Recognizing Our American Cultural Bias For “Passion”

When I coach non-Americans, especially Asians, to interview effectively for a US job, I emphasize the need to express their “passion” for their work or their “deep interest” for a potential job.  Nine times out of ten, when I ask about this passion, I see Asian students searching my face, seeking clues to provide the right answer.  I respond in a typical American manner, stating “I can’t tell you what your passion is, only you can know that”.  I know I leave them more confused than ever.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, trying to understand this befuddled face looking back at me. As I work with universities with increasing numbers of students from China, this is a frequent recurrence. From an American perspective, we see this response as a lacking of some sort, an incomplete adult, a life unexamined.  The American in me sees it from that perspective.  But the Chinese in me is evolving my view, seeing another way to unpack this notion of passion.  I wonder if a parallel version of passion exists in Asian culture, a version that may be just as relevant, just different.

America is an individualistic culture — the ultimate “me” culture.  We not only hold dear to my point of view, we feel a compulsion to express what I think, do what I think is appropriate, even if it doesn’t please others.  Similarly, our definition of passion is along those lines.  My passion is something I care deeply about, what I want deeply to pursue and be. It is uniquely mine, like no other.  We feel an obligation to live our passion and we feel robbed if we are unable to pursue that compulsion.

From the point of view of many Asians, including the Chinese international students whom I coach, I see that for many, their passion is not about pursuing something for the self.  Their passion is about living up to their duty to parents, to family, to society. There is a larger context than self as the key motivator for their actions.  We Americans are befuddled by this.  It’s easy for us to write them off as undirected, lacking ownership and independence.  But I think this kind of passion is worthy of consideration and respect.  It’s not the American way, but many cultures in the world do operate in a different way.

I must say that I am torn.  Ultimately, I believe each of us has a purpose to fulfill in our life, that is unique, that is ours to do.  I believe this sense of purpose is pan-cultural.  I believe this is an inherent aspect of being human.  But how we express our purpose is contextual, shaped by the forces and beliefs around us.

On a personal note, when I think back to my father, I think he was an incredibly passionate man, but he wouldn’t have measured up to the American definition of someone focused on an individualistic pursuit. My father never fulfilled his passion for writing, history and philosophy.  I saw it in him, but it wasn’t a part of his vocation.  But I know, without a doubt, that he had a passion of obligation for his family.  To do what would benefit his wife and children was paramount, even if he had to “sacrifice” his own wishes. He worked tirelessly.  He gave 110% of who he was on behalf of a larger good.  He was quiet in affect, but deeply passionate about duty and honor.  His context was so entirely different from mine.  In many ways, I parted ways in this realm.  In large part, it is the result of living in America, being educated in America, where I was encouraged to explore me — who I am, what I care about and to pursue a career that fulfills me.  My parents couldn’t understand, when I was a senior in college, why their daughter would give up a financially secure career in investment banking to do something called brand management.  It didn’t make much sense to them, from their perspective.  But luckily for me, they allowed me to pave my own path, a path quite different from theirs. Now I realize my parents not only allowed me to pave my own path for a career but my own path for defining passion.

So when students emphasize the duty they feel toward their parents when they consider their career choice, a part of me feels its such a loss of opportunity and a misguided decision.  But when I step back and consider the Chinese culture in which I was brought up, I can understand their perspective.  Beyond understanding, I aspire to respect and dignify their perspective.  Practically, I know such a perspective can not be portrayed in their American interviews for they will be misunderstood and walked out the door.  So I do what I can to help them thread a story that brings the self more to the fore.  As with much of the work I do, I aim to help by creating an additional option for consideration rather than judging and criticizing who sits across from me.

I wonder how we can hold both perspectives of passion to be equally valid.  I think this approach is critically important, if we are to be of service to the many students who traverse vastly different cultures in our universities. This way, when we have the opportunity to advise Asian students, we don’t convey to them a sense of lack, but instead, we dignify who they are and simply introduce another option for defining passion and a parallel path of existence. I like this expansive approach, where we strengthen and broaden who they are and as such, expand their potentiality positively.