In our age of cultural sensitivity — and vocal aversion to stereotypes — it takes nerve to compare East and West. Kudos then to Gish Jen, an award-winning novelist (“Typical American”) and former lecturer at Harvard University, for venturing into the fray and adding insight. Her new nonfiction work “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” holds that our concepts of self are shaped by our culture, leading to contrasting worldviews in Asia and the West.
Through research and anecdotes focusing on China and the U.S., Jen argues that values of individual-versus-community inform how we perceive and express, how we make art and tell stories and how we see child-rearing, education and family. Along the way, we learn why Chinese authors can sign books for another writer, and why South Koreans, during university entrance exams, reroute air traffic away from test sites and forbid proctors from wearing high heels.