Contrasting examples of cultural difference

Two very different perceptions of the way cultural difference operates. From Tauhei Notts, commenting on Kiwiblog’s thread about the guilty verdict returned against Taito Phillip Field:

I believe that the jury was not culturally sensitive. Many people in Foreign affairs who dosh out us taxpayers’ funds to Polynesian nations are aware that what Field did was par for the course. Indeed, Field was incredulous at the fact that charges were even laid against him. He could not, and would not, see that what he had done was wrong. This is because what he did had been done for decades by Polynesian leaders. Field is the first one to be found guilty of what most New Zealanders consider to be awful behaviour, but what Polynesian people consider okay. The natives of the South Pacific have always had a different slant on morality and I think it is our job to encourage them to join the 21st century world.

And from Raymond Huo, talking about the case of Danny Cancian, who is in prison for killing a Chinese:

With regard to business, Westerners are generally transaction-orientated. They walk in the door, figure out the deal, sign the contract and get out. Chinese, on the other hand, are relationship orientated. The Chinese concept of friendship, or guanxi, is vital. In a highly centralised state, the use of guanxi is sometimes the only way to get things done.
The core of guanxi is doing business through value-laden relationships. To some extent, guanxi is the counter-part of a commercial legal system. Don’t get me wrong – Asian people do respect contracts. They are ethical. The only difference is that they do business differently. Mostly, obligations come from relationships, not only pieces of paper.

I’ve spent no time in the Pacific islands, but plenty of time living in East Asia, where obligations attach to relationships developed in a more or less organic fashion between individuals, their roles and networks, and the censure of failing to fulfill obligations is rendered by those individuals, roles and networks rather than being imposed by external arbitration. I played the kibun game (I think) very well in Korea for three years, until the very last hurdle – severance pay in our final job. On our second-to-last day in the country, several days after it was due to be paid up, I lost my nerve and called my boss (who’d been good to us and generally trustworthy) and insisted that he pay us immediately. He did. An hour later he cancelled the meal which had been called in our honour for that night (and at which he was planning to present us with the money, all in good time).

Transculturalism is complicated.


6 thoughts on “Contrasting examples of cultural difference

  1. I have had exactly the same discussion with Island friends around Field’s behaviour, which is why whilst I think it is correct he was convicted I am not as hot under the collar about it as the racist white bread that is the kiwiblog sewer. P.I’s do bring a different cultural perspective, and actually the coverage on morning report today was quite good around this – after Sean Plonker calmed down.

  2. It makes me wonder if this is one of the many ways Pacific people are set up to fail. The pakeha definition of corruption is not what they might expect, but it’s also not ever made explicit.

    How do we define corruption here? Is there a simple definition which isn’t rooted in cultural expectations?

  3. Anita,

    How do we define corruption here? Is there a simple definition which isn’t rooted in cultural expectations?

    No. There can’t be. The best we could hope for is a compromise position, but as it stands what we have is a squarely western norm being imposed from above: ‘you’re here now, you do things our way’. Michael Bassett on Nine to Noon this morning (no audio up as yet) exemplified this position: watch as he implicates Māori in the whole ‘savages are corrupt’ argument and then calls the Pākehā way of doing ‘how it’s always been’, or words to similar effect, shamelessly begging the ‘we’ question.


  4. A Dutch friend used to complain about the corruption he could see in New Zealand, what he saw as corruption was the way we all close ranks and don’t criticise each other even when we individually see things to be criticised.

    His argument, and it feels right to me, is that our actions are in effect a quid pro quo situation – by not criticising others we make ourselves immune from criticism and therefore protect the status quo and our positions in it.

    It struck me that I would never have called that corruption, but I could see why it might fit someone else’s definition.

  5. Pingback: Field from Left Field « Something should go here, maybe later.

  6. My take is that as a country and politics dominated by the English common law tradition (for better or worse), Field should have known (and probably did know) better. Getting people to work for free on personal projects in exchange for promises of residency may appear to be an exchange in kind, or a peculiar type of favour, but in a system that has numerous conflict of interest restrictions etc., it was impolitic and unwise to act as if island protocols obtained.

    I am not a big fan of the “when in Rome” adage, but in this case it may have been the better way to go (that is, he should have operated according to Pakeha ideals no matter how hypocritical their application).

    That having been said, I can state categorically that, having been raised in Latin America and lived for extended periods in North America, Europe, Aotearoa and now Asia, cultural difference is the spice of life–as well as the road to perdition

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