14—20 April 2008

Issue No. 15          

Since Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the west coast of India in 1497, Europeans have colonized Asia, Africa and the Americas and dominated the world.  That dominance continues today and learning to live with Westerners has become for me a life-long lesson. 


My first real encounter with the Occident came when I left Malaysia as a teenager to study in America.  Since then I have lived in France, Germany, the UK, Belarus and Canada.  Of course, the West is not a homogeneous entity; American culture is dissimilar in many ways to French or Russian culture, and the history of each country’s relations with Asia is different.  But because Americans and their influence are the most pervasive in Asia today, I will point to them occasionally without forgetting the differences between the Old World and the New and the enormous diversity among Europeans.  By East Asia, I refer to the countries along the Pacific Rim such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore which are strongly influenced by China’s Confucian tradition.  This essay explores why the East got left behind, how Asians feel about themselves, and suggests ways to work effectively with Western colleagues.


\Western primacy, particularly in the last two hundred years, has left a deep imprint on the Asian psyche (and indeed on the entire Two-Thirds World), something that perhaps only a material shift in the global power balance will redress. 


The Westerner’s sense of superiority is often greeted by an Asian lack of self-confidence.  The Asian frequently feels like a child relating to an adult or a student to a teacher.  This dysfunctional relationship is reinforced by the fact that the Westerners in Asia usually come from the educated elite and hold positions of authority.  Asians hardly ever meet the European or American farm worker or truck driver.  Thus East meets West on an unequal footing which often breeds resentment.  The psychological disequilibrium is real and recovery requires not only a cognitive understanding of the stature gap but an internal restoration of self-confidence.  Healing begins by rejecting false beliefs about the worth of self and other and embracing healthy ones.


The condition brought about by colonialism is reinforced by certain Asian cultural traits.  Asian societies are hierarchical by tradition and those of lower of rank behave deferentially toward those of higher rank.  Of course, this kind of impulse exists in other civilizations too.  Social structure in medieval Europe was equally feudal but class relations there were tempered by Christianity.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “You are all sons of God…There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  This Christian doctrine of racial, social and gender equality left a powerful mark on Western civilization.  East Asia, on the other hand, is shaped by Confucianism which stresses the dutiful attitude of each member of society over the intrinsic value of the individual.  Because there is no personal God who loves each man and woman as his very own, Confucian thought implies worth based on one’s station in life.  A man is measured by his wealth, power and prestige, and a prince is worth more than a pauper.  By extension nations are weighed the same way and the citizen of an advanced country is worth more than one from a less developed one.  But this kind of thinking cuts both ways; it can make a nation feel proud or inferior depending on the strength of the foreigners it faces.


Difference in values poses other challenges too.  Americans value individualism, independence and assertiveness.  Asians are just the reverse; they place the group above the self and prefer interdependence and consensus.  These differences work against the Asian in the company of Americans.  Just when an American would push, the Asian pulls.  One vexing problem is how and when to speak one’s mind.  It is quite normal for Americans to voice disagreement and I have witnessed them locked in heated debate only to chat away congenially during the coffee break as if nothing happened.  When I express amazement, the Americans tell me that “It’s only a game” and that no one takes offence at the polemic.  In Asia American-style debate would be regarded as rude, offensive and could permanently jeopardize relations.  Rejecting someone’s opinion gets mixed up with rejecting the person as well.  When a fierce argument breaks out, the Asian is apt to keep silent or politely agree in order to maintain a semblance of harmony.  These differences in etiquette have roots in the intellectual traditions of each civilization. 


Ancient Greece was made up of independent city states and a philosopher whose ideas offended the ruler of one state could easily seek refuge or patronage in a rival state.  This together with the Greek penchant for novel ideas fostered a culture of intellectual discourse and contest.  There was a period in China’s history when the country consisted of independent states too.  But since its unification under the Qin emperor in 221 BC, China has for the most part been a monolithic centralized state that allowed only limited intellectual diversity.  For centuries imperial civil service examination candidates were tested on their mastery of the Confucian classics, not on originality of thought or ability to critique the classics.  Hence, political correctness in Asia is more entrenched.  Up till today schooling in many parts of Asia involves rote learning.  It is a learning style that dates from antiquity and is not without merit.  However, it implies a “correct” or “standard” answer to every question.  Because of their respect for rank, Asian students almost never disagree with their teachers, textbooks or anything they regard as an authority. 


Another value that works against the Asian is the Eastern notion of humility.  Promoting oneself or broadcasting one’s abilities and achievements is frowned upon.  Instead one is taught to be self-effacing.  This kind of humility may be a virtue but it puts the Asian at a disadvantage in many situations as in being unable to articulate his strengths during a job interview.


What then does an Asian need to do to work effectively among Westerners?  In crossing from one culture to another, the old adage “In Rome, do as the Romans do” applies.  This means playing by new rules even if it feels uncomfortable at first.  He needs to tactically turn from his own cultural programming and learn a different set of behavior.   Essential steps include the following:



When East Meets West — An East Asian Perspective 

By Michael Tai

Practicing Assertiveness – Assertive is not the same as aggressive.  You can state your preferences without feeling guilty.  While Asians often communicate with subtle cues, Westerners prefer plain talk.


Voicing Opinion – Westerners are accustomed to voicing their opinion and quite used to having others do the same.  Everyone is entitled or expected to hold an opinion, and a lack of opinion could be construed as a lack of personality or personhood.


Embracing Disagreement – Disagreement is a normal part of life.  Contesting someone’s ideas does not equal rejecting the person.


Affirming Self-Worth – All people are created equal.  Feeling inferior is just as wrong as feeling superior; shame is as detrimental as pride.

Text Box: Highlights of Last Week

New Courses Commencing

ä Counselling Skills: Working with Adolescents

CO236/ECF516, 1.5cr (not for audit)

Starting: Wed, 16 Apr, 7.15—10.15 pm

Lecturer: Mr Yam Keng Mun


ä Where did our Bibles come from? The Text and Canon of OT & NT

MTh512, 2/1.5cr; OT/NT170, 1.5cr

Starting: Fri, 18 Apr, 7.30—10 pm

Lecturer: Dr Philip Satterthwaite


Chapel Last Week

Rev Dr David Wong gave a message on Ehud (Judges 3.12-30) as an example of how “the left hand of God” works. You may read more of such “surprises” in his latest book The Left Hand of God and Other Surprises, a collection of sermons illustrating how God uses the seemingly weak and insignificant for his purposes. This book  is being sold at $17.00 and may be obtained from Jolene at the office.


Chapel Next Week

Our speaker next week is Ps Timothy Chong of Yishun Christian Church.


Lunch Fellowship

Our lunch together was a treat in all ways. We ate, we talked and we listened. Dr Philip Satterthwaite played us 3 pieces of classical music—by Scarlatti, Bach and Beethoven, in that order. All decidedly “religious” music actually, that being the general character of that period. What was interesting and rather moving was the way Philip traced his own musical story into the pieces, at the same time explaining an approach to appreciating them. He took delight in sharing his “funeral” piece—the Beethoven—which if allowed to be played at all would express the sum of all that he “was” (in a manner of speaking). What was the name of that piece? See what you miss when you don’t turn up?


So all in all it was a very satisfying lunch. I even got to borrow his CD (Bach’s “Art of Fugue”) which I had been curious about ever since reading Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music. I can’t get over the serendipity of it all! Enough said …. See you at our next lunch-in in May (2nd Wednesday). You never know what surprises await you! (PK)


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