I’ve been thinking a lot about culture lately. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I spent the Chinese New Year with my friend and her family in her hometown of Qiaojia, Yunnan. As the sole representative of all of Western Culture, I found myself thinking a lot about the cultural norms that have influenced me growing up in the United States.

In Qiaojia I met lots of interesting characters: the maybe-lesbian from a poor farming village who is studying to be an accountant; the fourteen-year-old cousin with her own motorcycle and more maturity then I’ll ever have; the dude who manages hotels in Chengdu and may or may not be part of the Qiaojia Mafia.

One of the most interesting people I met was my friend’s father, Mr. Zhu, who is a teacher, local historian, and respected figure in the community. Unlike most people of his generation in Qiaojia, he was: 1) able to speak Standard Mandarin, and 2) eager to speak it with me, delving deeper than just “where are you from” and “why are you so tall.” I was incredibly grateful to Mr. Zhu, not only for being such a generous host, but also for providing some of the most stimulating conversation I had with anyone in Qiaojia. He shared my dislike of violent Chinese movies in which the Japanese are always unequivocally evil. He loved looking at my pictures of Vermont, and concluded that my family always looked extremely happy in each other’s company.

As time went on, however, I began to get the sense that Mr. Zhu was not too fond of Western culture, and American culture in particular. There was the old argument that America has only a few hundred years of history, compared to China’s “five thousand years,” and the suggestion that American culture is shallow, empty, and hollow in comparison. He didn’t say any of these things outright, but I sensed his underlying meaning—and I always agreed readily. Why shouldn’t I? America is far from perfect. Because of Americans’ diverse backgrounds, we do indeed lack the singular, cohesive cultural history of which (Han) China is so proud.

Mr. Zhu’s opinions were epitomized in a discussion we had about the meaning of 羊 “yang,” the zodiac animal whose year we just entered. 羊 in English can be variously translated as “sheep,” “goat,” or “ram.” During the days leading up to the New Year, several lighthearted news articles appeared in the U.S. highlighting this confusion: so is it a sheep, or is it a goat?

I brought the subject up with Mr. Zhu, thinking he might find it amusing. Instead, he proceeded to write two characters onto a piece of paper for me. The first was 意, or meaning. The second was 形, or appearance. Chinese characters denote meaning, while English letters denote sound, or appearance. He further explained that 羊 has deep cultural meaning in China, symbolic of auspiciousness (since the character 祥, meaning auspicious, contains 羊). He explained that any differentiation between sheep and goats (绵羊 and 山羊) is irrelevant to this meaning. The distinction in English between sheep and goats refers to a difference in biological species, or a difference in appearance alone.

I nodded along as he said this, but I also felt myself becoming a little defensive.

First of all, written language does not necessarily correlate with cultural richness. Second of all, it is false to assume that American cultural development only began in 1776. It is false to assume that our sheep/goat distinction is purely based on taxonomy, and not on deeply held cultural beliefs of our own.

Because here’s the thing: there is a very significant difference between sheep and goats in my culture, American culture, a culture steeped in the traditions of Western Europe.

Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell, as the song goes.

Sheep herding has a long history in Europe and its subsequent cultures. Sheep herding and the peaceful, idyllic life of the shepherd have inspired countless works of literature, art, and classical music. I’ve played the clarinet part in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony myself, and that piece is indisputably a beautiful, complex accomplishment of human culture. Sheep herding meant the breeding of sheep-herding dogs—collies, corgis, and shepherds—which have in turn created cultural icons from Lassie to K9. Sheep herding meant Fair Isle knitting. Haggis. Little Bo Peep. Jesus was a shepherd, his followers a flock.

And goats? Traditionally more common in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, goats are a bit more exotic. They’re tricksters. The devil takes the form of a goat, and his followers wear goatees. That Taylor Swift “Trouble” video would have been much less hilarious with a sheep.

My point is this: our distinction between sheep and goats is much more than a line drawn between two scientifically classified species. It is a deep cultural division of no less validity or significance than the 羊 in Chinese culture. Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell.

I wish I could have explained this to Mr. Zhu, but at the time my mind drew a blank. It took me several days of mulling it over before I could put into words what I had felt all along—that while American culture may be young, it does not exist in a vacuum.

But even if I’d had the presence of mind to explain the goat/sheep distinction at the time, I’m not sure if I would have dared to open my mouth.

Would it have offended Mr. Zhu, my incredibly generous host?

Did I even have a point at all?

Or was I desperately trying to justify a culture that is objectively shallow compared to the culture of China?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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