“What would you choose? Love or Bread?” This is the question which parents in East Asia often ask their children when trying to convince them to marry the “right person”. It is a question that reveals some key elements of East Asian culture and mentality.
It is well known to Western observers of East Asian matters that in the countries of the Orient family planning plays a much more important role than in the West. When I was in Europe I seldom met people who began thinking about marriage when they were in their early twenties, let alone before they had found a suitable partner. In Asia, the way people think about their future is completely different, and I believe that if we really want to have a deep cultural exchange, we need understand these peculiarities.
As I have already explained in one of my earlier posts, in order to talk about and understand a culture, it is necessary to observe it. Observations are based on subjective experiences and therefore limited to particular cases, and every generalization derived from observations must always be regarded as hypotheses, not as an objective truth that applies to every single individual of a group.
For example, if I say that Italian people are emotional, this may or may not be true in every single case, but if most Italians I’ve met are more emotional than most Germans I’ve met, I can form a judgment based on these observations, knowing that it doesn’t necessarily apply to all Italians or Germans. Moreover, when talking with other people I can compare my observations with theirs and formulate a hypothesis, which is only a possibility and should not become a stereotype.
Family values are very heterogeneous, depending both on individual choices and local culture. For example, in Southern Italy – where I come from – family ties are still very strong. But even in places like Germany or Northern Italy, which have high divorce rates and where a large number of couples live together without getting married, you can still find a lot of people who have a traditional standpoint on family. In this post I will try to highlight some phenomena that I have observed in Europe and in Asia. In my view, the ideal of marriage and family has undergone a severe decline over the last decades in the West, whereas in Asia it is still very much alive, and this is mainly due to the difference between what I would call the individual norm of the West and the social standard of the East.
Individual Norm versus Social Standard – Why in Asia Family Matters
As I have said in one of my previous posts, Western analysts often use the antithesis between shame society and guilt society to explain a core difference between East and West. This distinction is extremely useful, but it is not sufficient because it doesn’t take into account some of the major characteristics of the evolution of Western societies during the past three hundred years.
I will argue that what makes Asia really different from the West, is that in the West the erosion of old values – especially those related to Christian thinking and society – has led people to question social conventions and to find in themselves the meaning and the purpose of their own lives, whereas Asian societies tend to keep collective values with which individuals identify themselves. Let’s briefly examine this development.
While in the Middle Ages the Christian religion permeated virtually all aspects of life in Europe, the beginning of the modern era witnessed a weakening of religious values. The Enlightenment openly challenged the supremacy of the Christian narrative, starting a secular discourse that has turned upside down the foundation of Western societies.