Intercultural Incompetence: The Sophomore Cultural Event Dissected

by Alex Slusher and Andrew Carpenter

Monday started as a normal gathering, with announcements about victories on the soccer pitch, service learning sign-ups, and the upcoming PSAT’s filling the seemingly normal twenty minutes.

However, towards the end of gathering, many Chinese students (mostly international dorm students) stood up to make an announcement expressing their discontent with a situation that transpired during the sophomore cultural event.

During the event, students were presented with a provocative art piece outside the play they were attending. The piece consisted of an image of Mao Zedong, and alongside the image were numerous mini American flags. The portrait of Zedong had been purposefully littered holes where the audience could insert American Flags.

While most students appreciated the provocative artwork, certain Chinese students found it incredibly offensive. These students, accompanied by other Chinese students who did not attend the play, stood up to make a statement regarding the installation during gathering.

Afterwards, many day students left the Great Hall confused. Hadn’t Mao Zedong committed near genocide, wiping out millions of his own population during his regime? Didn’t Mao represent the communist ideals that are criticized so harshly in our country?

The short answer to these questions is, naturally, “yes”, but Mao Zedong is a much more complex cultural figure than his amoral actions might lead one to believe, which is why our article explores and explains who Mao Zedong was, and why disagreement about whether or not to respect him is completely okay.

The life of Mao Zedong was one heavily ingrained in many aspects of Chinese culture. Born in 1883 in Central China, Mao did not grow up wealthy, and instead rose to power over the course of 38 years, after which he founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 1949, with the CCP in control of the nation, Mao declared China to be the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a fully communist country.

Mao took many great steps to modernize the PRC in order to compete with the United States’ growing power. One of these steps was the Great Leap Forward, which started in 1958 and attempted to reform China’s economy by 1988. The plan focused entirely on growing important industries such as agriculture, steel and technology. The plan strove to power the work force with a strong supply of agriculture, and additionally focused on procuring technological advances.

Mao’s plan, while ambitious, ended up depriving many people of the essential food and shelter, resulting in around 45 million deaths. Throughout the entirety of Mao’s time in power, a total of 65 million people died as a result of his radical reforms.

However, in the process of recovering from the economic crisis that followed the Great Leap Forward, Mao began the Cultural Revolution, an attempt to purge the PRC of anyone tied to the Western world or the former Nationalist government of China. This group mostly consisted scholars or “intellectuals.” Many were killed or exiled and many of those who survived ended up committing suicide.

An anonymous member of the OES community whose grandmother and great great grandfather lived through the Cultural Revolution recounted his family’s experience, saying that they allowed many of their relatives — scholars — to take refuge in their home. Unfortunately, the servant of the family knew that there were “intellectuals” hiding in the jewelry boxes and gave the information to Mao’s “Red Guards” who raided the house. The student says that they were marked as traitors and publicly shamed.

But here’s where the situation gets convoluted. Despite the obviously large number of fatalities that occurred during Mao’s time as Chairman, the economic influence and power held by the republic is higher than any other time in recent history. Mao transformed the country from a state of decay and collapse to one of extreme might and influence, matched by no other nation on the planet.

In a few decades, China went from being a country in serious socioeconomic decay to being one of the most dominant countries on the planet. The progress made by China as a whole is something that has been an incredibly efficient transformation. While there have been many costs, China objectively benefitted both economically and industrially due to the leadership and ideas of Mao Zedong.  

Religion teacher VJ Sathyaraj provided some clarity on the overall structure of the society under the rule of current president Xi Jinping. VJ spent 12 years living in China, and says that the societal standards for interactions with a wide variety of leaders is far different from that America’s, creating an ideological divide between the goals and standards for a good society. VJ noted that in China, a level of respect is held for a position no matter who fills it, and the respect is what maintains the societal boundaries and forms a cohesive relationship between educators (in VJ’s case) and students, allowing for extensive progress to be made in many areas.

VJ noted that this can easily be contrasted with America, where leaders are subject to much more open criticism. Additionally, VJ commented on the cultural differences between how Americans and Chinese view their respective societies. He noted that in China, the general public is typically more focused on the success of the country as a whole, whereas American thought leans towards the success of the individual. Although the societal systems in place in China may not meet the average American’s standards of individual freedoms, these same systems seemingly meet the needs of the Chinese people.

After further examination into who Mao Zedong was, and what he represents, the reason for the disconnect surrounding the respect, or lack thereof, for the famous leader is evident.

To put it simply, different people value different things, and the incident during the cultural event is a perfect example of this. While Chinese students may feel that one of their cultural icons was disrespected, is is impossible for some American students to comprehend the act of respecting a leader who committed such terrible acts of violence.

Therefore, this issue calls for a greater degree of intercultural competence from all students, a skill which is often discussed in our community. The ability to communicate appropriately with people of all identities is one that we all have to work on, now more than ever, and agreeing to disagree is crucial, especially in a period of such political division.

Next week, OES is using its X Period as a time for the student body to talk about issues that are important to them — it wouldn’t be surprising if this topic is brought up. And regardless of where most of the student body comes down on the issue, simply having the discussion is a start. After all, being willing to have the conversation is really what intercultural competency is all about.

Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Intercultural Incompetence: The Sophomore Cultural Event Dissected

  1. The problem I had with the gathering announcement was that instead of condemning the people in charge of the play, they condemned the OES students. The sophomores who went to the play were practically invited to participate in this by the theatre, so it was hard to know if this was disrespectful or not. I feel like it was not fair to condemn the OES students because of how easy it was to participate in this because of the nature of the activity.

    • Hi Garrett, I’m speaking for the people who spoke in Monday’s gathering. We didn’t condemn anyone. We only honestly and truthfully stated how we feel. I get that not all sophomores understand all the underlying meaning of Mao and what he meant for us. However, we didn’t blame them. We didn’t blame anyone. We only said that we felt hurt. I hope this is an opportunity for all of us to learn and to grow. If you didn’t know then and you know now, that’s great. That’s what we wanted.

      You can find the complete transcript of what we said here.

      Thank you.

  2. Great essay of deep insights. Let us all get better informed on the issues. A quick correction: China’s modernization drive did not begin under Mao’s leadership. In fact, it did not start until after Mao’s death in 1976, when Mao’s political enemy, Deng Xiaoping, came back to power and became China’s paramount leader. Deng was the one who opened up China and reformed its political and economic systems, defined by his pragmatic one-county two-system policies. Mao believed in feeding people with ideologies and political slogans, while Deng designed, engineered and pioneered the way for China to become a global super power that is politically communist and economically capitalist. His famous line was “White cat or black cat, so long as it catches rats, it’s good cat.” Mao had nothing to do with that. In fact, Mao purged Deng three times during the Cultural Revolution, but Deng survived him by hiding in a tractor factory as a common worker. As a result, Deng had the last and best laugh.

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