Thursday, October 8, 2009

The asian way: it's me versus we

When I came the first time to Asia some years ago one thing I learned form travel books was, that the main difference between Asian and western culture is the focus on either the individual or the group. I learned that Asian culture focuses on the family, the village, the country. The individual doesn't really count. And western culture is totally pointing on the individual, with individual rights and since some years the change in society from large families to double-income-no-kids.

After two years I think this is wrong. Actually the asian culture from a single persons perspective is way more about Me then We. The family, the community, the country, it might be important but only for the own advantage. The family is a insurance: You get food when you need, shelter, borrow money. But most people use it as a system. And complain when other members ask for that service. Whatever people do they try to get a personal advantage first. Then they look what is left for the community. That's how business works in Asia.

Western culture may give individuals some rights, but that's only for the countries best. Like Kennedy said, don't ask what you country does for you, ask what you can do for your own country. That's a We-perspective. Even business looks for sustainability. for long term. It's important that the system will grow and stay, so all efforts are for profit but also for keeping the system alive.

You won't find that in the asian culture. Nobody cares for higher purposes. The money that comes in today counts/ If the system fails, so what, there will be another system. If my auntie doesn't boroow me money I ask my grandfather.

I know that this is controvers, and I might be wrong. I also don't want to point on Asia and say it's wrong what they do. It's just a experience and observation of the daily life in Asia.


Tim said...

Dead right Thomas. One of the biggest myths about Vietnam is the 'community spirit'. It doesn't exist. Everyone is out for themselves.

2yenTran said...


I've followed your blog for a while and I have to say, I've never been so disappointed. I've so many issues with this post that I'm not even going to bother arguing because I'll end up having to write an essay in rebuttal =). But I have work tomorrow so I don't have the time. But one of the many flaws I want to point out is with how the current financial crisis was brought about by the West, do you really want to claim that Western businesses are all about sustainability?

Thomas Wanhoff said...

2yenTran: You are totally right about the financal crises. Of course I was writing about a kind of general observation. That doesn#t mean that in Asian cultures are no sustainable efforts. That doesn#t also mean that all efforts in the western culture are sustainable. And it doesn't mean that sustainable is right or wrong at all.
Of course my point of view is a western point, and the collective society was what I learned in school.
Oh, and yes, it SHOULD start a discussion. I want to know more about differences and similarities. so I would really appreciate any comment from you.

James said...

Thomas, what you said perfectly sinks up with my two and a half years here in Asia.

Just watch the motorbikes at any busy intersection or when construction narrows the road. People cut others off to get somewhere two seconds faster but delay 50 people ten seconds. People drive on the sidewalk to get someplace a little quicker and destroy the sidewalk in the process. No one thinks about the consequences long term. It seems no one can see past their nose when it comes to traffic in Vietnam.

Thomas Wanhoff said...

James, actually you would see the same picture on a contruction work in western countries. Most traffic jams happen not because of accidents but because of fast driving and sudden breaking. That's not a difference. What I was talking about was Asian culture (and not particulary Vietnamese) in general and the pictures we have a bout it.
I know that younger people support the older, but the price is high: I know cases where the girls are not able to study because their mother use them as a driver and sending them to the market to buy food while mum is at home doing nothing.
Sadly, I did not get an answer from 2yenTran here anymore, I just hope you are too busy. I would like to know your arguments.

James said...

Thomas, I am not sure I communicated what I wanted with the construction example. But let's go back to the original point you made in your post,

"Asian culture focuses on the family, the village, the country...[while]western culture is totally pointing on the individual...After two years I think this is wrong. Actually the asian culture from a single persons perspective is way more about Me then We."

First, I had the same thought after studying in Vietnam the first time. We read the "Literature" and after a few months I thought it was bunk. Now, maybe things have changed drastically between the time those sentiments were forming and my coming here but I am going to assume that possibility away in my analysis.

I think Vietnamese folks are just as individually oriented as we are in the west, though they have certain prominent cultural entities that would cause one to see a collectivist we attitude if they only looked superficially. Examples of this are the various Confucianist ideas: parents are always right no matter what, an emphasis on a strict, unquestionable hierarchy etc.

Outside of those narrow cases, Vietnamese folks behave very similar to Westerners. As you pointed out from my examples, Vietnamese folks drive just like us. They try to privatize profits and socialize the cost of externalities like any person in the West. I'd use all the monopolization of sidewalks for commercial activity as an example or all the trash just dropped in the nearest canal.

Also, as you point out, Confucianist ideas are used to justify holding members of the family back not for the good of the family as a whole but for the good of one member, specifically a member on a higher rung of the hierarchy.

Now, like you, I am not a cultural imperialist. I don't mean this to be taken as reasons why the west is better then the east or vis versa. Heaven knows, as 2YenTran pointed out, we have our own problems. Problems that are massive and due to cultural artifacts we've inherited very similar to the way Vietnam inherited Confucianism. My comments are meant strictly to make sense of experienced from the last two years.

In conclusion, I'd say that I agree with you in that conventional wisdom about the collectivism in Vietnamese society is superficial and should undergo some thoughtful revision.