I used to unconsciously assume that modernization = Westernization. After all, it’s our technology and science that grew out of our worldview, our Industrial Revolution… Surely societies can’t absorb all that and remain unWestern. Surely adopting these things must make their culture almost unrecognizable within one or two generations…
I don’t know if Kishore Mahbubani engages in wishful thinking or accurately describes reality when he says that, although many Western ideas, values, and assumptions have seeped into virtually all non-Western minds, “the hearts and souls of other civilizations remain intact” (112). Before we’d come to Taiwan, I would have assumed that sentiments like that were just wishful thinking. Now, after a year of observations (which certainly doesn’t make us experts!), conversations, work, play, and readings I’m not so sure he’s wrong to see this kind of Western influence as essentially a “veneer” (112).
Michael Harris Bond makes an important observation, I think, in Beyond the Chinese Face:
It is worth noting in passing that modernization began in Western countries earlier than it did elsewhere. It entailed just as dramatic changes in these Western countries as it did (and will) in other countries. To confuse modernization with Westernization is to confuse process with origin. Western countries are also changing under the impact of modernization. The question is whether all countries are converging (or developing toward the same end point) (112).
Mahbubani and Bond both refuse to equate modernization with Westernization, and I’m tempted to agree with them. A year ago I would have called Japan ‘westernized’ and I bet that’s probably accurate regarding certain aspects of the culture. But the hearts and minds of the people? They are different for all our influence, no doubt. But Taiwan was influenced in similar ways by the USA during the same era and I can’t call the Taiwanese westernized. Even the young, trendy, rich kids that drink coffee in knock-off $tarbuckses, play guitar, and dress and pose like they stepped out of a Hollywood movie still seem much more like wannabes than truly Western. It’s kind of sad actually, both that they would seemingly want to ditch their culture for ours, and that for most of them that’s an impossible goal. Their mothers are Chinese, and most of them will never step foot outside Asia. Even the little kids we teach, who prefer McDonald’s and KFC to any kind of Chinese food, struggle to perform exercises in class that cater to typically Western modes of thinking rather than Asian modes of education. When it comes to our same-age friends here, many of whom are young, trendy, and traveled, the more we get to know them, the more we realize just how much like us they aren’t.
But regardless of my anecdotal impressions, some research apparently bears this out:
Yang Kuo-shu’s studies on the modernity of Taiwanese people show that traditional and modern attitudes do not exist in opposition to one another. Those who are modern are not necessarily non-traditional. …The Oriental culture appears to be producing a marked variation in the profile of a modern person from what one would find in a Western culture (Bond, 114).
Even a few generations after WWII, I’m betting that the Japanese are more Asian than Western and will continue to be so for a long time. Which, if you think about it, is amazing given their 20th century history. Mahbubani says of his experience with Asian students that come to the U.S. for study that Japanese university students have the toughest time adjusting. He attributes this to the cultural cohesion from which they come.
Still, I have a hard time imagining a non-Western society adopting technology or entertainment developed in the West, by the West, for the West, in response to Western cultural needs/desires, and not being somewhat “Westernized.” Form and meaning aren’t the same thing, but I wonder if that relationship is tighter than we often think, especially when the forms are in part predetermined by the meaning. How will our communication technologies, which increase our individual autonomy and our interpersonal alienation in the highly individualistic West, affect individuals and relationships in more relationally-oriented and interdependent cultures? Bond talks about how the Chinese are conscious of the struggle between modernization and cultural identity, and seems to suggest that “selective adaptation” may be a real possibility.
I don’t know, but it’s interesting to observe as we live in times and places of rapid change.