The novelist Gish Jin points to what she sees as the difference between Asian culture and Western psychology by noting that Asians emphasize the group as primary whereas Westerners put the individual ahead of the group.
She echoes studies of Eastern and Western thinking done by Richard Nisbett, who claims that “Westerners are protagonists of their autobiographical novels” but Asians are “merely cast members in movies touching on their existence.”
Experiments show that when looking at pictures, Westerners see the foreground whereas Asians focus on the background. For Westerners, individuals stand out and the background fades; for Easterners matters are the other way round.
Whether these cultural differences indicate that perception can never be independent of culture (as some claim) is a matter of debate. What is clear is that both approaches have their strengths and their drawbacks.
Too great a stress on the individual and you are left with people who are bereft of deep connections to others and find themselves afloat in a mass of meaningless events. There is also the problem of the disdain felt for those who don’t succeed. Compassion is the cost of hyper-individualism.
Too great a stress on the group and you are left with a mindlessness that has no room for individual responsibility. There is the additional problem of dragging down creative spirits that can lift all of humanity with new insights and innovation.
The trick is to combine the best of both worlds. In the past, this may have been an unrealizable dream. But as the world grows tighter and cross-cultural experiences are commonplace. What has happened in the world of food provides hope.
Who would have thought a generation ago that Americans today would be eating raw fish? Yet in backwaters and by-ways, it is nearly as easy to find a sushi bar as a barbeque joint.
The world eats differently today and it is possible that in the near future we will be thinking differently about the human psyche. The philosophical problem was framed more than a century ago: the one (individual) vs. the many (the group). The solution to the problem is unfolding before us.
Gish Jen writes that Americans ask, Who am I? What do I want? and Do I feel like doing this? Asians, she says, ask: Where are we? Whose house is that? What is the way?
All of us—Westerners, Asians, Africans and everyone else—need to ask all the questions. With enough asking we may wind up with better and more diverse people, just as world food choices are now better and more diverse.