Culture clash in a Claremont center that integrates Eastern and Western thought

For years the China Project at the Center for Process Studies in Claremont was known in Chinese as an institute. So the steady stream of Chinese scholars who came to study there arrived with certain expectations.

In China, after all, an institute is by definition an impressive place — not a single room below ground level.

“The institute is so well known in our field I had imagined that it would at least be in a big fancy building,” said Xiuhua Zhang, a professor of Marxist theory and Western philosophy at Beijing’s prestigious China University of Political Science and Law, who spent this year at the center. “I never expected it to be such a tiny place. So many people crowded together in one small office without even dividers. The bookshelves and the desks blend together. And it’s in a basement!”


Noting such reactions, those organizing the scholars’ visits have tried to downgrade assumptions. What once they called in Chinese an “institute,” they now refer to more humbly as a “center.”

But cultural expectations are hard things to pin down. And in fast-growing, ever-more-modern China, they keep changing.

Take Zhang’s other surprise upon arrival at the center, which is located on the campus of Claremont School of Theology. She had been told she would be living with an American host family. She thought blond. She thought rich. She expected lots of children and a pool and many gadgets.

Then she met her host, Madhuri Bhattacharya, 69, an Indian immigrant and a widow living alone in a simple house.

There was no pool, and few modern amenities — fewer, in fact, than she was used to back home. “I even have an HD flat-screen TV at home in Beijing,” Zhang said, surprised that her American host did not.

Few people outside academia are likely to know of the Claremont center, whose focus is on process thought, which sees reality as developmental and in a process of becoming. But the center has celebrity status among some Chinese scholars — who view process theory as a way to integrate the best of Eastern and Western thinking to create a model for China’s development.

Zhihe Wang is the founder of the China Project, which occupies a small space within the cramped Process Center. He and his wife Meijun Fan almost singlehandedly put process theory on the map in China and have brought hundreds of officials and scholars to Claremont for conferences and exchanges over the last decade. Originally from China, they both understand how jarring the visits can be.

In fact, Wang understands so well what visitors must be thinking that he’s sometimes tempted to pretend that the theology school’s stately auditorium, just above the center, is part of “the institute,” too.

“You know, Chinese people can’t believe such big ideas can come from this small place,” Wang said. “I must remind them of the Chinese saying that it’s not the size of the mountain that matters but the stature of the monk who resides within.”

The “monk” of greatest stature at the Process Center is its founding co-director, John Cobb, 85 — Chinese scholars usually can’t wait to meet him. But, in person, he hardly fits their image of a distinguished thinker. They are shocked to find that he lives not in a big home with servants but in a small one-bedroom apartment in a Christian retirement community, where he takes care of his elderly wife.

Chinese visitors watch in disbelief as he bends down to tie his wife’s shoelaces. They are stunned when they visit him at home and he leaves the lights off in the living room to conserve energy.

“My first impression was he is living the life of a real communist,” said Yiyu Liu, 27, a graduate student from Beijing Normal University. “My generation grew up in a material world. All we care about is name brands. To see a Westerner with his stature live like that and care about what I have to say, it was a shock.”

Most of the Chinese scholars who visit these days say they are used to more material luxury back home.

“You have to understand I come from a big city. Beijing is a metropolis and Claremont is a small village,” said Zhang. “In Beijing, I live well and eat well. I can hail a taxi and go anywhere and buy anything I need. Here, I don’t have a car and I am always hungry as a wolf.”

Food is the source of some of the major moments of cultural confusion, admits Wang.

“In the U.S. even the best dinners consist of an appetizer, a main course and dessert, but in China that would not be enough,” he said. “During a banquet the food has to flow and there has to be at least a dozen dishes or so.”

There must also be meat.

Once, a Chinese scholar was invited to the home of another process theory professor, who happened to be a vegetarian. The scholar was served what he described as “barbecue roots” — roasted vegetables, including carrots and potatoes.

“Our Chinese scholar took a couple of symbolic bites, put the food down and didn’t touch it again,” said Wang. “It was so embarrassing. The professor is such a prominent figure. He served what he thought was quality food.”

Wang said he chided the visiting scholar a bit: “We told him he should have made more of an effort.”

Even Wang and his wife Fan — who believe they understand Chinese expectations — have disappointed the visitors, he said. Once they invited Chinese students home for pasta, to show them the sort of food Americans eat.

“They didn’t tell me in person, but when they went back to China they told people they had no idea we lived such impoverished lives in America,” said Fan. “But my husband likes to say:if you watch American movies, you’d know even the Mafia eat pasta when they get together.”

These days, she says, she thinks Chinese visitors subconsciously feel superior to — not awed by —Americans.

“They feel like the American economy is in the tank and the Chinese have a higher GDP and fewer debts,” Fan said. “But what we try to teach them is that there are different lifestyles here in America. Not everyone lives lavishly like they do in Hollywood movies.”