When I arrived in Asia in 1984, everything was so new that my mind simply would not take in what it saw. I wandered around bug-eyed, marveling at everything but feeling content. I thought, “Isn’t it wonderful that I’m not experiencing any culture shock.” Two things I was ignoring were the fact that the actual shock was not due until later—when it did come—and the fact that my nightly retreats into British murder mysteries certainly qualified as trying to escape from my environment.
Few seasoned travelers to the East would consider referring to it as “mystic”; the realities are far too prosaic. But certainly it was puzzling. Coming here was a bit like stepping through the looking-glass or into the twilight zone, a place without easy answers. In Asia I sensed that the more I learned, the more incomprehensible everything became. I might as easily have been looking at some complex linguistics problem and seeing that the mechanical procedure toward a solution was clear enough, but the underlying theory was totally elusive. The questions never seemed big enough for the answers.
So on that first trip to Asia I put a cap on my ignorance by saying half-jokingly, “It’s very simple. Everything in the East is the exact opposite of what it is in the West.” Trying to live in a state of expecting the unexpected just seemed more realistic than looking for the “normal” things of the “real world” I had left behind. Since then my list has expanded to include observations from Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
- DATES. In Europe, and often in the United States, you write the date in the order of the smallest to the largest measurement unit–the day, the month, the year. In the Asia—in modern times when the years are designated by number, rather than by name—it’s the year, the month, the day.
- ADDRESSES. Traditionally, the same reverse order applied to an address on an envelope. Westerners begin with the specific individual, the addressee, on the first line and end with the country on the last, Koreans with the reverse. However, in recent years, as a friend explained, the Korean government has asked postal service users to put the name of the addressee on the first line, then follow the rule of largest to smallest unit. She added, “It’s the same thinking that Park Chung-hee appealed to when he asked us to make sacrifices for the good of the nation. The largest thing is the most important.” In both parts of the world, the focus on either the largest unit or on the smallest unit, the group or the individual, is characteristic of the culture.
- MAPS. In the West, a city map is ordered by lines, that is, by streets and street names, which determine addresses. In Korea, neighborhood maps are ordered not by lines, but by space. Areas are divided into sections of increasingly smaller size, called ku [areas] and dong [precincts]. If the building or complex is not well known, the address will include a block number specifying the exact location. Visitors are often baffled by tourist maps on which only the most important streets are named and all of the minor streets are missing altogether. Ask for a street and house number, and you’ll probably get directions, usually from some nearby landmark. In general, Asians seem to be rather vague in giving directions, as if the specifics are not import, except in the case of those they have to give often.
- SPACE. As an object, the cross, main symbol of Christianity, conforms to the masculine concept of space. The vertical and horizontal beams extend into space to master it, to control it. Buddhist art follows the feminine principle of enclosing space, like the Buddha’s hands forming an oval. My undergraduate sculpture instructor used to say, “I don’t know why my women students never understand space.” To me he said, “You can always tell when a sculpture student learned to make pots first. All her sculpture pieces look like pots.” Hen women sculptors like Kate Millet opened new galleries in order to show their work, and it was clear then that in the West women’s concept of space was different from men’s, more Asian.CO
- PERSPECTIVE. Often travelers are amazed when they see something familiar in a new light, as I was when I stood in front of a mountain that looked like a painting. As many times as I had seen traditional Asian painting with houses and trees and animals painted one above the other, I had thought—and I think I had read—that the paintings showed a peculiar Oriental concept of perspective. It had never occurred to me that the artist could have walked to a mountain which rose straight up in the air and simply painted what was there.
- CONVERSATION. In the West, the ritual of getting to know someone usually includes talking about common and neutral topics, like the weather. What people are actually doing, of course, is not communicating information about the weather, but exchanging positive nonverbal cues–making eye contact, showing interest through body language and tone of voice, sharing time with each other. Personal information about yourself is something you offer, in small doses at first, to the other. But Asians seldom talk about the weather, apart from perhaps remarking that it’s nice weather or it’s started raining. When Koreans get together, they exchange rapid-fire personal questions, particularly about the other person’s family. The object of the conversation seems to be to come away with as much information about the other’s personal life as possible. Determining relative status is necessary in order to know how to address each other. Failure to participate in the exchange of questions by asking in return is interpreted as a sign of complete lack of interest in the other person. What reminds Westerners of a police investigation is merely polite behavior. So one cultures volunteer personal information, the other asks for it.
- MANNERS. Western cultures foster certain attitudes about the individual, as opposed to the group. At an early age you are taught not to push people, including strangers. “Politeness” often simply means making it possible for others to ignore you, by not making noise, not touching, not interrupting. In Asia politeness may mean intruding into someone’s awareness, announcing yourself and offering your respect. Traditional Confucian manners are used only within relationships—among colleagues, neighbors, relatives—and with careful attention to who is superior and inferior, older or younger. People you don’t know, people you have no relationship with, are nonentities and may be pushed and shoved aside on subways–within certain limits, which vary widely in parts of Asia. Nowadays a new distinction is made between “politeness” to those you know and “courtesy” toward those you don’t, as new rules are being imported from the West.
- SAVING FACE. A hotel guest tells the desk clerk there is no hot water in her room and asks whether it can be fixed that day. Out of habit he tells her what she wants to hear and saves face for the hotel by not admitting that would be a problem. He assures her it will be done by the time she gets back from her afternoon meetings. It isn’t. She has been looking forward to a hot bath and is furious about having been lied to. In another case a Chinese girl introduces her Western boyfriend, a laboratory technician, as a doctor and the department head in a prestigious hospital. Afterwards, when he confronts her she says she didn’t think it was that important.
- OFFICE COMMUNICATION. What seems to Westerners like normal lateral interaction, interaction among people on the same level of the hierarchy, often does not take place in traditional Korean or Chinese institutions. All the interaction is vertical, bottom-up or top-down. For example, in Korean business, the chairman ultimately controls everything, and a great deal of energy is expended on all lower levels of the hierarchy interpreting and misinterpreting what the chairman wants. There appears to be a gross, debilitating inefficiency.
- CONTRACTS. Asians take a long-term view of things and consider relationships very important, which means getting to know each other, usually over drinks, before coming to the negotiating table. Between Koreans it makes a difference how the relationship is formed, for example through an introduction by a reliable third party. Westerners who fly into Seoul probably are primarily interested in the terms of the contract and want them to be as specific as possible, just in case they later need to go to court. That doesn’t mean they don’t consider business relationships to be important. They do. But they want to develop relationships over time depending on how well each of the parties meets the terms of the agreement. And they may not want to get back on a plane the next day with a hangover. For Koreans the contract is pretty simple and is not taken as seriously as the relationship, whereas for the Westerner sticking to the terms of the contract is an ethical matter. So immediately there’s a conflict because people have different expectations.
- STATUS. In Western law, the two parties to an agreement are supposedly equal, whereas in Korea it depends a great deal on the position of the parties, Status gives the person bargaining power and more authority to see that the other party follows through with the terms of the contract. The Asia n viewpoint may be much more realistic.
- NETWORKS. In Western businesses emphasis is placed on individual initiative, in Japan and Korea on maintaining group harmony. In Korea society contains many complex networks of relationships which determine how people relate to each other—not as individuals, but as classmates, colleagues, subordinates of colleagues. Guanxi, the Chinese word for “connections” or “networks” is all-important. On the phone someone will ask not who you are but what work unit you’re calling from.
- COLLECTIVISM. In Asian collectivist society, a person‘s identity is tied to the group or groups—such as family, close friends, and schoolmates—that the individual belongs to and is held responsible for Because group members are held together in a network of interpersonal ties which are difficult or impossible to break, a collectivist culture is also a relationship-based culture and are often unable to interact freely with people from other groups. The “we-ness” people feel is both a sense of togetherness and a sense of obligation. “We”does not mean a group of individuals, as it does in the West, but people who feel related in some way and who often sacrifice their own interests in support of the group. In Asia the roots are in the ancient agrarian collectivism, which is obviously quite different from the collectivism of modern socialist countries. Its Western opposite is individualism, emphasis on the integrity of the individual, and the communities which form in it.
- LANGUAGE. Asian countries are said to have “hard” ethnic boundaries, as opposed to the “soft” boundaries found in North America and Europe. Language is a component of the ethnic boundary. Korean parents who take their families abroad will be harshly criticized when they return if the children have no longer speak Korean like natives. I was struck by this particularly since my family went to Europe when the youngest child was two years old. A year later, he’d forgotten his English. When the relatives were gathered in my grandparents’ living room, someone hoisted him up on the piano and said, “Ricky, say something to us in Luxembourgish.” The little boy looked around the room and saw all these people who didn’t speak his language, and h he hardly spoke for six months until he learned English. A Korean family would not have thought his speaking a foreign language was cute.
- RESPECT. Respect is sincere good feeling for someone and a good opinion of someone’s character and ideas. It is a state of mind which is shown by listening and observing carefully, taking care not to step over personal boundaries or disobey laws or break taboos. Asians may be shocked at the informal behavior they see between teachers and students, younger and older Westerners and miss the nonverbal signs of respect that a Westerner might find obvious. In Asia behavior is often much more formal, with higher-ranking people treated with deference—that is, is polite yielding or obedience to the opinion, wishes or judgment of another. Courteous respect for rank is shown by some humbling behavior, such as bowing or lowering of the eyes or voice; and a show of exaggerated politeness.
- JUNIOR-SENIOR. In Korea university students distinguish sharply between “junior” and “senior,” including male university students only a few years apart. The older person offers advice based on his experience which the younger person accepts. The junior person will put his beer behind him and allow himself only hasty sips rather than drink casually with his “senior.” As the oldest member of the group is often expected to buy the beer. In Korea one of my best friends was a former student and colleague twenty years my junior. If we’d both been Korean, “friendship” would not have been possible.
- ROLES. In the West the idea that all people are equal is the basis for our deeply-held feeling of equality. Often our behavior falls short of this ideal, but the fact that we have the concept is significant. In modern families, parents try to treat their children alike, although we certainly did not have this idea a hundred years ago. In Asia roles are assigned to the children according to age and gender. The duties of the first son are different from the duties of the first daughter or the younger children, so that the relationship to the parents is different. While the original Confucian code placed an equally high value on each gender, it also established a hierarchy.
- SEXISM—I n Korea—where a young, pretty blond woman had a good chance of being sexually harassed two or three times a week—Western women often found the sexism intolerable and left after a year or two, perhaps with resentments against formerly “sensitive” Western men who seemed to leap over to the other side once it was socially acceptable to do so. Many male expats find local wives and girlfriends to look after them. Recently it has become apparent that the situation has been improving. For example, the younger generation of bureaucrats, security guards, and other men in officialdom no longer seems to find it necessary to be rude to someone simply because she is a woman.
- SEX. Concepts of sexuality and acceptable dress are also different, although the Western obsession with the female bosom is spreading rapidly. Among my students there has been considerable criticism of the Miss Korea Pageant because the standards used were clearly Western, and the successful candidates those women who looked the most white. On the other hand, the stereotype of whites is of tall, blond, hairy people who are over-endowed sexually and inclined to promiscuous behavior. Among whites in the West, similar stereotypes are often applied to black people. This is a manifestation of the Wild Man archetype, the unacknowledged animal creature within, that all cultures project onto outsiders.
- MALE PREFERENCE. Among the common people from ancient times to the present, having male children is considered essential for the survival of the parents. Male preference still takes the extreme forms. In Korea after amniocentesis has been performed, doctors are not allowed to tell the parents the sex of the fetus because the abortions of female fetuses have led to a gross imbalance in the population. In Korea the family passes from father to son. Females are not included in the patrilineal order.
- PARENTS. Most Westerners consider being a good parent to be a top priority. For us, part of being a good parent is fostering independence in our children, to the extent that when parents exercise tight control over the behavior of adult children the family may be considered “dysfunctional.” Using guilt or a sense of indebtedness to influence someone else’s behavior—your own child or not—is called “manipulative” and inherently unfair. In the Asia it is a common abuse of the Confucian ethic. Also in Asia, a common stereotype of the Western family is that we through the children out of the home at the age of eighteen to fend for themselves, whether or not they are ready or willing to do so.
- CHILDREN. Being a good parent is of course also important in Korea, but much more emphasis is placed on filial loyalty, and that means obedience, even as an adult, even on matters strictly within the bounds of the child’s marital relationship. Traditionally, the main duty of the oldest son’s wife was to serve his parents, and she was selected with that duty in mind. Many marriages are still arranged, particularly among the well-to-do. Family ties bind you forever. At one time the first son spent the three years following his parents’ death in a grass hut beside their burial mounds. Today family members still show their respect for the departed ancestors in traditional ceremonies in order to stay in touch with who they are and perhaps to learn from the ancestors how to conduct their lives.
- EMOTIONS. We share with our companion animals a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises. This is innate. Anything else is culturally determined. So for example Chinese students may want roommates because they are afraid of feeling lonely, while a foreign student may want a private room to guarantee privacy.
- GUILT AND SHAME. Western cultures have been called “guilt cultures,” with the control of the individual coming from within, and some non-Western cultures “shame cultures,” with control coming from other people’s perception of a person’s behavior. This is a cultural distinction my students immediately recognize to be valid, although certainly few of them are free from guilt, just as Westerners are hardly free from shame. Interestingly enough, it is clear that in the Middle Ages, when European societies had a more pronounced vertical hierarchy than they do now and the individual was less important than relationships of loyalty, those cultures were also “shame cultures.” For example, medieval German verse tales–which are as didactic as Chinese literature–show very clearly that you are what others think you are, not what you judge yourself to be. Westerners in a position of authority need to be particularly careful in giving criticism to subordinates and students from a shame culture. The effect may be much harsher than what was intended.
- DISTANCE FROM GOD. Religious practice in West and East are based on much different notions. In Christianity human beings are by nature bad, that is, removed from God, filled with their inherited “original sin.” In Buddhism, human beings are by nature good. All sentient beings have “Buddha-nature,” although most people are not conscious of this. To put it in Christian terms, “the kingdom of heaven is within.
- SOULS. According to Joseph Campbell, basic to Western religion is the notion of the individual soul, which develops as an individual entity—”for each soul one birth, one death, one destiny, one maturation of the personality.” Popular Christianity has people meeting up with loved ones in heaven. But in Asia what is passed on from one being to the next is an essence without the traits of an individual earthly personality. In Buddhism the notion that a human being is an individual entity in his or her own right is regarded as an illusion.
These are some of the differences I’ve found between the West and the Asian countries I’ve lived in—Korea, particularly, but also China and the Philippines. Full discussion from a mostly Western perspective, but with Korean input, is available in Bridges: Intercultural Conversation (Link)