Straddling Individualism and Communalism: Which Am I?

I have a great story that explains how societal norms greatly differs between Asians and Westerners.

The summer after I graduated from college, I went to China on a two week trip composed of college students mostly studying or interested in government. The student composition was geographically diverse, with students from colleges all over the United States. The same couldn’t be said for ethnic diversity since I was one of only a handful of non-White people and even the minorities among us grew up and was educated in the U.S. In short, this group was distinctly American.   In stark contrast, our tour guides and bus drivers were distinctly Chinese even if the former could speak fairly good English.

Our typical day started with waking up early, eating breakfast and congregating at the lobby to hop on the bus around 9:00 A.M. For a trip with a sizeable number of students, the trip was surprisingly well planned and executed; we were generally able to stick to our schedule.

On one particular day, though, there was a snag. Well past the time we were supposed to board the bus, we continued to roam around the lobby, apparently waiting for something or someone. It wasn’t until a little later that I discovered that the reason for the delay was that one of the students needed to run to a bank to withdraw some cash.

People who were furious weren’t the other students or the advisors, but were the tour guides and the bus drivers.

It was a fascinating observation of two cultures crashing.

In the  eyes of the Chinese, it made little sense to hold up a group of 50 or so people so that one person can get cash to be used for her personal consumption. I wasn’t entirely clear on whether they were upset with her for doing this to the group or upset with the advisors (and us) for letting her do it. The point, though, was that she did go and this was simply beyond their comprehension.

For the Americans–I presume this, for I didn’t specifically confirm–there was nothing particularly troubling about what happened. Of course it was an inconvenience, but the person who needed cash didn’t appear to act particularly irresponsibly to get her into the situation. It was just an unfortunate circumstance that could be resolved if everyone waited for 20 to 30 minutes. It wasn’ t ideal but it wasn’t the end of the world, either.

To be honest, I don’t recall how I reacted to this situation, which is what makes this story most intriguing. On the one hand, I can see myself cussing out the girl for keeping all of us waiting, fully understanding where the tour guides and the drivers were coming from. Compared to a “normal” American, I am less sympathetic and less interested in the rights and needs of the individual when it is at the expense of some communal good. After all, my instinctive response to anyone using the word “rights” is the word “responsibility.”

On the other hand, I’ve been in America long enough to understand why what happened happened and believe that it doesn’t mark the end of our civilization. In fact, I’m not at all sure whether it reflects negatively on American culture that we accommodated the girl’s needs which were no fault of her own.

I suspect the American visitors didn’t understand what and why the Chinese natives found so offensive our behavior that morning.  In that regard, I, who apparently has not been fully Americanized, part company. I understand, rather fully I believe, where both my colleagues and the Chinese were coming from. It placed me in a rather unique position of being the one or two only people who understood when both sides utterly failed to understand each other. There was a complete breakdown of understanding because there was a full clash of culture.

I just don’t know which side of the culture I fell–and fall–on.


3 Responses to “Straddling Individualism and Communalism: Which Am I?”

  1. 1 Paula September 29, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    Joe, it’s hard to put in words how I completely understand your position. Replace [American] with Brazilian and that phrase can also be mine:

    ‘Compared to a “normal” [American], I am less sympathetic and less interested in the rights and needs of the individual when it is at the expense of some communal good. After all, my instinctive response to anyone using the word “rights” is the word “responsibility.”’

    I am intolerant to delays as any Japanese person would be, but was born in a country where if you say 20:00, that means anything after 20:30. And would always ask myself: what’s the point of saying it if you don’t mean it?

    About the girl? I wouldn’t say anything to her. But you can be sure that I would be really mad with her lack of respect for the group.

    Very interesting to find someone that has such a similar internal battle between two cultures like I do. =)

    • 2 joesas September 29, 2009 at 11:19 pm


      Yey! Your first comment. Thanks for reading and taking the effort to comment.

      I’m glad I have someone to associate this with. As I stand between two cultures, I’m always fascinated with how both respond in totally different ways to the same situation. I personally think I’m more Japanese than American, but I can’t deny the individuality that I expect people to respect. I think not caring about others is one of the biggest problems in America as a general statement.

      Anyhoo, don’t be a stranger to the blog!

  1. 1 The Amazingly Different Remarkableness of Japanese and Americans | The World According to Joe Trackback on September 26, 2016 at 2:49 pm

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