By Dylan Zhang
For me, a society is like a puzzle or a chessboard, with every culture being a unique piece.
Sometimes, combinations of various cultural beliefs and practices will result in a society with different norms and values. The case is similar with the individual citizens of a nation, who adapt their cultural beliefs and practices. Often, those beliefs and practices are modified in numerous ways by individuals based on what they see, how they think and act, and how they interpret them in different ways. As for me, an American whose parents came from China, my cultural exposure in the U.S. is probably fairly typical of the American melting pot, yet Chinese culture also plays a prominent role — through the Mandarin Chinese my parents speak to me and the countless Chinese proverbs that I have been taught — in my own values and my role as an individual, and as a citizen, in American society.
“Harmony, but not uniformity” — 和而不同 — was an ancient proverb said by Confucius, who founded Confucianism, a philosophy based on good morals. He believed in human-centered virtues for living a peaceful life. In this particular proverb, “harmony” means to set aside our differences and respect them in order to coexist peacefully. “Uniformity” is to attempt to obliterate all the differences — this is bad because, without diversity, we wouldn’t have anyone to learn from, since we would all see, act, think, or look the same. A society without diversity will in turn slow down innovation and lower the quality of our lives. Today, in the age of globalization, this proverb rings loud and clear to me — especially when we think about how to deal with differences, since now our world is more interconnected and most countries have an assortment of cultures within their borders.Each of these unique cultures in a society or a nation applies and promotes its own values, and sometimes these values can conflict with each other, even about simple things, such as eating from communal or individual dishes, or what to wear to a wedding or funeral.
In society, being a citizen means to have certain rights and to be recognized as a full member of a nation. Many modern societies have a whole mix of different people, and we must respect each other as members of said society and honor each other’s rights. To live in harmony, we cannot try to force others to conform to our beliefs. Each one of us should be able to practice our own culture as we wish.
In my personal circle of life, what this proverb has taught me about my role as a citizen is that, in order to maintain a functional society, I need to learn and respect the values and teachings of other cultures, even if there are conflicts between our beliefs and practices. Confucius and many important people in Chinese history believed this was the way to reach a harmonious world with coexistence and peace between diverse cultures. The school I go to now in Winston Salem, North Carolina — the Hanes Magnet School — is filled with a unique mix of students with varied cultural, racial, and historical backgrounds. I have friends whose parents are from Greece, Italy, India, and many other places. Because of this, I am exposed to a lot of diversity in the people I interact with, which has helped me realize the importance of living alongside cultures different from mine in order for me to learn and grow.
The harmony aspect of Confucius’ proverb doesn’t just mean respecting distinctions, it also means pairing those differences in a way that benefits everyone and allows us to better ourselves. Here I’d like to use my experience at our school as an example. Every semester, my teachers assign a huge group project with many components. When working with these groups, it’s important for each project member to do what suits them best. With one person doing research, another organizing information, and a third focusing on the presentation, we are able to create a stronger final project in a shorter amount of time. Just like this, in society, people are constantly “living in harmony,” pairing up their differences to try to achieve better results for the community as well as for each individual. People from diverse experiences and backgrounds — cultural, historical, and racial — working to better themselves and their community can be seen in many aspects of our day-to-day life, whether it is collaborating with coworkers at a job or trying to solve a problem at school with classmates.
This brings me to another big idea from Confucius: that society is built upon relationships. He believed there are five key types of relationships and that if each person performs his or her role correctly, a country can be correctly governed. From my perspective, however, all relationships matter in a society, from the interaction I have with a cashier in a Walmart, to saying sorry when I bump into a stranger. I think that if we treat each person with respect, we can live in “harmony.” In my personal life, this could mean doing my fair share of housework or showing appreciation to my family members for what they do. This could apply to my school life as well, where I value treating my teachers and peers with respect, being responsible, and trying to socialize more with new people. These are all important aspects to try to contribute as an individual to a better, more harmonious “society.”
Right now I am still trying to find my way in my society, and trying to see how my values as an individual citizen should fit in the American melting pot. But wisdom from Confucius and from my Chinese culture has given me insight into the relationship of a citizen to society. With the proverb “harmony but not uniformity,” I’ve realized that harmony is necessarily not just coexisting, but utilizing our differences to create mutual benefits. Thus, we as citizens can help each other exercise our rights in a way that improves not only ourselves, but the society which we are members of. My values are not completely known even to myself yet, however I’m positive that I will try to respect people from different cultures in my life, which will in turn strengthen my relationships, strengthen myself, and strengthen our society and nation as a whole.
Dylan Zhang was 15 years old when he wrote this piece. Born in Winston Salem, North Carolina, he is a ninth grader at Hanes Magnet School. He plays violin and likes to watch movies.