Thanks to the economic growth of East Asia and China’s opening up in the Deng Xiaoping era, from the 1980’s onward the relationship between the Western world and East Asia has fundamentally changed. As a consequence, the contact between Western and Asian people has been steadily intensifying. Business people, students, professionals, tourists are among the protagonists of this new era of exchange, which is more and more ‘democratic’, in the sense that while in the past the movement was mostly from East to West, now the opposite case is not a rarity any more. The 2008 financial crisis even prompted a new wave of expatriation of Westerners towards Asia, in search for jobs that the troubled Western economies seem unable to offer to their young population.
Traditionally, economic power has attracted the interest of Westerners more than culture. When Japan was growing at a pace the West had never dreamt of, media were obsessed with Japan. When the Japanese economy collapsed, however, the interest in Japan in many respects collapsed, too. Nowadays there are by no means as many best-selling books or documentaries about this country as one could find back in the years of the Japanese economic miracle. In the last decade, China has taken its place.
This phenomenon shows that the focus of the knowledge Westerners are desirous to acquire about East Asia is mainly of economic and political nature.
But what about culture? What do we really know about these countries except for how much they grow per year or whether they are Western-style democracies? It is not surprising that, for example, most Westerners know very little about Japanese mentality and society, despite more than a hundred years of intense contact and a lot of books and articles written about it. Main-stream media are more likely to focus on economy, politics, some surface characteristics like food or things that appear different and strange to the average Westerner, thus creating a misleading image of those countries.
One reason why this happens is that talking about culture is way more strenuous than talking about economics or politics. In fact, culture is one of the most difficult things to describe. In view of the fact that every country has millions of people with different experiences, opinions and personality, it is hard not to generalize and oversimplify.
When I talk with people who want to know more about my home country, Italy, for example, they seem to assume that I have the authority to say something in the name of all Italians. But if they talk with other Italians, they will soon find out that people from the same country often contradict each other. Not even nationals of the same country can have a 100% agreement on their own culture and identity.
Nevertheless, even though it’s impossible to analyze the culture of a country in a ‘scientific’ way, that is, in a way that leaves no space for disagreement and criticism, there are indeed interpretations that can help us deal with a foreign culture.
An example of successful attempt at cultural analysis is The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict, one of my favourite books and in my opinion one of the most enlightening works on Japanese culture ever written. Reading this book is like being guided by someone to put together the pieces of a puzzle.
I certainly don’t have either the knowledge, the talent or the time to write an analysis as deep as Ruth Benedict’s. Yet after one year in Asia I think I can at least attempt to explain some of the conclusions I have drawn from my observations so far, in the hope they might be interesting or useful to you. Starting with the next post, I will examine the phenomena of social pressure and expectation in Chinese culture.