Westernized… or not

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.

The god of Individualism

Just how individualistic is America? Or, how might American individualism appear to someone from a non-Western society? Kishore Mahbubani‘s critique of what he calls one of our cultural “sacred cows” is one example of how our values and the societies they’ve spawned might look to people who did not grow up with those same values. From Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West:

…freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent, and children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. … But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences. … the West’s relative decline is being brought about by its own hand (97-98).

Coming from a society and culture which does not value individualism in the ways that we do, Mahbubani sees a connection between our social decay, which in his mind entails legitimate human rights concerns, and our obsession with giving freedom to the individual.

I think he’s describing the picture of what happens when each person worships him or herself and thus collectively support ideology and legislation that promote and facilitate the pursuit of self-worship. We each want to be on the throne of the universe, or at least our own individual little universes; we can’t tolerate the idea that anyone or any thing superior to us would be over us. Just in case you were wondering. ;)

I don’t look back to an idealized past; I would not want to return to the world that produced Leave It To Beaver. But regardless of how accurate or not we may think Mahbubani’s particulars are, I think it’s worth it to reconsider our assumption that human society is best when individuals are afforded such an extreme degree of freedom. The private choices of individuals have public consequences; isn’t there some sort of responsibility factor in there somewhere?

Can Asians Think?

No – we’re not in the throes of culture shock. Here’s Kishore Mahbubani’s explanation for that title in his own words:

It represents essentially two questions folded into one. The first, addressed to my fellow Asians, reads “Can you think? If you can, why have Asian societies lost a thousand years and slipped far behind the European societies that they were far ahead of at the turn of the last millennium? …”

The second question, addressed primarily to my friends in the West, is “Can Asians think for themselves?” … Most Westerners cannot see that they have arrogated to themselves the moral high ground from which they lecture the world. The rest of the world can see this (10).

He goes on to make the point that, if there is to be any meaningful discussion between Asians and Westerners, then we’ve got to quit assuming and acting like our civilization is morally superior (60-61). And that the virtually unstoppable economic and demographic forces currently in play guarantee that “the West” will have to take the worldview of “the Rest” seriously sooner or later.

Can Asian’s Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West is basically the geopolitical opinions and predictions of a career Asian diplomat in which he highlights the vast gulf between Eastern and Western minds. Since I’m not personally into the politics and comprehend even less about economics, the book’s value for me is that it’s the perspective of an educated Asian who’s familiar with the West and has spent a lifetime engaged in cross-cultural/international dialogue. I think his question to us is worth considering – and soon we (as a culture) may not have the luxury of ignoring it anyway.

The nature of the world we live in will increasingly require of us (Westerners) to be open to having foundational assumptions/values of our culture questioned by people who don’t and never have shared those assumptions/values.

If we in “the West” are ever going to afford those in “the Rest” a base level of respect and dignity (as in, we’d dialogue with them as equals), we’re going to have to give up a lot of cherished assumptions. Or we’ll at least have to allow those assumptions to be questioned and take those questions seriously. Many of our cultural “sacred cows” (“freedom,” individualism/individual actualization, democracy, etc.) are precisely what many Easteners have issues with. These guys criticize individualism, freedom of the press, the way we do “human rights” – and they’re serious:

…when I tried … to challenge the universal applicability of democracy, human rights, or freedom of the press, I discovered that these values had become virtual “sacred cows.” No one could challenge their instrinsic worth. Worse still, when I persisted I was greeted with sniggers, smug looks, and general derision (59-60).

And this was his reception at Harvard.

My point is not that it’s wrong to believe that our culture’s particular values are right. But how can we suggest ways of thinking and living (as the West continually does), assuming that our culture’s particular values are morally superior and universal, when we can’t even comprehend why other cultures object to our ideas in the first place?

If we truly value and respect people, then we’ll take other people seriously even when they really really don’t see eye to eye with us. Eventually we (as a culture) may not have a choice anyway.

And perhaps “the Rest” have perspectives worth listening to? Perhaps, just perhaps, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the Western approach to life is the best possible approach to life?

Related articles:

  • Can Asians think? The struggle of Asian societies to thrive in the modern world while maintaining their cultural heritage. By Kishore Mahbubani.
  • “Can Asians think?” Singapore’s ambassador to the U.N. talks about his controversial new book and the gulf between Western and Eastern minds. By Suzy Hansen (Salon interview)
  • It’s True. Asians Can’t Think. Until it abandons its twisted Confucianism, the region will trail the West. By Sin-Ming Shaw (TimeAsia).
  • ‘Do Your Own Homework’: Asian Students Should Learn to Think for Themselves. When a Vietnamese American author fields anxious e-mails from high school students seeking help with their English essays, he reflects on Asian conformity and the American ego. By Andrew Lam (Pacific News Service).