“Peachy” U.S. Americans, Part 2

In a recent post I introduced readers to the concept of “peach” cultures and “coconut” cultures. Then yesterday a colleague sent me a link to this article from the UC Davis student newspaper, which discusses the same issue.

Land Without Ghosts BookAll this talk about U.S. Americans and our “superficial” relationships got me thinking about an article I read several years ago by a famous Chinese anthropologist, Fei Xiaotong. Fei, probably China’s best-known anthropologist, spent the 1943–44 academic year in the United States, during the closing phase of World War II. He observed that America is a “land without ghosts,” which became the title of a collection of essays by Chinese visitors to the U.S. (Land Without Ghosts: Chinese Impressions of America from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present, ed. R. David Arkush and Leo O. Lee, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989). His own childhood, filled with “ghosts” — echoes of deep human relationships — stood in stark contrast to the “ghostless” U.S. He wrote:

How could a ghost gain a foothold in American cities? People move about like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, to say nothing of other people.…

Outside the family there is certainly much social intercourse, but dealings with people are always in terms of appointments. On my office desk is an appointment calendar marked in fifteen-minute intervals with a space for a person’s name beside each. Apart from business there are various kinds of gatherings, but if you go to one you will find it is no more than social pleasantries: a few words with this person, a few words with that one — it is hard even to remember their names. I cannot say all Americans pass their lives like this. But I once asked a fairly close acquaintance how many friends he had whom he could drop in on at any time without a previous engagement. Counting on his fingers, he did not fill one hand.…

…[Americans’] movements are so easy and they have contacts with so many people, that there seldom comes about the kind of relationship I had with my grandmother, living interdependently for a long time, repeating the same scenes, so that these scenes came to seem an inalterable natural order. Always being on the move dilutes the ties between people and dissolves the ghosts.…

In a world without ghosts, life is free and easy. American eyes can gaze straight ahead. But still I think they lack something and I do not envy their lives. (pp. 179-181)

It turns out that there is some interesting research, conducted by another anthropologist, that backs up Fei’s intuition. I will address that in a future post.

Meanwhile I invite you to think about how U.S. American “ghostlessness” might affect visitors to the U.S.: our students, our colleagues, our friends. What sorts of expectations might they have that they find unmet here? How might we adapt our thinking and our behavior in light of this (seemingly) unique U.S. American trait?

About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in Center for Intercultural Leadership (CIL) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “Peachy” U.S. Americans, Part 2

  1. susan klee says:

    Could there be a better concept/word than “ghost,” which implies something frightening to most English speakers?

  2. Jason D. Patent says:

    Susan, thank you for your question. This is the term Fei Xiaotong chose, and I would love to find a way to make this idea more accessible and palatable to U.S. Americans. I’m wondering if you might have any suggestions?

  3. Pingback: The Psychology of a Peach | I-House: Where UC Berkeley Meets the World

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