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.

2 thoughts on “Westernized… or not”

  1. I’ve thought about this for a number of years, it was actually my impression of Hong Kong after having time to process experience: some things look a little western, but they end up being no such thing underneath.

    I think Western culture will never obscure or eliminate any ancient culture: for one thing, it is modern and shallow (at least the commercially visible parts that get transported), anymore than Japanese anime will make Americans into Japanese. And thank God for differences.

    These kind of things may be like post-Colonial fads; the next fad may be something different. There’s some interesting cyberpunk lit that reverses the notion: some steampunk stuff and the movie “Serenity” are about the West being heavily influenced by Chinese culture, and “Robocop” was about Japanese corporations taking over the US (how 80s).

    It is interesting to me as a Western person though that the giddy exterior is so popular, when there’s so much confusion and lack of coherent cultural narrative below the surface. And trying to hard to create one can have monstorous or inauthentic results.

    On that note, having also read your note about teenagers, I wonder if the US model of teenager years is necessarily so great. Maybe cultures that do have an enduring deeper tradition needn’t go through six years of formulating one’s own individuality. Perhaps rather something is broken about the way in which the collective idenitity is taught and though about.

  2. I was a little disappointed that the Chinese teenager article didn’t include a strong critique of American teenage-hood; the comparison was rigged, I thought, even if there is a legitimate point to be made about personal development in China. It’s like we set kids up to have this big unnecessary identity crisis, and then pat ourselves on the back for providing the cultural context in which they can come out of it (never mind that many people never do), extending adolescence into people’s late 20s in the process. Why do we (as a society) assume it’s good and necessary for children to be estranged from their parents for a third of their pre-adult years?

Leave a Reply!