East or West? A cultural chicken test.


I’m European and my wife is Chinese (born in New Zealand) and in more than 30 years of marriage we’ve seldom had arguments or differences arising genuinely out of our cultural differences. But there are differences in outlook and recently I learned a very simple test to demonstrate this.  In the picture above we have a cow.  The question is: which belongs most with the picture of the cow?  The chicken?  Or the grass?

Choose one right now and then I’ll explain.

The test was devised by a Developmental Psychologist Liang-hwang Chiu who tested this and other similar triplets with American children and Chinese children.

The western-educated American children universally choose the Chicken. A feature of western education and world-view is to classify things. Chickens and cows are both animals, the grass belongs to a different category.

Meanwhile eastern-educated Chinese children overwhelmingly choose the grass, not the chicken.  The reason? The eastern view is less about the individual object or picture, and more about the relationship between the two pictures. The cow eats the grass. The cow probably has little to do with any chicken.

This differences is noticed by visitors to Savong’s School. As a volunteer the first step is to introduce yourself and the very first questions from the class are less about YOU and more about WHERE YOU BELONG. How many in your family? Do you have many brothers and sisters? Are you married?

I’ve tried the chicken and grass test within my own family. I instantly chose the chicken, but my wife’s side of the family each choose the grass. “It’s obvious” said a sister in law, just yesterday. “The cow eats the grass. Why would you choose the chicken?”

These cultural differences seem minor, but at a more advanced level – for example in the way organisations are run, or the way leaders operate, the differences become more profound, but based on the same principles. Westerners – and this goes back to Greek education, 2500 years ago – see their world in terms of categories, or types, and on this basis to formulate clear rules and routine processes: formulas for success. Meanwhile their Asian counterparts, influenced by Taoism and Confucianism may operate principally through building relationships and networks of trust: steering a peaceable way through a shifting world of opposing forces.

We volunteers and supporters need to be mindful of these things when we teach or work in Cambodia. One book The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett covers this subject in a very academic manner, and the author seems awfully surprised just how deeply our various currents of educational philosophies run. However it is a good starting point for westerners.

Another chicken story – right here.

East-west differences in culture between Americans and Cambodians – more here.

3 thoughts on “East or West? A cultural chicken test.

  1. Well Duncan, interestingly, I chose the grass. And I think my upbringing was very western- but maybe it is the ‘Taranaki’ in me coming out here. Cows and grass go together like a horse and carriage 😉

  2. Just tried this with my chinese NZ wife and she also chose grass to my chicken! she’s very surprised as there’s not much we disagree on either. Living in Singapore I guess it also helps answer the initial questions I get asked when meeting a new local chinese… in this order: where are you from? What do you do? Where do you stay? How much do you pay? How much do you earn? Are you married? And finally… what is your name?

  3. Pingback: Cultural differences – Americans and Cambodians | Savong School Cambodia

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