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]