How the East and the West Approach Psychotherapy Differently

China & Creativity: friends or foes?

Napoléon Bonaparte was presumed to have said, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.”

Two centuries later, we witness this romantic prophecy of a commanding China slowly taking shape. In virtue of its recent advance along the measures of military capability, political influence, and economic prowess, China is often referred to as one of the world’s emerging superpowers. There is little doubt that this dragon has woken up to the limelight of the world stage, thanks in no small part to its Godzilla-size GPD and its ravenous purchasing power.

Surely, we can’t expect a crystal ball from two centuries ago to demonstrate unfailing omniscience. While China is making movement on many fronts, it is lagging behind in the future-setting fields of creativity and technology. When we think fashion, we think Paris and Milan. When we think movies, we think Hollywood. When we think innovative technology, we think Germany. We think the Silicon Valley.

Depending on which dictionary you consult, creativity is often defined along the line of using imagination and original ideas to creative something.  What is it about China that accounts for its lagging behind in creativity and innovation? I wonder if my experience of how the west and the east (in particular Chinese Hong-Kongers) approach depth-oriented psychotherapy differently will help shed light on this question.  (Please pardon the gross generalization that ensues.  To paraphrase Aristotle, generalizations are less true but are more useful than the specific.)

Depth-oriented psychotherapy provides a private and judgment-free environment for people to safely explore their innermost thoughts and feelings that otherwise might not see the light of day. Once these thoughts and feelings are thoroughly examined, the person will have gained a more sophisticated and meaningful understanding of himself or herself that will allow the individual to make changes that align with his or her deepest needs and truest desires. They will also feel better, as the previously unexpressed feelings will have found home. Needless to say, this is an abridged explanation of what depth-oriented psychotherapy is.  But I hope it suffices for the purpose of this discussion.

My experience with people with a western background—though my experience only allows me to speak from a limited sample size—is that they tend to find it easier to take advantage of the space depth-oriented psychotherapy provides.  They have a less difficult time allowing themselves to make use of the freedom inherent to the process of psychotherapy to find out who they are, what they think, and how they feel.  To use the metaphor of a Safari tour, these individuals can capitalize on the process of the therapeutic journey as they look forward to the end-goal of the destination. They show less resistance to the idea that one cannot get to the latter without the former, or that they might in fact be one and the same thing: one cannot achieve the therapeutic results of symptom-relief and recovery without going through the rite of passage that is the therapeutic work.

My experience with people from a more traditional Chinese Hong-Kong background—again, I am speaking from a limited sample size—is that they are inclined to bend psychotherapy into a concrete question-and-answer session. Sometimes, I feel like I am being treated like a gate-keeper to a secret book of knowledge, and my job is to reveal the magic code to them so that their presenting problem will go away. Common questions I am asked are: “How do I stop feeling this way?” “What should I do about my situation?” “What will make this problem behavior stop?” It’s like they are looking for a short and tight model answer from an authority figure that will help them score big in a problem-solving contest.

What is it that prevents Chinese Hong-Kongers from taking full advantage of the benefits of depth-oriented psychotherapy?

I think there are various ways to begin to think about this. One is that Hong Kong is burdened by its long history of having an exam-oriented, score-focused education system. The pursuit of knowledge has historically been operated on the misguided assumption that there is a model answer and that’s what matters. Your teacher gives you the answer; you memorize it and regurgitate it on the exam. Voilà, problem solved! Critical thinking, creativity and innovation, and project-based learning are relatively new comers to the education scene—and mostly at international schools—where students are encouraged to think for themselves; are allowed the space to explore, express, and reflect on their personal experience; and are rewarded for going beyond the confines of an archaic “standard-answer” education paradigm.

Another factor is that Hong Kong has also been held back by a traditional Chinese culture of prizing collective peace and unity over individual expressions. It often means that distressful feelings that are not in accord with the communal standard of harmony are not allowed a public display. It is not uncommon for parents to tell kids who are struggling with big feelings to “stop crying,” or that “you are bad for being mad”—when these little people with a fledgling prefrontal cortex are crying for adults to help them regulate their big emotions. In these situations, what we are telling the next generation is that big feelings are bad, or they are bad for having them.  It is not surprising to see these little people grow up to become bigger people who can feel quite lost when they are tasked with talking about and exploring their difficult feelings.

Here, when these big people with stymied emotional management skills are beset with distressful feelings, what do they do? Well, if they grew up in a system where they were taught to seek a model answer to all problems, it is not hard to see why they would continue down that path to look for an authority figure to hand them a model answer.

Creativity and innovation is about coming up with a new, different, useful and/or valuable solution to an old problem.  If our once collectivist-dominant culture continues to not learn to place a premium on individual experiences—experiences that are made up of unique and diverse sets of feelings, thoughts, desires, drives, motives, dreams, etc.,—from where would our young learn to value theirs?