All the World's a Classroom
On rare occasions, fragments of thoughts and life experiences can converge into a coherent narrative. This is one of those moments. In my quest to understand the world that forms the essence of this blog, I also gain an understanding of myself, my coordinates in this world. My recent exploration of the Eastern and Western mindsets (Part 1: Why They Differ and Part 2: How They Differ) inevitably led to some self diagnosis on who I am and the backdrop of my existence. These two posts serve as the springboard for this personal essay, and I’ll be using the terms Western and Eastern as they have been described in those posts.
As an Eastern living in the West who is nearing a 50-50 split of residency in two cultures, I see myself as a child of East and West. This is my personal story through the lens of these world cultures.
From East to West
I was born to a Chinese-descent family, both sides, who had immigrated to Indonesia for several generations. In simple words, I’m Eastern, even though the term “East” is an oversimplification of the range of Easternness encapsulated in my background. My Chinese heritage certainly bears traces of the ancient Chinese culture described in the Asian and Western Minds posts (Part 1, Part 2), but Indonesia itself is an interesting case of the East, a confluence of cultures from different parts of the world. I grew up being exposed to a plurality of ethnicities and religions, all within the country, which bore an impression on me. Jakarta as a city that attracted people from across the country and Java, an island that seemed comfortable embracing multiple philosophies in its culture, would befit an environment that can be called Eastern. The role of community, the embracing of change and cyclical nature of life, were themes familiar to me from childhood.
Yet even as an Eastern child, my mind and personality had always been Western-leaning. My brain was wired to be fascinated with logic, analysis, categorizations, linear and either/or thinking, which went hand-in-hand with my fascination with science and mathematics. I found the search for and getting the right answer incredibly satisfying, and I subscribed fully to paradigms like the law of noncontradiction, though I did not know it then. I craved clear boundaries and rules and coherent arguments, which, living in the Indonesian society, were often problematic. Rules bent, words were not always exact and most everything was negotiable. My dad used to say to me, “The world is not that simple.” Things were too black and white to me, and I struggled with the fuzziness of boundaries.
At 17, I crossed the world and landed in Boston to pursue higher education. Amazingly, even though home was half the world away, I never experienced culture shocks. In fact, in terms of the intellectual culture of the West, it felt like a homecoming. Sure, there were cultural barriers I faced, such as my inability to participate in class discussions due to my non-Socratic Eastern education. The way I saw it, I should keep my mouth shut when I didn’t have anything substantive to say. Thankfully, my engineering path did not require me to speak in class often, and the nerdy MIT world, where science–the pinnacle of Western thinking–abounded, felt comfortable. Things either worked or they didn’t.
Parallel to my academic journey, coming to the US also felt like homecoming for my faith journey. It was in the buzz of university campuses with the cerebral and scientific approach to everything that I gained footing for my personal beliefs. Apologetics, intellectual arguments for and against the Christian faith, and the dissecting of the Bible to find a coherent system of beliefs, became the anchor of my spiritual path. It was particularly important to me that beliefs were coherent and philosophically sound, and I found this emphasis on reason in the West refreshing.
I often thought in college, why was I not taught this earlier–to reason cogently from the Bible for all tenets of my faith? What was wrong with my home church? Do they not care about theology? Today, I think I know why there were different emphasis in the East and West, which I’ll get to in the second part of this essay.
Given the bent of my personality, I thrived in the West. I felt liberated living as an individual and discovered myself through this independence. I was pleased to not be tied to the pervasive social requirements of the East. This was the way to live, I thought.
Over the years, however, I began to see the imperfections of this lifestyle. The individualist’s life was also lonely and I missed the communal life of the East. But it was not just in daily lives. I also began to be dissatisfied with the hyper rational approaches in other areas.
To be continued…
[UPDATE: Read Part 2 here]
This is an excerpt from Hope Jahren’s beautiful book, Lab Girl, on the joy of discovery, its mysterious and magical wonder of both the smallness and the magnitude of a single scientific finding. Any PhD student, current or otherwise, can appreciate this experience.
When a lab experiment just won’t work, moving heaven and earth often won’t make it work–and, similarly there are some experiments that you just can’t screw up even if you try. The readout from the x-ray displayed one clear, unequivocal peak at exactly the same angle of diffraction each time I replicated the measurement.
The long, low, broad swoop of ink was totally unlike the stiff, jerky spikes that my advisor and I thought we might see, and it clearly indicated that my mineral was an opal. I stood and stared at the readout, knowing that there was no way I had–or anybody could have–possibly misinterpreted the result. It was opal and this was something I knew, something I could draw a circle around and testify to as being true. While looking at the graph, I thought about how I now knew something for certain that only an hour ago had been an absolute unknown, and I slowly began to appreciate how my life had just changed.
I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was–in addition to being small and insufficient–special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.
…I stood and looked out the window, waiting for the sun to come up, and eventually a few tears ran down my face. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was nobody’s wife or mother–or because I felt like nobody’s daughter–or because of the beauty of that single perfect line on the readout, which I could forever point to as my opal.
I had worked and waited for this day. In solving this mystery I had also proved something, at least to myself, and I finally knew what real research would feel like. But as satisfying as it was, it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.
…I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn.
…Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me.
This article is Part 2 of the Asian and Western Minds essay. Read Part 1 here. Together, they are the fifth edition of an essay series on worldview, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.
In Part 1, we discussed the ancient philosophies that rooted the differences between the Western and Eastern worldview (see definitions of Western and Eastern in Part 1 of this article). Here, we continue with the specific ways in which they differ. Below are the key findings from a series of social psychology experiments done by Professor Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan, which are outlined in the book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.
1. Objects vs. Relationships
When given a scene to observe and asked to describe it, Easterners tend to be more holistic, paying attention to more details in the background than Westerners. Westerners, on the other hand, focus on the prominent objects in the scene. For example, when a picture of an underwater scene with plants and fish was shown to test participants, Easterners were more likely to say, “It looked like a pond,” whereas the Westerners were more likely to say, “There was a big fish, maybe a trout, moving off to the left.”
“Like ancient Greek philosophers, modern Westerners see a world of objects—discrete and unconnected things. Like ancient Chinese philosophers, modern Asians are inclined to see a world of substances—continuous masses of matter. The Westerner sees an abstract statue where the Asian sees a piece of marble; the Westerner sees a wall where the Asian sees concrete. There is much other evidence—of a historical, anecdotal, and systematic scientific nature—indicating that Westerners have an analytic view focusing on salient objects and their attributes, whereas Easterners have a holistic view focusing on continuities in substances and relationships in the environment.”
Because Easterners pay more attention to the environment and Westerners attend more to objects, Easterners are more likely to detect relationship among events than Westerners. Cause and effects are explained differently—the Easterners would attribute events and behaviors more to environmental causes, and Westerners more to the actors.
2. Controlling Situations
Westerners tend to believe that they can control situations more than Easterners. Because Easterners see the world as complex and interconnected, their sense of personal agency is less compared to Westerners.
“If life is simple and you only have to keep your eye on the ball in order to achieve something, life is controllable. If life is complex and subject to changes of fortune without notice, it may not matter where the ball is; life is simply not easily controlled. Surveys show that Asians feel themselves to be in less control than their Western counterparts. And rather than attempting to control situations, they are likely to try to adjust to them.”
A large consequence of the Western view is the magnificent scientific progress in the Western world.
“Easterners are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world… On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that simple models are the most useful ones—at least in science—because they’re easier to disprove and consequently to improve upon. Most of Aristotle’s physical propositions have turned out to be demonstrably false. But Aristotle had testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not: It was Westerners who established what the correct physical principles are.”
“Westerners’ success in science and their tendency to make certain mistakes in causal analysis derive from the same source. Freedom to pursue individual goals prompts people to model the situation so as to achieve those goals, which in turn encourages modeling events by working backward from effects to possible causes. When there is systematic testing of the model, as in science, the model can be corrected.”
Indeed, I believe, this is where Western thinking have deep advantages, and why science—or modern science as we know it—was largely a Greek endeavor.
3. Stability and Change
Westerners believe more in stability, assuming that the world doesn’t change much and that progress is linear, where Easterners see change all the time, and that “movement in a particular direction…may be a sign that events are about to reverse direction.”
4. Organizing the World
Westerners organize the world into categories while Easterners emphasize relationships. When Westerners group things, they do it based on whether they can be described by the same attributes, certain inherent properties of the objects. For Easterners, things are classed together because they influence and relate to each other.
For example, given a picture of a chicken and grass, categories A and B, respectively, participants were told to choose the appropriate category for a cow. Westerners were more likely to choose chicken because cows and chicken belonged to the same taxonomic category, while Easterners preferred to group the cow with grass on the basis of their relationship; “cows eat grass.”
5. Role of Logic
Logic no doubt plays a prominent role in Western societies. It is used to understand events and also useful for argumentation. But if Westerners are concerned with reason, Easterners are more concerned with reasonableness, which means that they may “set logic aside in favor of desirability of conclusions.”
6. Resolving Contradictions
When confronted with apparent contradictions, Westerners are more inclined to insist on the correctness of one belief vs. another, whereas Easterners would try to find the Middle Way, transcend them and find the truth in both.
The Eastern principles in resolving contradictions are as follows:
- The Principle of Change – the world is not static but dynamic and changeable. “Because reality is in constant flux, the concepts that reflect reality are fluid and subjective rather than being fixed and objective.”
- The Principle of Contradiction – “because the world is constantly changing, oppositions, paradoxes, and anomalies are continuously being created” Opposites complete each other; they cannot exist without the other (Yin and Yang). Thus, apparent contradictions are in fact active harmony.
- The Principle of Holism – “nothing exists in an isolated and independent way, but is connected to a multitude of different things. To really know a thing, we have to know all its relations.”
These principles compel Easterners to find the middle ground between extreme propositions. In the Western thought, there is a counterpart to the above principles in the Hegelian or Marxist dialectic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. However, this form is seen as more aggressive because the purpose is to bolster one side and obliterate the contradiction rather than transcending the arguments.
For the Westerners, the principles of logic are committed to these laws:
- The Law of Identity – a thing is itself and not some other thing. This thing is also consistent regardless of the context.
- The Law of Noncontradiction – a proposition can’t be both true and false. A and not-A cannot be true at the same time.
For the Easterners,
“the rejection of conclusions because they seem formally contradictory can be mistaken, because concepts are merely reflections of things and it can sometimes be more sensible to admit that an apparent contradiction exists than to insist that either one state of affairs or its opposite is the true one.”
“Each of these orientations—the Western and the Eastern—is a self-reinforcing, homeostatic system. The social practices promote the worldviews; the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices.”
The manifestations of these paradigms are reflected in the different ways Western and Eastern societies approach education, medicine, business–essentially all aspects of life–and can create misunderstandings in cross-cultural contexts. Results such as Nisbett’s are valuable for both Western and Eastern minds to understand each other.
Of course, the world is not divided as nicely as the East-and-West dichotomy. There are spectrums of worldviews around the world that we need to be more aware of, and I am now intrigued in mapping the world’s key thoughts to better understand humanity’s diversity and similarity.
Returning to Nisbett, it was hard for me not to abstain from performing self-diagnosis while reading a book like this, especially because my place of birth and upbringing is literally on the other side of the world where I currently live and work. I am both Eastern and Western, if calculated by the time I’ve spent in each world, near 50-50. Come back and visit the blog for an upcoming post on my personal cross-cultural experience!
Image credit: Freeimages