Saturday, August 03, 2013

Your Culture is Bigger than You

Dear Korean,

I was hoping that you might respond to this review I did of Gish Jen's book on Asian and Western subjectivity. The review is 90 percent summary and expresses a few reservations about the cross-cultural psychologists that Jen relies on to make her generalizations about culture.

I'd be curious to see whether you find this research to be credible. There's no questions that it conforms almost exactly to the "thin and monochromatic" views of the differences between East and West adopted by Westerners, including Malcolm Gladwell, with the (perhaps?) meaningful difference that most of the cross-cultural researchers are Asians from Asia, and that Gish Jen is herself an avowedly Asian American novelist fixated on the question of East and West. While many Asian Americans and other politicized types take strong exception to the generalizations about Asians contained in this body of research, most regular Asians and Asian Americans I ask about seem to more or less agree that the overall schema fits into the pattern of their own experience.

Wesley Yang

If you are wondering because the name of the questioner sounds familiar--yes, it's that Wesley Yang, who wrote the article titled Paper Tigers for the New York Magazine, which elicited a strongly critical response from me. Let me first say this: it takes a remarkable strength of character to have been blasted in a way that Mr. Yang did, and come back for seconds. I am flattered that he is asking for my take; I can only hope I don't disappoint.

Mr. Yang's question is how I feel about the cross-cultural research involving Asian culture. But I see a second, underlying question: in trying to understand Asian culture, how are we to treat our own experience as Asian Americans? The second question, in particular, is important and timely. I just got done blasting non-Asians for trying to essentialize Asia through "cultural explanations." Then what about Asian Americans? How are we to approach our own culture? What do we make of the fact that Gish Jen attempts to explain her father's life through these studies? What are we supposed to think if those studies seems to explain our lives as well?

First question first: how do I feel about research regarding culture? Contrary to what Mr. Yang may think, I am open to them. I will accept the conclusion of the research (with the residual amount of skepticism consistent with the scientific method) if the research is conducted rigorously. The reason for this is simple: clearly, culture affects behavior. As a blogger who writes about Korean culture, it would be strange if I did not recognize this. Accordingly, a rigorously conducted study may well reveal the nexus at which culture translates to behavior. (Of course, normal caveats apply--after all, many studies end up being quite wrong.)

This proposition is so self-evident that it is almost not worth saying out loud. The real question, whose answer is not as self-evident, is: how much do these studies explain? How much do those studies explain the national culture? How much do those studies explain the reality that unfolds before our eyes? And how much do those studies inform our own experience as Asian Americans?

These questions are part and parcel of a larger and more fundamental question: how are we supposed to understand and explain culture? Once we have a solid grasp on this fundamental issue, the rest falls into place.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.




How are we supposed to explain culture? We must begin by making ourselves humble before the magnitude of the task in front of us. Culture is a very large thing. It is a product of interactions among millions of people. We cannot even conclusively explain why a single person takes a certain action. Yet we breezily explain why millions of people take a certain action on the basis of "culture." This makes no sense.

Explaining culture is like explaining the ocean to someone who has never seen it. It may be possible to explain the ocean in just a few phrases. It is a body of water. It is big, and covers 70 percent of the Earth. It is blue; it is fun to play in; a lot of fish live there. But these few sentences never do justice to the true character of the ocean. The ocean is so vast, and contains so many multitudes, that it can either disprove or severely qualify any proposition one may put forth about the ocean. The ocean may be cold. Yet it has numerous hot volcanoes. The seawater may be salty, but there are many parts at which the seawater is hardly so. The ocean is at times calm and beautiful. At other times, the ocean is turbulent and terrifying.

The ocean is so vast, that it is greater than any one creature's experience. The ocean experienced by a vacationer is not the same ocean experienced by a grizzled mariner. The ocean experienced by a dolphin is not the same ocean experienced by a salmon. In fact, one can spend one's whole life explaining just a single aspect of the ocean that one experienced--and the ocean in that explanation will sound nothing like the ocean experienced by another.

The same for culture. Give me any proposition about Korean culture, and I will find you multiple examples of counter-propositions involving different circumstances and different people. Take, for example, the accepted wisdom that Confucianism makes Koreans deferential to the older people. Confucianism makes Koreans so hierarchical, the accepted wisdom goes, that even the difference of a year in age requires deference from the younger person. The younger person would use a special manner of speech (honorifics) for the older person, and subsume their opinions and preferences to the older person.

But the Book of Manners [예기, 禮記]--one of the most significant Confucian tomes--explicitly provides that someone should be older than you by at least ten years before you accord him as an elder. (And even in such a case, you accord him as an older brother; one should be at least twenty years older than you before you treat him like a father.) Classical Korean literature frequently cites this passage, and traditionally, Koreans have strictly adhered to this rule. For example, one of the most classic Korean literature regarding friendship is the story of Oseong and Haneum [오성과 한음], based on the childhood antics of Yi Hang-bok [이항복] and Yi Deok-hyeong [이덕형]. Notably, Yi Hang-bok was five years older than Yi Deok-hyeong. Yet in the stories about their friendship, there is hardly any indication that they saw each other as anything other than equals.

To be sure, the accepted wisdom may still be true. After all, it is not a product of some fevered imagination--the accepted wisdom came from some corner of reality. But with additional information, we can properly contextualize the accepted wisdom. Does my counterexample about the Book of Manners and Oseong and Haneum disprove that Confucianism emphasizes age-based hierarchy? No. But it does give an idea about how much Confucianism emphasizes age-based hierarchy. Knowing more about Confucianism and traditional Korean culture make the understanding of Korean culture much more sophisticated, nuanced and dynamic. And talking about Korean culture--or any national culture, for that matter--while only being equipped with surface-level knowledge, without being aware of its counter-currents, will always result in propositions that are untrue, incomplete or significantly misleading because they erase meaningful nuances. Worse, it will subject other people who are perceived to be within that culture to those untrue, incomplete or significantly misleading propositions.

To reiterate: culture is larger than any one data point, any one proposition, any one person's experience. From this, we can derive the answer to the previous questions. How much do these cultural studies explain? Answer: if they are correct (a big assumption,) they illuminate one corner of the ocean. In fact, if those studies were properly conducted, they clearly state the limitations of their conclusions. Take those limitations seriously: they are the lines that demarcate the validity of the study's conclusions. What if the conclusions of the studies seem to explain everything about your life as an Asian American? Then that means you happen to be in that corner that those studies illuminate. That does not mean those studies are invalid, nor does it mean your experiences are not genuine. But it does mean that neither those studies nor your life experience will be universally applicable within your culture, because nothing is.

One data point does not explain the world. For that matter, not even a thousand data points explain the world. (And it is highly unlikely that you will even get to collect a thousand data points.) So avoid the temptation to explain more than what you know. Even the Asian American culture, a subset of both Asian culture and American culture, is greater than your own experience as an Asian American. Resist the hubris-filled temptation to find some grand unifying theory of culture, or speak of "typical" Asian cultural artifact (like "typical Korean father," for example.)

This may sound like some kind of relativistic nihilism. But it is not; rather, it is an exhortation to acknowledge that the world is a big place with innumerable moving parts, and one had better know how those parts work before talking about how the world works. Do you want to unearth the mysterious nexus between culture and behavior? By all means, go for it. Do you want to explain your life story in the context of cultural studies? Be my guest. But do be aware of how much you are seeking to explain, and know that no human is ever privy to the full wonders of the universe.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

36 comments:

  1. I am disappointed to hear that my alma mater was lacking in self-absorbed, emotionally masturbatory Asian Americans to challenge this preconceived notion that Asians are more holistic than individualistic.

    If there is any validity to this concept, perhaps the reason for the differences in Western vs. Asian mentality is the language. Korean is a verb driven language. It may explain why they are less likely to focus on descriptive adjectives, especially those that pertain to self and emotions, than their western counterparts. [I don't know about Chinese or Japanese.] I once read a child study in which the researchers asked a child what a golf club was. The Western child described how the golf club looked (description). The Korean child described it as something you use to retrieve your toy from under the couch (functional + action). Qi Wang's study doesn't seem to mention linguistic considerations.

    I do, however, wonder if what Jen argues is true because I'm shocked that I haven't heard a single Asian-American respond to Ron Unz' article The Myths of American Meritocracy in which he argued that the Ivy Leagues have capped Asian American enrollment at about 15-18% since the early 1990s despite a huge increase in the Asian American population and, consequently, a huge increase in the number of overachieving Asian American college applicants. [Aside from the head of Asian American advocacy groups commenting on this issue on a NYTimes forum on this topic, I have yet to see a response.] Meanwhile, I've read several Jewish professors and writers in a heated debate about how there has been no decline in Jewish achievement. Do Asian Americans not care about this issue? Why isn't anyone speaking up?

    Does it have anything to do with Asian Americans' need to have harmony? Is it because we are insular, meek, non-confrontational? Or is it that we have conflicting views on Affirmative Action? Or perhaps most of us are just too busy to engage in such polemics? I toyed with the idea of sending in a response to the NYTimes but figured, surely, there must be an Asian American writer who wants to address this issue. That never happened.

    Even in TK's Ivy League post, he basically condones discrimination against Asian Americans at these top universities because he argues that diversity promotes learning by mirroring the society at large where students can come into contact with different types of people. That is a holistic view that sacrifices the needs of the individual student who will get rejected to the needs of the society and education.

    It makes me wonder whether East Asian Americans accept Affirmative Action, which actually hurts East Asian Americans, for the sake of harmony and the betterment of society.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Dear Helen,

      I think you are a person who treasure culture and understanding culture.
      I can't arrow our culture are broken by another country's people.
      Culture is History.So I'd like to protect our culture.please help us.
      I'm afraid of that our country's culture are renewed by other country's people and people who alive 100years later believe the history that is renewed by other country.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_583788&feature=iv&src_vid=sW4H2PGj6JU&v=5zPhBFEizzA

      please,help us.

      Delete
  2. Helen,

    1. Is it a linguistic fact that Korean is a verb-driven language? If so, I'd love to see a reference, because my impression had always been the opposite. That because of its Chinese influence, Korean (as relative to the Romance languages or English) relies heavily on nouns/adjectives (and verbs are often nominalized into the noun form) and passive verbs. The final effect is that you have language that is abstract and passive, which (as George Orwell pointed out) increases the individual's susceptibility to undue influence to others.

    2. For me, #1 together with 20th century Korean history begin to explain in fact why Koreans themselves (like Gish Jen does) to be more holistic than individualistic. That is, the notion is preconceived in the minds of Koreans themselves, who use the term "we" to describe events or ideas that are purely personal, and why Koreans tend to identify very strongly with other Koreans.

    3. However, I don't think the trait applies as much to the younger generation (say, born after the 1988 Olympics), but certainly not to Korean-Americans or even to Koreans who have spent significant time abroad. In fact, it has been my experience that the truest mark of a Korean is whether s/he categorizes others as a Korean or a non-Korean. If such category exists, then that person is Korean. The less certain the category becomes in that person's mind, the less Korean s/he is. That is why as much as TK or I might protest, the fact is that neither he nor I are really "Korean" and lack the most critical ingredient to even make a claim that "culture is bigger than you", which sounds innocuous-enough, except it may (or may not be, although I am leaning towards it) be utterly false at least when it comes to describing Koreans who were born before, say, 1980.

    4. As for Ron Unz's article, I also shrugged it off for a number of reasons: (1) it was non-news to me, even when I was in high school 20 years ago; (2) I also believe strongly in diversity (for example, I think it's the worst thing that a venerable U.S. high school like Stuyvesant is now 70% Asian...that it is no different than a typical high school in Korea, and I'd hate to see the same happen to my own alma mater or other top US colleges, which I believe to be unique in the world); and (3) the context of such articles came in the context of SCOTUS ruling on the AA cases and I felt that Asian's were being used as pawns in the debate to take something away from a different minority group whose plight I personally sympathized with.

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  3. No Name,

    I'm not sure where I read that Korean was verb driven but it was a scholarly journal. Koreans often leave out pronouns and even nouns while just mentioning the verb, leaving the listener to figure out which person the verb was referring to. Maybe TK can weigh in on this since his Korean is far better than mine.

    When you say 20th century history, do you mean colonialism and the division of Korea? If so, how do you explain Japan's holistic nature - hammer the nail that sticks out? It hasn't been colonialized or divided; rather it was the colonizer. I read that "we" (woori) is used so often used in naming Korean businesses. Do you think it is Korea's way of promoting solidarity because Korea was so oppressed? Is it because Korea is a homogenous culture? Did Nazi Germany and Communist Russia have a holistic approach or an individualistic approach? And if the former, is it safe to argue that holism vs. individualism is not an Eastern vs. Western construct but a reflection of the socioeconomic/geopolitical state of a society, which is constantly evolving?

    Gish Jen is a Chinese American, not a Korean American. I guess this makes me Korean-American according to your definition? Haha.... I agree with TK's point that culture is bigger than you. Culture evolves constantly. But I think culturalism is so pervasive that people do it constantly, including TK. When he mentioned in the Model Minority Myth post that others can try to learn from it, wasn't he in effect grouping Asian Americans together and implying that there is something to learn from that culture?

    I think Affirmative Action ("AA")is more complicated than simply wanting to achieve diversity and being sympathetic to the plight of other minorities. Most people who are anti-AA believe in AA using socioeconomic factors, just not racial ones. What bothers me about AA presently is that it categorizes people according to their race and this is a dangerous concept. What is a race anyway? Who said Korean-Americans should be grouped with the Japanese-Americans when there has been historical enmity and colonialism? Why should a poor Haitian be grouped with a rick black student from Kenya? Is the fact that our ancestors came from the same continent enough of a reason to classify people this way? And why the assumption that having people of the same race won't promote diversity? We're all buying into the stereotype that Asians should all be grouped together and that are monochromatic and one-dimensional. Do you really think that a rich black student raised in Beverly Hills has more in common with a poor black student from Alabama than with his rich white classmates? Why the assumption that we are so defined by our race when it is just a phenotype and nothing more (especially if you accept TK's argument that culturalism should be avoided)? I probably have more in common with my white Jewish friends than a recent immigrant from India. As for Ron Unz' article, I agree that it wasn't a surprise that Asian Americans are discriminated against in colleges but I am dismayed at the level of discrimination (no increase in percentage since the early 1990s despite a huge increase in Asian American achievement!) And I am further dismayed by his point that even the Jews are favored over Gentile whites and Asian Americans with Jewish students taking up about 30% at these top Ivies. This means that in general, a rich Jew will be given preference over a poor Korean-American immigrant. Are we really ok with Asian American percentage being capped at 18% at these schools despite a huge surge in the Asian American population? Should the Jews have just accepted their enrollment at these Ivies in the 1950s at 18% and been happy with that? Why not race-blind admission with socioeconomic factors given consideration?

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    1. I agree with you that AA is a complicated issue, because of the prominent role that education plays in our society. As a result, AA's role as (1) a recompense to African Americans (who were segregated based strictly upon race) for PAST wrongs should be balanced against (2) the PRESENT educational benefit achieved by ethnic/socioeconomic diversity (which is why the current regime under which Hispanics and Native Americans benefit and Asian Americans suffer might make sense, or, as you suggest, a more sophisticated model that accounts for socioeconomic status might make sense if it does not have a disproportionately affect an ethnic group or significantly lower academic standards) as well as (3) policy considerations that will set correct incentives for FUTURE behavior (which considerations are way above my pay grade).

      I haven't seen all the numbers, and I agree that it's probably more meaningful if there could be more African American students from poor, urban neighborhoods at Harvard rather than little Will Smith Jr.'s who grew up in Beverly Hills. However, I wonder whether there are enough qualified students to fill the halls of the many top universities in the U.S. I taught at a top high school in Korea briefly and when the school changed its admissions standards to increase geographic diversity (recruiting students from outside Seoul/Gyeonggi area), the academic performance of the students dropped noticeably. The school promptly went back to the prior admission system for the following year.

      Further, AA should examine the role of race in the 21st century, because I do not believe that we live in a post-racial world. I'm okay with Korean-Americans are grouped with Japanese-Americans because when a white dude living in Oklahoma watches Ken Watanabe acting next to Leo DiCaprio and says "that Asian dude is a pretty cool guy", that benefits me living in 21st century America, regardless of the historical enmity between Korea and Japan. I imagine a poor immigrant from Haiti can feel the same way about Obama. By contrast, I didn't become particularly teary-eyed over the fact that Obama and I shared a middle-class background growing up in the Midwest. Whether that's ideal or even rational is beside the point that race (more than any other phenotype) still plays a significant role in today's world.

      Finally, I think that minority groups should stand together if society is to progress towards equality and a post-racial culture (assuming that's what we want). I don't believe any of us is cheering for the US colleges to be dominated by one particular ethnic group, even if that group were to be Korean-Americans rather than Jews. I would fight against Jewish over-representation, but would not do so by advocating for equal-over-representation of Asian Americans. Upon reflection, I think my view may be based on my belief that diversity (US) is even better than domination (Korea). I sense that more Korean-Americans would agree with that belief than Jewish-Americans.

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    2. I don't disagree with your well intentions. I felt the same way until recently. I just think that unless you stop classifying people by race which is nothing more than a phenotype, we can never be a post-racial society. My problem is not so much that Asian Americans are disadvantaged from AA; rather, I disagree that everyone needs to be classified by race instead of being viewed as individuals. Classification by race perpetuates racism.

      Your comment that more Korean-Americans would agree with that belief than Jewish-Americans - why do you say that? Is it because Korean-Americans tend to think more holistically (which I think characterizes your views on AA) than Jewish Americans?

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    3. I'm not sure how you are using the word "holistically" here, but I intended my comment to mean that perhaps Korean-Americans are more inclined to make modest sacrifices for the common good.

      Assuming this is true, perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that the sacrifice has been "modest." I missed this discussion on NYTimes last December:
      http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/12/19/fears-of-an-asian-quota-in-the-ivy-league

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    4. Dear No Name,

      I think you are a person who treasure culture and understanding culture.
      I can't arrow our culture are broken by another country's people.
      Culture is History.So I'd like to protect our culture.please help us.
      I'm afraid of that our country's culture are renewed by other country's people and people who alive 100years later believe the history that is renewed by other country.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_583788&feature=iv&src_vid=sW4H2PGj6JU&v=5zPhBFEizzA

      please,help us.

      Delete
  4. While I am intrigued with anything that tries to generalize (such as blood types, horoscopes) you have to be somewhat lacking to not recognize the limitations.

    How useful will such a study be, given those limitations? Well, it's again up to the person employing it. I'd say it's immensely helpful for those who broaden their view and leave it at that. It'd be marginally useful to those who will try to use such knowledge whenever they meet an Asian American while understanding that they'd be lucky to find a few things in common. People who try to generalize using that knowledge would have probably been better off not knowing it in the first place.

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  5. I will be honest with you - I did not understand your point. It is a beautifully written post, I just don't get the main idea.
    Culture is a very transient thing - it changes every minute. Once you left Korea, you are no longer a part of that culture. Even when you return, you are not going to be a part of it. You cannot go into the same river twice.
    However, you need to embrace who you are and celebrate your cultural differences. You are probably a third culture person by now, and it is a wonderful thing. It sets you apart from your people, but it provides you with a number of opportunities they could never dream about.
    Even though I love and admire Korean culture, I would not want to be Korean. There are good things and bad things about everything - I wish we could choose the best from every single country on this planet. One thing for sure - Koreans make this world better. They are not perfect, nobody is, but I absolutely adore the endless resistance and the thrive to make things better. I admire the same in Americans - no what happens, they will work hard to change things and make it a better world.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Dear VB,

      I think you are a person who treasure culture and understanding culture.
      I can't arrow our culture are broken by another country's people.
      Culture is History.So I'd like to protect our culture.please help us.
      I'm afraid of that our country's culture are renewed by other country's people and people who alive 100years later believe the history that is renewed by other country.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_583788&feature=iv&src_vid=sW4H2PGj6JU&v=5zPhBFEizzA

      please,help us.

      Delete
  6. I enjoyed your post and found that I agreed with most of it. We both agree that cultures really exist and that they exist for the purpose of encouraging certain behaviorial norms. We also agree that cultures are always more complex than they seem at first; that they are full of lacunae and hidden reversals; and patterns in which they reject in practice what they preach explicitly according to some hidden principle of accommodation only understood by those with an intimate knowledge of the culture as a whole.

    I was hoping, though, that you would comment on the actual content of the studies that Jen references. I summarized a few of them, but a large body of research exists behind them. Taken together, they constitute the most ambitious attempt we have to construct an empirically grounded account of the overall differences in the ways that the "average" Asian and "average" Westerner -- two heuristic constructs that never fully coincide with any living individual in an age of deep interpenetration of both cultures through migration, travel, electronic communications, cultural influence, etc.

    The studies say that Asians and Westerners perceive the physical world differently -- that Westerners remember the actions of foreground figures better than their Eastern counterparts, and that Asians remember details from the background better than their Western counterparts.

    The studies say that Asians and Westerners think about individual responsibility differently. (A content analysis of newspaper stories from Asian and Western newspapers found that Asian newspapers were far more likely to use text describing the contextual elements that led to a crime than Western newspapers, which used more words assigning individual agency to the criminal.)

    The studies say that Asians have a different mental model of causation than Westerners. They are less likely to think of the actions of isolated agents and more likely to think in terms of the operation of the interacting parts of the system as a whole.

    The studies say that Westerners are better at isolating individual objects and studying the ways they operate than Asians, but a weaker understanding of the systemic effects of their actions.

    The studies say that Asians are not "logical" in that they reject the principle of non-contradiction (A=A) that is the foundation of Western logic, that they have a better understanding that, depending on the context, A might not equal A.

    The studies say that Westerners think of themselves as a single unified and coherent self, while Asians think of themselves as a set of different prescribed roles they play depending on a changing set of social contexts.

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  7. This emerging model of the differences between Asians and Westerners has been used to explain, among other things, the strategic logic of the Chinese empire throughout history, and thus of its likely behavior as it rises (China has tended to play a game of slow absorption and indirection, as in the game Chinese game Go, as opposed to a game of decisive attacks, as in the European game Chess), and the peculiar affinity Korean young people have with the game Starcraft.

    The ambivalence that many feel toward the cross-cultural psychologists is that, on the one hand, they are arguing that there is something imperialistic about the universalistic models of mind that emerges from the Cartesian tradition of modern Western philosophy, whose grounding assumptions are at the root of Western institutions of law and economics, and also at the root of a science of psychology which purports to be universally applicable; and on the other hand, they are basically doing research that affirms the stereotypical view of Asians that Westerners have always held as diminished in their individuality.

    The cross cultural psychologists argue on behalf of the legitimacy, and even the superior wisdom of Eastern models of mind, causation, cognition, and selfhood -- and moreover this model may simply be true -- but they are also, more or less, providing scientific justification for the feeling that many Westerners seem to share, that Asians people really _are_ less distinctive as individuals than themselves, and thus readily dismissible when it comes to the various "heroic" or "leaderly" roles that place a premium on either the reality or perception of individual distinction.

    But apart from how these findings will be instrumentalized, there is the question of whether or not they are true. Do they seem true to you? Do they seem true to your experience? Are they echoed in your observations of Asian societies, their family structures, the way people relate to one another and think of themselves and their lives? When you think of the differences between the Asians you know and the Westerners you know, is one of the signal differences that the Asians you know are far less likely to think and talk about themselves? When you think of your understanding of Confucianism as it is written, and as it practiced in the daily lives of actual Koreans, does it seem correct to say that it imbues real Asians with cognitive processes distinct from their Western counterparts?

    All of these hypotheses seem superficially plausible to me, and in conversation with

    Does it seem to you correct, as a heuristic generalization made to differentiate the "average" Westerner from the "average" Asian that “Westerners are protagonists of their autobiographical novels,” whereas Asians are “merely cast members in movies touching on their existences"?

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    1. I think that it would help to define what it is that is meant by "Eastern", or "Asian" - terms which are basically meaningless. If the subject is "Confucian" influenced cultures then that leaves out most of South-East Asia, Sout Asia, and Muslim central and western Asia. Or is the subject specifically Korea?

      I do notice that there is a tendency (amongst asian-Americans) to be vague about this - and a tendency to interchange terms so that any initial study is unreasonably overgeneralized. Plus, I would be interested to read some of these studies you cite - could you provide links? Thanks ahead of time!

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    2. The researchers use both of these phrases to refer to Confucian cultures and rely heavily on their understanding of the effect that Confucianism has on thought and behavior for their construction of what "Eastern" or "Asian" thought is. So -- Korea, Japan, and China.

      Here is a link to the study that I reference in the opening of my review of Gish Jen:

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19230871

      This book by Richard Nisbett summarizes the work of the cross cultural psychologists:

      http://www.amazon.com/dp/0743255356

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    3. Thanks again for the links - I'll definitely check them out.

      Before tracking down and reading those studies, I will say that off the top of my head I have some reservations about any comparison between the comparative societal influence of Confucius and Aristotle.

      Whereas Confucius outlined a system of ethics and specified roles and perhaps even actions in society, I think that it would be a stretch to say that Aristotle had a similar influence over western cultures. For instance, I doubt that westerners are adhering to Aristotlian logic in their interactions with their families, friends and business acquaintances, in the same way that a Korean might follow a systematic guideline to - let's say - respecting older people in how they address and approach their interactions.

      For that, you may have to turn to western ethical systems - secular or religious, and even economic realities. Is the modern day western phenomenon of individualism and self-reliance as much, or more, a function of things like economic necessity (e.g. industrialisation causing fathers and sons to leave the family and community to seek work in major cities) and driven by the economic process of market creation, or is it based on intimate familiarity with the first principles? I don't think that there is a simple "Easterners are confucian so they do such and such, and Westerners are Aristotlian and they do the opposite" type of answer.

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  8. All of these hypotheses seem superficially plausible to me, but I do not claim to know or understand the culture from the inside. I was surprised by how readily so many of my Asian or Asian American interlocutors were ready to affirm them as basically correct. Like Gish Jen, I too, have often felt that I had a superior understanding of the broader context of various debates, and a greater "negative capability" when it came to looking at things through one more than on perspective and seeking a reconciliation of apparent opposites. I never thought this ability, which I secretly prided myself on, had anything to do with some intrinsic, residual "Asian-ness" within me. But maybe I should have?

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    1. First of all, glad to hear you enjoyed the post.

      As to the actual content of the studies--I don't think I can pass judgment on them until I actually see them. However, I do not see anything that is particularly objectionable to the six examples that you provided. They generally comport to my experience.

      What I do find strange is the attempt to find "average" Asian and "average" Westerner. I suppose that much is an acceptable way of simplifying the world to an understandable level. But to take that concept of "average" Asian to start explaining every peculiarity one sees about Asia--e.g. the expansion of the Chinese empire, popularity of Starcraft in Korea--falls right into the trap of culturalism. I don't know if you read my post about the popularity of Starcraft in Korea, but I dare anyone to try placing "Korean manner of thought" as a larger factor of the game's success than all the other factors that I outlined in that post.

      Numerous factors explain human behavior, and vast majority of those factors (or to be more precise, the most common human response to those factors) are the same throughout mankind. Culture is but one among those numerous factors, and in my estimation, rarely a decisive one. When I set out to explain a certain phenomenon in Korea, I simply lay out all the relevant facts, and imply a question to the reader--wouldn't you, a reasonable person, react in the same way as Koreans do? Given the modicum of success that this blog enjoyed, I think that at the end of the day, even people living in a radically different culture do not really have a hard time understanding what people do. To give an example, when I explained an effective way of persuading a Korean person (as a non-Korean,) I used Aristotle's Three Modes of Persuasion, not some essential element of Korean culture.

      It is an even trickier endeavor to figure out how this affects you personally, how much of your constitution is owed to Asian culture. If you find it very convincing, I'm not sure if there is anything I can say to that. But maybe you are just an intelligent person who are capable of taking a wider lens to an issue. After all, there is no shortage of Westerners who can do that.

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    2. "When I set out to explain a certain phenomenon in Korea, I simply lay out all the relevant facts, and imply a question to the reader--wouldn't you, a reasonable person, react in the same way as Koreans do?"

      I suspect what you call "relevant facts" is what others might refer to as "culture". And, what do you even mean by "the same way as Koreans do"; surely, you're not suggesting that Koreans as a group exhibit a similar pattern of behavior that can be recognized as being particular to their collective, which pattern would then affect my own behavior as a member of their social group? Finally, the question isn't whether one reasonable person would understand another person's behavior, since noone is saying that Koreans are irrational or unreasonable. Rather, it's whether the non-Korean would also find relevant some of the "facts" that are relevant to Koreans.

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    3. surely, you're not suggesting that Koreans as a group exhibit a similar pattern of behavior that can be recognized as being particular to their collective, which pattern would then affect my own behavior as a member of their social group?

      I am not suggesting that. But others (i.e. those who are particularly fond of "cultural explanations") are.

      Finally, the question isn't whether one reasonable person would understand another person's behavior, since no one is saying that Koreans are irrational or unreasonable.

      Actually, plenty of people are saying exactly that. Remember how a lot of people were willing to believe that Koreans would rather crash a plane than violate some Confucian hierarchy?

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    4. I agree with No Name. TK, by saying "wouldn't you, a reasonable person, react in the same way as Koreans do," you're assuming that Koreans in general act the same, in which case, isn't that culture? I know what your point is -- that human beings are innately pretty much the same. I don't think many people would disagree with you. But do you disagree with the point that a general pattern of behavior of an ethnic group can be shaped by socioeconomic/political/historical factors; in which case human beings are all innately the same but they evolve to have different philosophies and cultures depending on how their environment shapes them. Just because someone from a different society would act the same way under the same circumstance doesn't negate culture.

      Wesley, it's difficult to contradict these studies without conducting one of our own. They should see if Korean Americans who are more assimilated into the EuroAmerican society would be less holistic and more individualistic than recent immigrants. Adoption studies would also be helpful. My experience generally has been that EuroAmericans do tend to be more individualistic than Korean-Americans. Take Cho Seung Hui, for example. People from Korea were apologizing on his behalf as if they bear some responsibility for his actions. Do you think that if a EuroAmerican massacred people in Korea, EuroAmericans would think to apologize?

      As a Korean American, I wonder how much of us being holistic has to do with our upbringing as Professor Wang vs. our status as a minority in this country. After all, it is hard to see ourselves as individuals when we are constantly being classified as minorities, Asian Americans, Korean Americans, etc.

      I think the important questions is whether being holistic is a good thing.

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    5. TK, I just read your reply. No one argued Koreans would rather crash a plane than violate some Confucian hierarchy. That is a gross mischaracterization of what Gladwell and people like me argued.

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    6. TK, by saying "wouldn't you, a reasonable person, react in the same way as Koreans do," you're assuming that Koreans in general act the same, in which case, isn't that culture?

      Sure. Recall that I never argued that culture does not exist. In fact, I explicitly stated the opposite. But think about how I characterized culture, and think about how hollow this makes of the power of a culture. By this, culture is no more than how reasonable people would react to a specific factual circumstance that they encounter as a group. Culture then becomes the reaction, the shadow--not the thing itself.

      I know what your point is -- that human beings are innately pretty much the same. I don't think many people would disagree with you.

      I'm pretty sure tons of people would disagree with me. People who are overly fond of the cultural explanations are absolutely convinced that a large and irreconcilable difference exists among people of different parts of the world, and the difference is driven by culture.

      No one argued Koreans would rather crash a plane than violate some Confucian hierarchy.

      If you really think that, you are just not reading the same things that I am.

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    7. TK, it would be a gross simplification to say that anyone was saying that people would rather crash a plane than violate a Confucian principle. Rather, they were saying that a Confucian culture may have created a barrier to open exchange of information that could have prevented (which is not the same as "cause") the airplane crash.

      I'm actually very surprised that you don't believe that there are large and irreconcilable differences among people from different parts of the world. I would have thought that would be obvious to anyone who has been married for a couple of years.

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    8. That's a rather grim view of marriage! I have been married for a few years, and our differences always have been small and reconcilable.

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    9. TK, I see your point now although I disagree that culture being a shadow renders it meaningless or trivial. It would only be meaningless if all nations had the same history and the same environment. Since different nations have different history, different mores and norms develop. For example, take the practice of child rape "to cure AIDS" in South Africa -- should we just condone it because that is what everyone would do under the same factual circumstance?

      Irreconcilable = divorce. Not there yet and hopefully never.

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    10. I disagree that culture being a shadow renders it meaningless or trivial.

      For all the complaining that you do about my supposed mischaracterization of your points, you sure repeatedly contradict a clearly stated position of mine. Over and over again, I stated culture exists and it exerts real force. It is neither meaningless nor trivial. In my view, it is simply not decisive, especially over other factors that people fail to consider because they are so engrossed in culturalism.

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    11. You must have a different definition of the word hollow.

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    12. Dear everyone,

      I think you are a person who treasure culture and understanding culture.
      I can't arrow our culture are broken by another country's people.
      Culture is History.So I'd like to protect our culture.please help us.
      I'm afraid of that our country's culture are renewed by other country's people and people who alive 100years later believe the history that is renewed by other country.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_583788&feature=iv&src_vid=sW4H2PGj6JU&v=5zPhBFEizzA

      please,help us.

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  9. Initially, I dismissed this as just another stereotype but the more I think about it, I think there is some truth to this dichotomy; not because these traits are innate but because our culture has been shaped by history.
    Asian cultures tend to define people based on their roles in society. Here in the US, people just refer to me as Helen. In Korean, I am Jim's mommy (Myung Hoonee um ma), attorney (byun ho sah nim), and Mrs. Kim. It is less about me than my relationship to others. Asian society is also hierarchical so younger people tend to be more quiet and obedient.
    Professor Qi Wang's child study was interesting because it confirmed my thoughts on the differences in EuroAmerican parenting and Korean parenting. I have observed that Korean parents often speak on their kids’ behalf. On numerous occasions, when I asked a Korean child how old he was, his mom would interject and answer on his behalf. EuroAmericans, on the other hand, have the child answer even though I direct the question to the parents. There have been many occasions in which I would ask a parent how old his child was and the parent would ask me to ask the child directly. I have also witnessed on many occasions Korean parents trying to subdue their kids as not to be disruptive to others while EuroAmericans allow their kids to run wild. To put it simply, EuroAmericans seem to focus on whether their children are happy while Koreans tend to focus on whether their children are behaving. Is it because we have an immigrant mentality and we somehow feel sorry for causing a scene or is it a reflection of our culture of promoting harmony and conformity? And if the latter, are harmony and conformity the consequences of the Asian masses being subjugated for so long whereas EuroAmericans achieved democracy (and the concept of individual freedom) took root centuries ago.
    I really think it makes sense to study the psyche of the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. My gut feeling is that they were more holistic because the concept of self was suppressed at the time; in which case, the whole holistic vs. individualistic dichotomy is not an innate Western vs. Eastern difference so much as a consequence of history.

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    1. As a European myself I can assure you what you know about "EuroAmerican parenting" is vulgarly generalised. Of course, the are parents like that too, but I wouldn't accept it as a fact confirming a stereotype. It really depends on the family itself. Seen a lot of various cases. In Europe. Never been to the USA.

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    2. I said EuroAmerican, not European. EuroAmericans basically refer to white Americans in this case, not people recently from Europe. I live in the states. If you've never been to the states, not sure how you can claim to know how parents are like here. Isn't the article "Why French mothers are superior" indicative of how French discipline their kids but Americans don't? People I know from Europe often mention how Americans have no manners - isn't that a common stereotype?

      Besides. I never said it wasn't a generalization, Obviously, there are many exceptions but when you discuss topics like this, you have to generalize or we would get nowhere.

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    3. I see, I thought you were including both American AND European by "EuroAmericans", my mistake.
      But I didn't claim I knew how parents are in the USA, there has been a misunderstanding between the two of us.

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