Lessons Expats Can Learn From Bruce Lee

“A learned man once went to a Zen master to inquire about Zen. As the Zen master talked, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh yes, we have that too,” and so forth. Finally the zen Master stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man; however, he kept on pouring and the tea cup overflowed. “Enough! No more can go into the cup!”, the learned man interrupted. “Indeed, I see,”, answered the Zen master. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?” – From Artist of Life by Bruce Lee

This story is quoted in a great many of books. In fact, I have read it many times before I came across this story again in Bruce Lee’s book. However, the context in which it was placed this time finally made me come to the realization what its message for expatriates is.

Bruce Lee goes on by writing that “true observation begins when one is devoid of set patterns’ freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond system”. For expatriates, the key learning here is that before we are able to truly comprehend the belief system of another culture, we first need to learn how to look at it without interpreting it from the perspective of our own values, beliefs and mental models.

We need to liberate ourselves from our own set of beliefs before we can acquire a new one.

Of course, it is not possible to completely devoid ourselves of the values and beliefs which we have internalized throughout our lifetime and to stop ourselves from acting upon them. Rather, we have to learn how to look at different behavioural patterns without using the standards of our own culture right in the moment where it occurs.

What this requires of us to do is to be able to describe the different behaviour as objective as possible while suspending judgement for the time being. We first need to observe, not to interpret or to evaluate.

In doing so, we do not completely rid ourselves of our cultural conditioning, but rather we learn to look at the behaviour of people from different cultural backgrounds while for a moment putting off the lens we commonly use to interpret the world.

One concept of Kung Fu is no-mindedness, which Bruce Lee describes as a state in which we “let the mind think what it likes without interference by the separate thinker or ego within oneself. So long as it thinks what it wants, there is absolutely no effort in letting it go”. Just like when we practice no-mindedness by not interfering with our thoughts, we can learn to observe somebody’s behaviour without having any immediate thoughts of interpreting the behaviour. We clear ourselves of all judgment.


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