bride’s maids.  It’s no wonder they were confused.

The two letters that show cultural differences in how Americans (at least Abby) and Chinese students offer advice follow.   The examples come from the Washington Post 2005Universal Press Syndicate

“DEAR ABBY: I am 12 and have bad problems at school. Whenever I’m behind, can’t figure out a problem or just want to get it done, I cheat.

I’m home-schooled, and my mom is my teacher, which means the answer books are in my “classroom.” I have tried to stop, but some-times I can’t resist the temptation.

I have asked Mom to lock away the answer books, but she won’t. There-for I continue to cheat. What should I do? — CHEATER IN CALIFORNIA”

In this case, I needed to explain what “home-schooled” meant.  My students suggested that the student seek help from his friends and his mother and father.  He should do all the easy problems first,  then work on the harder ones, and when he could not figure out the answers, ask for help.  He could get his mother to set up a reward system.  If he did not cheat for a week, for instance, he could get ice cream.  One student suggested he copy the answer book into the computer and then turn off the electricity when he was doing the homework so he could not cheat.  (Some suggestions were better than others).   Most of the suggestions, however, involved the 12-year-old kid getting personal help.

Here is what Abby answered: “ DEAR CHEATER: Quit cheating, reorganize your time, and get extra help with your subjects if you need it. It is vital that you understand that when you cheat, the only person who gets cheated is yourself. Yes, you can “ace” a test — but if you haven’t learned the material, you will eventually pay a penalty.

Take another look at your letter. It contains two errors. At some point you will have to take responsibility for your actions — and from my perspective, the sooner you do it, the better off you’ll be.”

The students here recognized that Abby was telling the student he needed to be independent and handle the problem himself.  They saw this as a cultural difference with Americans needing to be self-reliant even when they are young.

Here’s another letter that brought out differences in thinking:

“DEAR ABBY: My husband, “Ollie,” and I have been married three years, together for almost six. Everything is going well, but his parents are a problem. They pressure us to visit them whenever we have time off. They live on the East Coast and we live in the Southwest, so visiting them is expensive.

Ollie wants to visit them whenever we have time off. I feel once a year is enough. I know he enjoys spending time with his parents, and I hate to have him not go because of me. But I’m beginning to resent my in-laws because I have spent all my vacations with them.

Abby, Ollie and I have never been on a trip by ourselves — not even a honeymoon. I can’t keep doing this. We have no children yet. How am I supposed to deal with it when we do if I’m having a hard time now? Any suggestions would be appreciated. — STRESSED IN THE SOUTHWEST”

My students saw that woman’s husband’s parents are probably lonely.  Some in each class suggested that the woman and her husband move to the East Coast to live with (or at least close to) the husband’s parents. That way, they could take care of the parents and be able to take some trips on their own without hurting the parents’ feelings.   Others suggested that the couple have a child right away and send him or her to the grandparents to be raised.  Many of my students were raised for the first 10 years or so of their lives by their grandparents.  Because the men and women here are both expected to have jobs, it is the grandparents we see with the small children during the day.   Others suggested just talking with the husband and his parents to work out a solution.

Abby answered:  “DEAR STRESSED: That you and Ollie have never taken a trip alone is sad. It appears he and his parents are so bonded they are unable to let each other go.

Perhaps a compromise is in order. Divide up your vacation time. Suggest that Ollie visit his parents alone, and use the rest of the vacation time to take a trip together.

If you don’t assert some independence now, by the time grandchildren start arriving, it will be more difficult to establish family traditions of your own.

You can try getting this message across to Ollie, but you may need the help of a family therapist to convince him to see the light. Please consider it.”

My students saw Abby’s answer as very different from theirs.  They thought the woman needs to open her heart and realize how important his parents are to her husband.  They reminded here that when she got married, her husband’s parents are now her family too.  The students  also said that the parents need to be taken care of; that is the husband and his wife’s responsibility.

Hmmmm. . . Perhaps we can all learn from one another.



About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

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