Sign up now for our newsletter and be the first to get notified about updates.

December 2017

Asian Americans – contrasting cultures; the KKK and a black man


In October, I had the opportunity to present at the 23 rd Annual Asian American Mental Health Training Conference in the Los Angeles area. Although I am an Australian-born Chinese psychiatrist with 43 years in the USA, I haven’t specialized or focused my training on Asian-American issues. So this was a learning experience for me, as much as it was for the participants of the conference.
The first plenary session presented by Tazuko Shibusawa, PhD, LCSW, Associate Professor, Silver School of Social Work at New York University was particularly illuminating.  Dr. Shibusawa pointed me to a different perspective by contrasting Western cultural beliefs and norms with those of Asian culture.  Even though I was familiar with aspects of what Dr. Shibusawa presented, she did such a clear job of contrasting the cultural differences that I wanted to share these pearls with you.
Compare and contrast the beliefs and norms we take for granted in Western culture with those of Asian culture.
I was reminded how blindly, unspoken and ingrained in our total being are the cultural beliefs and norms we often don’t even realize we hold so dearly.
Western Culture
Asian Culture
1. Problems can be solved.
1. Problems may just need to be accepted e.g., Karma, fate.
2. Problems can be solved by talking about them.
2. Problems don’t have to be verbalized and talked about.
3. Problems can be solved by finding their cause.
3. It is OK to leave things unquestioned.
4. Secrets are dysfunctional and we should be honest and transparent.
4. Secrets can serve a function.
5. Emotions should be understood and expressed.
5. Expressing emotions can be too exposing and unsafe.
6. Communication style is visible, as in public displays of affection.
6. Communication style is invisible – ‘like the air”.
7. Mind-reading is wrong; verbalizing is necessary and important.
7. Understanding can come without verbalizing – understanding through the context of the culture, not necessarily verbalizing everything.
8. Processing and verbalizing are therapeutic.
8. Digesting things can lead to resolution without having to verbalize all the issues.
9. Freedom of speech.
9. Freedom of silence.
10. Straightforward communication is valued e.g., conflict resolution policies; “Let’s talk this through to resolution”; “Let’s have a heart to heart talk”; “I” statements.
10. Indirect communication is valued e.g., a 100 ways to say “no” without exactly saying “no” so as to avoid confrontational interactions – “I’ll get back to you on that”; silent non-response; “I’ll think about it”.
There were so many beliefs on the left hand side of the table above that just seemed self-evident truth.  However I’ve experienced and observed enough Asian culture to appreciate there are billions of people for whom the right hand side of the table is obvious truth.
(We would do well to talk to the “other side of the fence” to create such a table of contrasting world views with the columns being “Republicans” and “Democrats”; “Conservatives” and “Liberals”; “Christians” and “Muslims”; “American citizens” and “Immigrants” – you get the picture.)


You don’t have to be an expert to see how a culturally-informed approach should be quite different when working with Asian-Americans. Having said that, it is equally true because you might now be sensitized to how Asians as a whole culture may view the world differently, you probably still won’t know every Asian or Asian-American person.
Remember that each client and family is unique in their own right. This sharpens our skills to stay person-centered even when you think you know how they view the world.
Being culturally-informed is important; it gives us the knowledge to see through the fog of our own cultural blinders. Even though an individual may be of Asian origin, this doesn’t necessarily mean they think and live like an Asian person.  I have referred to myself as a “banana” – yellow on the outside and white on the inside – because I grew up in a predominantly white society with no close Chinese friends or Asian cultural immersion.  So you wouldn’t know how  this Asian person is if I was your client.
In the June 2013 edition Dr. David Powell guest wrote for  Tips &  Topics to share some of his wealth of knowledge about Asian cultures.  You can read more detail on understanding and working with those from Asian cultures here:

Little did I know that five months after he wrote that for me, he would be gone.  November 2013


Check your personal inventory of stereotypical thinking and attitudes about Asian-Americans.
In 2016, Asian American New York Times Deputy Metro editor, Michael Luo, was out walking with his family.  A well-dressed woman on the Upper East Side, annoyed by his stroller, yelled: “Go back to China. Go back to your f…king country.”   Luo wrote an open letter to the woman and placed it on the front page of the Times, asking other Asian-Americans to share their experiences with racial prejudice.
Many Asian Americans shared their brief brushes with the predominant culture – some surprising, some amusing and some sad. It is worth a look at the Times Video: #This is 2016


As 2017 draws to an end and our thoughts drift to peace on earth and goodwill to all people, I can’t help but feel sad that we seem more polarized, factionalized, fragmented and disunified as ever.  Historians would probably differ with that and remind me of the American Civil War (what could be more polarized than an actual killing war versus a war of words); and the first and second World Wars.
I know I am guilty of watching certain news channels almost exclusively and don’t spend much time listening to the other divergent views on a competing channel.   I know I self-righteously condemn those who are comfortable with dooming millions of US citizens to little or no healthcare coverage when we are one of the richest countries in the world.  I don’t take the time to really try to understand and empathize with the other side of the argument.
So when I saw this headline: “ What happened when a Klansman met a black man in Charlottesville“, I had to read on.  In a December 15, 2017 article Mallory Simon and Sara Sidner wrote about Daryl Davis and how his home is filled with memories of the days he has spent with the Ku Klux Klan.
He is not a member of the white supremacist organization. He can’t be. Davis is the descendant of slaves. He’s a blues musician who has learned how to lift hate out of hearts, even from those who in other times might have been hell-bent on killing him or anyone who looked like him.”
Daryl Davis, a 59-year-old African American, has spent decades talking to Imperial Wizards, Grand Dragons and rank-and-file Klansmen.  He has a collection of about 48-50 KKK robes, given up by Klansmen he has befriended.  “His questions started as a 10-year-old in the 1960s, when he was confronted by racism in the Belmont suburb of Boston and wondered “How can you hate me? You don’t even know me.”  As a man, Davis took that question directly to Klansmen, and some women, too.”
  • Sometimes, it can get ugly.
  • He has been kicked and attacked.
  • “But mostly he listens. Even as some people spew hate. He listens. Thinks. And responds.
  • Occasionally, Davis is the first black person they’ve ever spoken to.”
“Thirty years of these meetings has left him hopeful, not hateful. His closet is filled with dozens of KKK robes and memorabilia given to him by those whom he has inspired to leave the Klan. Not because he demanded it, cajoled or threatened them, but, he says, because they learned from him.”
“They’re done, they’re done,” he says of the men who’ve given up the robes they used to wear so proudly. “As a result of meeting me and having these conversations, not overnight, but over time.”
You can view the rest of the story about when he went to Charlottesville at:
“He listens. Thinks. And responds.”  May we all do more listening and learning and thoughtfully respond in 2018.
Subscribe to Our Newsletter