Friday, 16 March 2012

East vs West in pictures

A blog's got nothing these days if it ain't got infographics. What's that all about then, eh? Good old-fashioned words not cutting it anymore? Anyway, not one to be left behind a trend that's probably already démodé if I know about it, I remembered we were shown some neat little representations of the differences between eastern and western cultures by a Vietnamese sociologist during our orientation program. Back in 2009, before infographics were cool. Just saying.

By no means am I the first person to write about this series by Chinese-German artist Yang Liu and it seems on many other blogs that have done so before me, the comments turn into a frothing racist free-for-all. So I'd just like to say that these are obviously very generalised representations and reflect the artist's personal experiences living in both China and Germany.  Even though China and Vietnam, and Germany and Australia, are very different countries, many of the artist's observations are still applicable.

Enough with all the words, already! Show us the pictures! Germany/generalised western society is in blue, and China/generalised eastern society is in red.

(Warning: More words do appear after the pictures. Avert your eyes, if necessary.)


Contacts

The elderly in everyday life

 Transport

Queuing

Lifestyle

Handling problems

Punctuality

Opinions

The child

Parties

In a restaurant

There is so much in these which ring true for me, and I've thought back to them often. The first time I went to a Vietnamese party I remember realising that the representation of guests sitting in a circle was not just symbolic, but an actual and accurate depiction of how party-goers arrange themselves. Similarly, Vietnamese children are so often literally the centre of all adult attention, dozens of hands attending to them all at once, and any westerner who has been in Vietnam for five minutes can attest to the accuracy of the difference in noise levels, and not just "in a restaurant".


The ones I've thought about the most, though, are the ones showing the connectedness of eastern societies. I'm in awe at the ease with which Vietnamese people (generally!) manage their connections with so many more people than we do in the west, and with much greater flexibility. Social proximity and interdependence seem to be much more highly valued, maybe just by virtue of living so close together with so many other humans. By comparison, people like me, always banging on about my independence and autonomy and "me time", just look kind of... alone. 


This brings me to the one graphic which I'm not sure about:


Ego


I think the idea of "ego" is just so culturally different between eastern and western cultures that you can't even represent it on the same graph, let alone compare it. Apples, oranges etc. I know western society is (generally!) rampagingly individualist, but it's hard to think of a tiny little ego like that sitting inside one of the increasing numbers of Bentleys and Rolls Royces clogging the streets of Hanoi. Maybe it just goes to show that in any culture, being individualist is a luxury.


An English friend of ours who works in conservation here got into an argument with a Vietnamese colleague who accused him of being selfish because instead of working in a high-paying job and starting a family, he was doing low-paying but personally satisfying, meaningful work to try to prevent species extinction in Vietnam. I think this fundamental difference in the perception of what is "selfish", or even "the self", is so complex and interesting and challenging, it couldn't be pictorially represented if all the infographics on the internet, even the ones about rainbow unicorns, were combined into one. 

16 comments:

  1. Hey, i am supprised about the "contact" picture. but i think you now are in the 'red" box!
    i dont agree on the "opinions", to me, my experience of knowing and working with around "several tens of Tay" i think Tay should be placed in the red box!

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    1. In my limited experience in Vietnam I would say that Vietnamese are pretty direct in their opinions when it comes to things like another person's appearance. For example, "you are fat", "I don't like what you are wearing today" or "you look fat in what you are wearing today". I get those comments at home too BUT only from my mum!

      However, an opinion on something more substantial requires a long preamble then followed by a motherhood statement. It takes me 3 -5 follow up questions to get the real opinion, or something close to it.

      On the other hand my interpreters would probably say that I am like the red box in opinions. "please be more direct in your thoughts!"

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    2. Haha, I think it comes down to what's deemed "sensitive topics" in each culture. Tays are so precious about so many things, but then we're always banging on about how important transparency is. So long as it's not in relation to our weight. Or our clothes. Or our height. Or our age.

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  2. Haha, for "contacts" I feel more like the blue guy under "lifestyle" at the moment! And yes, the "opinions" one is interesting. I think many people would say that the Vietnamese are a lot more direct and blunt with their opinions than Westerners. But then again, there are so many subgenres of "Western" too, with the English usually beating around the bush more than Americans for example. So many stereotypes, so little time...

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  3. Tabs, you've illustrated the concept of self and ego much better than this silly artist. Everyone knows artists are mad as snakes and take too many drugs anyhow.

    Ps. Your orientation was way cooler than ours. Boo hiss

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    1. Yay words! Although it sounds like you might have some issues with artists, Lani. Paint a picture about it.

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  4. I hadn't heard of these pictures before seeing this post - really interesting stuff. I agree that the ego one is debatable - sadly I think large egos come with large amounts of money. If you talk to people in rural Vietnam everyone seems to be pretty humble, but here in Saigon (and Hanoi too) it's hard not to notice the ridiculous people flashing their wealth through luxury sedans and brand-name clothing, acting like they own the world. I think it will be interesting to see how these 'stereotypes' hold up as Vietnam, and Asia in general, continue to become more wealthy.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael, and I agree. I think there is, however, a difference between "ego" as self-importance and "ego" as the more philosophical idea of "self". In Asia generally, I think the "self" is sublimated more into the family than in the West, which might be what the artist was getting at. But as I said, all very debatable!

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  5. I doubt the ego illustration has to do with the "increasing number of Bentleys and Rolls Royces clogging the streets of Hanoi," as your argument went. It is possible that there are more and more young billionaire in Hanoi who can afford such luxurious cars, but the total number can't take half on the population, while those infographics are meant to generalize. As you may feel overwhelmed with stories about ostentatious nameless people and celebutantes who own hundreds of luxurious brand items, the attention-seeking social media is at fault for making a storm in a teacup. Showing off is what they are doing, and it's hard to imagine no one has ever tried to when we think others don't have what we have. It is foolish, childish, but otherwise worthless of hype.

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    1. Hi Chi. I think you're right that the pictures are generalised, whereas the case of status-driven luxury car-owners is more specific. Thanks for your comment - them's fightin' words!

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  6. It's a difficult topic to wrap your head around. I seem to feel to notice cultural differences that seem fundamental (e.g., collective vs individualistic mindset), but it's very hard to articulate what they might be without oversimplifying or missing the point entirely. Even when talking about the US, I find myself always qualifying what I say as the country seems fragmented into groups with wildly different values. There are some characteristics that cut across those groups I suppose. As for Vietnam, I mostly feel like I have little additional insight into Vietnamese culture than before I got here. Most of the things I've learned seem superficial/surface level.

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    1. Couldn't agree more. I think over-generalising is all too easy, but without it, it would be difficult to even talk about different cultures at all. You'd be tripping over all the disclaimers and exemptions. BTW you're due another blog post, I think!

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    2. Yeah, it's been a while. I have a few ideas bumbling around in my brain, but I'm distractable I guess. I made a mental note to get the sign post written this weekend (to prove to you that it was real!), so we'll see how it goes.

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  7. I think some of the things cant be labeled as cultural differences or culture at all: they are simply bad behavior,might even call it primitive behavior. Things like queuing, being loud at restaurants,punctuality etc.. but the author probably tried to be politically correct. Spitting or peeing in the street is normal here but it's not cultural difference - it's just primitive behavior and so are some of others.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, but, well, I disagree with it for a number of reasons. The first being that I don't think there's much to be gained by using your own culture as a benchmark for what is "good" and "bad" behaviour in another's. You might not LIKE it, but I don't see the benefit of appointing yourself the international arbiter of the universals of "good" and "bad", especially when it comes to essentially harmless behaviour like the volume at restaurants!

      Also, having lived in France for a while, where, as an Australian I was repeatedly told I "have no culture", I'm pretty quick to stick up for non-white European culture as a real, live thing. Just because it's not the culture you're used to, doesn't mean it's not a "culture".

      Finally, I personally don't think queuing and being punctual and being quiet are more "evolved" behaviours! Actually, the longer I spend in Vietnam, the more I'm convinced that queuing is a mug's game.

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    2. Thanks for reply but I still maintain my point: any behavior that is different from our can not be labeled as a different culture. Culture can not be used as a excuse to unethical or ill-mannered behavior. Majority of this ill-mannered behavior is coming from people who came from countryside to live in city and are uneducated - it has nothing to do with culture. Most of educated Vietnamese folk frowns on such behavior,just like westerners.

      why is queuing a mug game? - maybe that's a sign you are staying too long in Vietnam ;) I know I have similar problem - over years living here I started driving more carelessly, I break traffic laws and just expect to bribe myself out.I even drive wrong way sometimes instead of going longer route.I have no shame staring at people anymore and I even caught myself picking my nose in public few times. I can hardly say that I adapted to Vietnamese culture - it is far more correct to say that I picked up some of ill-mannered habits (again, dont forget that this city is full of uneducated countryside folk - it is false to assume that all this is different culture just because you see it everywhere. It just appears so because of large numbers of people doing it. ).

      BTW, that children iconographic doesn't just mean that child is the center of attention from everyone - children here are on the lowest level of social ladder,especially in family (which is another cultural difference that I find hard to accept) although,like you noticed, it seems that children get all the attention. I think it means that grandparents have big word in bringing up the children while in west we do not "allow" our parents interfering in our children's upbringing (sure, they help but that's about it).

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