Sitting next to a stranger on a long flight — someone one has never met before and will never see again — we have all experienced the phenomenon of revealing to all sorts of shortcomings or shameful events that we would never normally reveal to anybody close to us. The latter will never know what we have confessed to — what we really think about this or that. Whatever reputation or relationship we had before will not be affected.
A fascinating variation of this is described by Matthew DeButts in a recent article in Foreign Policy, “China’s students are sharing their secrets . . . English”. He is a teacher of English in China. Once his normally ‘inscrutable’ students have reached a high degree of fluency in English, and trusting that he won’t let the conversations go any further, they will start to reveal their inner thoughts — what they think about their way of life, problems in their families, the government, etc. DeButts’ teaching colleagues reported the same effect in their students.
The students’ new English language centres in their brains are not inhibited any longer by the highly repressive nature of the Chinese culture — a higher order of Confucianism as supervised by the Chinese Communist Party, always watchful, and particularly so in the case of the highly intelligent.
This explains why so few Chinese scientists have won Nobel prizes and that, of the nine that have been won so far, only one by a Chinese researcher living and working in China. The other eight have been won either by Chinese post-grads working in America for a number of years — and who may well stay there — or by Chinese-Americans whose parents or grandparents were immigrants.
Culture runs deep in all of us — our own culture. In thousands of subtle ways in language and behaviour from parents and other adults when in childhood. Our own culture saturates each one of us just as in DeButts’s and his colleagues’ Chinese students.