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.
ALFREED A. KNOPH, Nonfiction.
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.
“Of course, it is dangerous to generalize,” says Jen. “But it’s not helpful to say there is no difference when there is difference. Whether or not there is an ‘East’ or a ‘West,’ exactly, there is still an East-West culture gap. A lot of my readers have recognized classroom, generational, business and legal issues, and seen a way of making sense of them.”
Building on Richard E. Nisbett’s acclaimed East-West study “The Geography of Thought,” Jen defines two types of selves on a spectrum. The West honors the independent, or what Jen calls the “avocado pit” self, which revolves around self-definition. This type of self perceives objects in isolation, looking for cause-and-effect and categories. Wary of the collective, it revers choice, creativity and the loner unbound by society. It believes itself to be unique — and may secretly fear it is not.
Eastern cultures, by contrast, embrace interdependent selves, which begin with duty. This “flexi” self thinks holistically, valuing mastery over genius, the rules over the exceptional. It attunes people to their environment, to emphasize relationships and look to a larger cause.
“A flexi-self isn’t passive,” says Jen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants in America. “They actively shape their own world. They have their own voice and are capable of risk-taking and initiative. Like most selves, they have parts of both.”
Japan, too, appears as a hybrid. Jen notes that in tests of individualism, Japanese answers are “interestingly complex,” with the people of Hokkaido scoring highest in terms of independence. Japanese culture stresses group harmony, but it is fun to see the divergence from Chinese people, whose flexi-selves can frustrate the Japanese.
Parts of the book feel discursive, and some examples are tweaked into patterns. But while Jen may come short in academia — for hard science, she refers readers to Qi Wang’s “The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture” — she does engage with her novelist’s sensibility, which finds truth in people’s lived experiences. Indeed, it is here where the book appears most successful.
Above all, “The Girl at the Baggage Claim” invites introspection. It helps us to see ourselves as others see us and rethink our own place on the spectrum of selves. As the U.S. notes historical highs in individualism (U.S. President Donald Trump being the epitome of this), the expectation there is to be special, with even Dr. Seuss, the beloved author of children’s books, demanding of preschoolers, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” Between personal branding and noisy self-realization, might a more natural path to happiness be a mix between East and West?
“The tendency in the contemporary West has been to look down, not only on the East but on Westerners who do not embrace extreme individualism,” says Jen. “As the power dynamics have changed, Americans have become more open to other ways of being.”
And if increasing wealth tends to boost individualism, should we all brace ourselves for more avocado-pit selves in the East?
“Thanks to capitalism,” Jen agrees, “both in the U.S. and Asia, the pressure is toward greater individualism. The question is whether with greater awareness we can modify that individualism and live the lives we want to be living. Hybrid lives, with both creativity and connection. I think that we can.”