Versions of Truth
18 Nov 2004
My friend Wayne (no, not that Wayne) is a great source of interesting conversation topics. The other day he and I were eating at a Turkish restaurant by Xiangyang Market with two friends. One friend was a Chinese girl, and the other was a Chinese American girl. Wayne suddenly asked us this question: “Have you ever noticed that the Chinese and Westerners seem to have different concepts of truth?”
Of course we wanted to know what he meant by that. His reply: “OK, let’s do a test. Here we have two girls, one Chinese and one Western. I’ll prove my point with a question. Suppose John had two eggs for breakfast. I ask him what he had for breakfast, and he tells me three eggs. Did he lie?”
The Chinese girl, after a few moments’ thought, replied “no.”
The American girl immediately answered, “of course.”
We were impressed. His question demonstrated his point beautifully. We concluded what Wayne probably already had: that the Western concept of a “lie” is based on a concept of objective truth independent of human intent, whereas the Chinese (and perhaps Asian in general) concept depends on a human intent to deceive.
To the American, saying I had three eggs when I actually had two is a lie simply because two does not equal three. My intent is irrelevant.
To the Chinese, it’s ridiculous to call this statement a lie because it wasn’t outright deception. I didn’t stand to benefit from the inaccuracy, and no one would be harmed by it either.
I don’t doubt that philosophers and anthropologists have already been all over this issue, but I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to that kind of thing. I think most attempts to reveal how fundamentally different two cultures are amount to mostly a load of bunk. I’m more of the school of thought that believes cultural differences are interesting, not dividing. I believe division comes mainly from ignorance and miscommunication between cultures.
But then something like this comes along, and it’s right in front of my eyes in black and white, and I’m left a little stunned. I wonder what subtle ripples of this “fundamental difference” have affected me. I probably haven’t even noticed.