Friday, June 20, 2008

Geography of thought.

The Geography of Thought : How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why by Richard Nisbett

I bought this book in Seoul in January. I hoped it would do several things for me:

a) I hoped it would quench my thirst for some of the research-based non-fiction books I had to read so many of during undergrad as a social science major.
b) I hoped it would help me make sense of the craziness I perceived as going on all around me here in Korea.
c) I hoped it would explain some of why I sometimes felt SO American and sometimes SO Korean and sometimes SO neither and both at the same time.

Here is a quote that jumped out at me:

While a special occasion for the ancient Greek might mean attendance at plays and poetry readings, a special occasion for the Chinese of the same period would be an opportunity to visit with friends and family.

Yes, and wow. This jumped out mostly because it described my own confusing and complex internal struggle. While not always, a special occasion, every weekend I was confronted by this choice: visit my family or travel/do something cultural?

Be filially pious (pietous?) and visit my family? One kind of special occasion. Or be independent and add to my experiences by doing something more cultural and intellectually stimulating? Another kind of special occasion.

My dad always pushed for me to spend time with my family (his family) while my mom pushed for me to do what I wanted. Thus fulfilling their stereotyped roles as traditional, ironfisted father and liberal, self-improving mother.

This next quote further got me thinking:

Philosopher Henry Rosemont has written: “… for the early Confucians, there can be no me in isolation, to be considered abstractly: I am the totality of roles I live in relation to specific others...taken collectively, they weave, for each of us, a unique pattern of personal identity, such that if some of my roles change, the others will of necessity change also, literally making me a different person.

The "Western" way IS, in fact, so much more about individualism and the self. Whereas, clearly, the "Eastern" way is more about the self in relation to others. ALWAYS in relation to others.

Of course ancient Greeks chose self-improvement in the form of music, plays, or other classically intellectual endeavors in their spare time. In a culture where the self is the most important entity, any improvement to the self, especially in terms of being cultured is an improvement to the most important thing in the society.

In the East, where the self does not exist without others, this relationship is seen and treated literally and metaphorically. Literally in terms, of family ties and bonds and blood relationships.
*Literal example: Without my parents, I would not exist. And without my grandparents, my parents would not exist. And thus without (ever-increasing web of) these people I would not be.
*Metaphoric example: The concept of "me/self/I" does not exist outside of my relationships to others. I am Youn's daughter, Jessica's sister, Namsung's English teacher, Ashley's friend, etc. etc. etc. WIthout these relationships/definitions, I am NOTHING.

Coming from THIS particular understanding of the self, clearly it makes sense to always foster and nurture these bonds and relationships, THUS strengthening the self. Strong relationships = strong definition of self.

The book was a bit cheesy and overgeneralized certain things, but in general it was an interesting take on the confusion that is my life. A confusion that has only increased and been in constant tumult since my sojourn to this country of my forefathers (and foremothers - let's not be sexist here). I have often experienced conflict over simple decisions for my friends - conflicted by my ideas of superiority of self (sometimes it's ok to be selfish) and my inbred need to please others and create social harmony (never being able to say "no).

Being in Korea, only confused me all the more. It both challenged and strengthened the Western "ME" parts of me and the Eastern "US" parts of me/us. You can imagine this internal struggle/battle of wills and crazy snippets of voices of advice and random mutterings from my family, friends, society, media, Confucius, Aristotle, etc. that was CONSTANTLY running through my head. ON top of all that, there was the INTERNAL part that's like, I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU SAY, I'M AN AMERICAN AND I DO THINGS MY WAY some days, and other days it's like, I CARE WHAT ALL OF YOU SAY AND I'VE GOTTA JUST SAY YES AND DO WHAT MAKES EVERYONE HAPPY (increase overall utility - that was also kindof the econ/pps nerd part of me, in addition to the Korean and American parts).

I could totally branch out at this point about how the "Asian" perspective helped me understand why Koreans are the way they are. But I think I might've already beaten that topic to death. And back. 

So I'll end with how this both enlightened and further confused me. It helped me (us?) understand the two separate camps (usually just two) in my head reasoning opposite arguments for the same cause (strengthen self for self and strengthen community/family for self). And it helped me understand why this place, this country, and these people brought these issues that had only been simmering and occasionally spilling over in America to a boil in Korea.

Western thinking:


Eastern thinking:


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