Mrs. Shiva Kannappan
The vast cultural differences that exist between the east and the west, is a topic of interest amongst all ages. Conservative easterners are quick to label an open-minded person as “Westernized” based on certain ideals, thoughts and behavior. On the other hand, the youth of today consider it stylish to dress and behave and be perceived as Western. There are numerous books and programs that speak about the various aspects of Western vs. Eastern culture and the superiority of one over the other.
My objective in writing this short essay is to capture some real life experiences of the differences between the cultures of the East and the West and certain other concentrated regional and communal cultures that I have seen and experienced during my life’s journey. The analysis has been thought provoking and has helped me understand the perspectives of people, their ways of life and the ways in which cultures are perceived and understood in general.
To provide a brief background about myself, I am an Asian Indian, born in a small town in the south of India. I would spontaneously say to anyone I introduce myself for the first time without a second thought that, ‘I am born and brought up in Trichy, a small town which is a 6 hour drive from Chennai’ for the benefit of those who have not heard of the town. I have been pleasantly surprised when 8 out of 10 folks I have introduced myself to, knew about the town Trichy when I had least expected them to have even heard of the town. Well, in the small town of Trichy, I also hail from the Nagarathar Community, a community that is known to be rooted with conservative values that are held close to the heart of people who belong to the community.
From where I was born, I would never have imagined the experiences that the journey of my life had in store for me. I am glad to share my experiences through my writing. I hope to write more of my life’s experiences as non-fiction reading material and also wish to progress to write some fiction as well. If you have any feedback on my writing, please pen me back at email@example.com.
To provide a perspective, a reference to the West in this essay is representative of the Americas (North and South America) and Europe. However, I speak more about my experiences in the United States of America, where I have lived for the past few years. A reference to the East is representative of East and South East Asia which would include India and the South East Asian countries covering Singapore, Malaysia etc.,
I should apologize if this article comes across as focused towards the Indian community in the various parts of the world, while I hope the instances narrated could be viewed in general.
In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of moving to Bangalore, a metropolitan city in the south of India, now also known as one of the Tech Hubs in India. I remember those days, when I felt the culture in Bangalore was more liberal and open-minded than the culture in the small town of Trichy where I was born.
College kids were more open to go out with their boy friends, out in the open and even discuss openly about relationships with their friends and parents. All this was pretty alien to me from where I came from.
In the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of living in the Middle East for around a year and traveling across the UAE countries. The contrast between Middle Eastern values and Eastern/South Eastern values is quite an eye-opener as well. It gives the Easterner, a sense of the extremes of conservative values and allows a sigh of relief in certain aspects.
I moved to Singapore, around the late 90s and had the privilege of living in Singapore for around 10 years. I remember the initial days when I analyzed the shift in culture between India and Singapore, and the fact that Singapore was seen as a hub where East meets the West. Singapore has a certain flair and flamboyance and this can be attributed to its unique location in the map and also to the excellent infrastructure and facilities made possible by a stable and futuristic Government.
Singapore is a great land of opportunity with a cultural mix that is so unique that anyone from any part of the world will feel immediately at home. Singapore is home to a fusion of cultures that helps you learn the niche differences between cultures and helps you adapt seamlessly into the local lifestyle. Easily accessible hawker centers, with a multitude cuisines and finger-licking good food, are something that I still miss about Singapore. Irrespective of the time of the day, be it midnight or in the odd hours in the afternoon, there are always outlets that are open where you can find the food that you crave for. Singapore is truly a Food Paradise and is also known to be a Shopping Paradise.
Singapore also provides a good balanced environment between conservative and western values. Right from TV programs to national events, community values are prioritized and even the Government takes the necessary steps to ensure community and family bonding is excelled amidst its citizens and residents. Community Welfare is on the national agenda and hence automatically becomes a part and parcel of daily life and a way of living.
Other countries in the South East, such as China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand share similar values and cultures as in Singapore and in India with a general perception of a shift towards a Westernized culture.
The United States and Europe which represents the majority of the Western culture, gives priority to inpidual values much more than anywhere else in the world. This is the single most important reason why Western Culture is seen to be more “open-minded” than Eastern Values, from my perspective. The general feeling is that each inpidual knows what is best for them and hence there is no need for an agenda at a community, social or a national level that tries to preach the best of approaches to life.
It is hard not to notice significant differences from the moment one steps into countries in the West. The first most glaring difference is the great sense of urgency for national security. It becomes very obvious that officials are trying to scan every inpidual passing through immigration to spot any culprits. Hence the moment we enter any countries in the West, everyone becomes more aware and learned about National and International Security, the ways of the local Police, and the importance to follow rules, such that you are not spotted, stopped or questioned. This tends to create a situation where you do not see people hanging around in groups along roads, in front of an office, in a car park etc.,. You also notice that most places outside of a building are deserted and you don’t see any people walking or straying around. It may feel creepy in the beginning, but then gradually, the feeling sinks in as a way of life.
On the lighter side, the fact that captivated me the most and that I found the hardest to adjust to, having come from the east is the concept of “Giving Tips (in the form of cash)” that prevails in the West. Westerners tend to consider the service industry with respect. Service Professionals, who work as waiters at restaurants and other roles in hotels, cleaners, health care professionals etc., are treated with a high level of respect in the West than in the east.
Giving Tips at the end of the meal is a tradition, be it a taxi driver, a waiter at a restaurant, an employee at a petrol kiosk who fills your gas for you or a concierge at a hotel who drives a free shuttle to drop you off at the nearest public transport. Every service professional is seen with respect for the work that he does and is given a tip when his service is rendered to us. It is heart warming to see this difference although it is hard to adjust to this cultural difference in the beginning.
The cultural differences when analyzed further, speaks about the abundance of resources in the West as well. People earn fairly and give fairly. One of the first differences you perceive is the earning potential in the West vs. the East. With the dollar and the Sterling Pound being stronger than most eastern currencies, there is an obvious upward potential due to the currency conversion in the earning potential between the two ends of the world. However, even after currency fluctuations, you can see a 20 to 30% increase in the amount of money a similar job can earn in dollars in the West vs. in the East.
I was amazed that a salary of a quarter million dollars is quite common in many sectors in the West. Countless number of people have started with bare minimal qualifications and resources and have managed to reach such staggering heights in their career within a short span of time. Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his interviews explains how America and the values of this country helped him reach his “American Dream”. Barack Obama, now the President of the United States, was also earning a handsome salary before being elected into office early this year.
I have been fascinated by this country, its landscape, its people, their high ambitions and the great potential that exists in this economy that thrives by this very ambition of its people. I take a drive down the lanes and streets of each town I visit and am amazed to see the prosperity and growth that had been built and maintained by people who live here. Houses are huge beyond imagination here and not rarely, but more commonly. You can find many such houses built over an acre of land or more, with its own yard all around, colonial houses with many windows, houses spaced out so well and maintained with such beauty. A decent two storey house with 2 bedrooms and a basement could be priced anywhere from USD 350,000 dollars upwards. An ideal home could have up-to 6 bedrooms, be built on at least 1 acre of land and have a garage that fits 4 cars and can be priced more than a million dollars. Such houses are not rare and that is the beauty of this economy. So the “American Dream” would relate to a million-dollar home and a quarter million dollar a year job!! That is truly awesome and inspiring!!
Well, a lot said about the abundance of resources in the West, the East has its share of advantages. A closely knit community, easier access to support from the community and a balance between conservative ideals and liberalism are some key factors that can be highlighted.
On a more serious note, East vs. West is commonly compared on the basis on relationships and their longevity. We are all aware of the fact that relationships are hard to sustain in today’s world and the rate of separations and break-ups are on the rise. The expectation of anyone with a conservative outlook to life would be to continue to cooperate and make a relationship work, no matter the odds. This could also be associated with an Eastern culture in general. The other end of the debate would be to question the need to hang on to a relationship where mutual respect and understanding does not exist. Such thoughts are perceived by the conservative people to be “open-minded” and of a “Western mindset”.
A common advice given by a spontaneous conservative to a separated wife or a husband in the East is that the best place to live and move on with life without much impact when separated from the spouse is in the West. The basis of such a thought sounds ironical to me as much as it sounds sensible. I am contradicting myself, as I am unable to phantom the right vs. the wrong, the better vs. the worst of the two alternatives presented here.
I have been living in the United States for the past almost 3 years now and I realize and understand the background to the perception of the conservative mind. I have traveled to Europe, Canada and parts of America a couple of times and I notice that people generally tend to live an isolated life in the West. The first aspect that struck me when I landed in the states was that everything looked so far apart. Even buildings were rarely built close to each other. This does say something. Westerners value space!
Visual images of the narrows lanes in Trichy, the town where I was born immediately convey the vast contrast between the East and the West. Each inch of the narrow lane in the busy shopping district of Main Guard Gate in Trichy is maximized and utilized as much as possible. You can spot a tea-shop that sells tea for a Rupee, a barber shop which is barely furnished and is ready to give you a great hair-cut for less than 50 Rupees, some road-side vendors selling fruits, vegetables and any other sellable stuff at a rate they set depending on the buyer!! You could spot a lady seated on the road with a cardboard box in front of her that would be her mobile shop, where she displays flowers strung together in a garland, flowers of various colors and shapes, 5 different types of jasmine, roses and many others. I don’t even know the names of some of the flowers in English!! Amidst all this you would find a snack shop or two selling fried vadas, four for a Rupee, or probably a walk-in restaurant, meagerly furnished with 10 stools serving hot idlis and dosas for cents. All this is a complete contrast to the West.
A typical block in the US would have as minimal as 2 or 3 shops in one of the most crowded streets; whereas the same length of space could hold anywhere from 15 to 20 stalls in a crowded street in the East. In the West people value and ensure space while the objectives of the people in the East are widely different. Easterners look more towards utilization and maximization. There is no concept of space there. Anyone has a tendancy to encroach on anyone else’s property – unless it is identified as illegal with the strongest of evidences to prove so. You would not be surprised to notice that corner shops or “Mama shops” as they are called, encroach on the roads and display items from their shop for sale on the roadside on public property. As a commoner walking along the road, if I were to stop by and tell the shop owner that he was encroaching on public property, I would be kicked and thrown out. Unless someone takes legal action and strictly condones such an action, the shop owner would not stop using the pavement or the road for free as an extended shop space. Awesome mindset one could say!!
Further analysis on the differences between the East and the West answers so many questions. Imagine 5 candles placed within 10 inches of each other on one side and another 5 candles placed 1 feet of each other on the other side. A breeze that could blow off the first candle could easily blow off the other 5 candles that are placed close to each other. On the other hand, the breeze with the same force may only be able to blow off one candle on the other side where the candles are placed far from each other. Think of a similar situation of people. It is hard to know what is happening in another person’s world when the distance between them is wide. The closer it is to reach out, meet and socialize with other folks, the easier it is to know and be affected by or even comment on what is happening. The concept of space creates a brake in the speed with which people interact and communicate with each other. This I would say is a good thing.
Analyzing the general advice that a separated spouse could lead a more peaceful life in the West than in the east – I would say that the West is just a way of life. Western thoughts and ideals does not mean that Westerners are more prone to being separated and cannot maintain long relationships. I have seen families, colleagues and friends who have been born and brought up in the United States and who have had relationships that have lasted for over 20 to 30 years.
As I said, The West is just a way of life. Inpiduals are more self driven and self made in the West and are less influenced by thoughts, ideals and factors of the community, the society or the nation as a whole. Each inpidual value their space as they respect the space of other’s. They live and let live. This is a thought worth contemplating.
No matter the differences, each culture has its strengths and weaknesses. An analysis just helps in understanding the differences and capitalizing on the strengths and helps us to easily adapt to each other and respect each other’s values.