I was raised in Australia, but you can’t really call me an Australian. I may sound like them and have the same values when it comes to work-life balance, but anyone seeing how I act can immediately tell I’m not your typical Aussie either. I’ve yet to spend a night at a bar with friends, attend a cricket match, go camping, or simply ‘toss a steak on the barbie’–that’s would be a barbeque, by the way. And I’m not a fan of sausage rolls or meat pies (blasphemy, I know).
It’s strange, having a foot in each country, yet not truly belonging in either. I love both countries, and I consider myself a product of both, but it doesn’t change people going, “Oh, she’s an Aussie” when I’m in Singapore, and “She’s so… Asian” when I’m in Australia. But I’ve also come to realise that having this outside view provides a great observation platform. I’ve been lucky enough to be immersed in two different worlds of East and West, and to have the chance to understand the different ways in which they view the world.
I’m about to make some generalisations here, so a disclaimer: I know that not all Westerners conform to what I’m about to describe, and I know that not all Asians do either. These are simply trends that I’ve noticed over the years, and drawn my own conclusions from.
Western culture places great value on the individual, and independence. Parents encourage their children to take care of themselves from as young an age as possible, and stand on their own two feet. A child can declare themselves independent from the age of fourteen, and even if they can’t support themselves, the government will help support them until they can. Children are generally encouraged to move out once they reach university, or thereabouts. I know of parents who charged their children rental to stay on at home. All this makes for a person who is very capable, who doesn’t need to rely on others to get by. They know who they are, and what they want.
But on the flip side, if their parents make it to old age, it’s also expected that they take care of themselves. Sure, they get a nice government pension, and the children might pop by every week or so, but that’s about it. If they can’t look after themselves, there are many old-age homes and retirement villages around. Or the local Meals-on-Wheels.
Things are starting to change as they are increasingly influenced by the rest of the world, but the Asian culture is traditionally based around the family unit. You are part of a group. Parents do most things for their children, including drive them to and from school and other activities. (Heaven forbid they actually take those dangerous buses!) Parents do the cooking, cleaning, and other chores, and generally do all ‘unnecessary’ jobs for their children, so they can play (or study and practice their instruments, which is much more common). It’s normal, and even expected, that you live with your family until you get married. Even then, in the most traditional families, the girl will move in with the boy’s family and live with him and his parents.
For elderly Asians, then, they can and do expect to live with their children. They took care of them and sacrificed much for them, and now it’s their turn to be taken care of. It’s not imposing on them, simply a part of life. I grew up in a household where my grandparents moved from child to child, spending months at a time with each of them. Of course, they had their own house as well, but so much importance is placed on family that, well, why wouldn’t they want to stay with their children as well? Until there was a fight, that is; then they went home for a bit or moved on to the next child. And when you’re raised in that environment, you naturally expect to do the same when you have a family of your own.
And I find that these differences are also reflected in the stories we tell. Western storytelling that garners the largest following tends to focus on people overcoming circumstances. It is the events of the story that cause the character to grow and learn–it is by fighting external forces that they develop as a person. There is that sense of independence, where one is shaped by the world as they step out to face it. You can see this in novels like The Power of One or the Harry Potter books, movies such as “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings”, TV dramas like “Dexter” or “Glee”.
Asian stories which explode in popularity–though generally just in Asia–tend to focus on how a person is shaped by the people around them and by the people in their past (family unit and ingrained respect for elders, remember?), and how they must overcome themselves in order to be victorious over their circumstances. It is fighting themselves that is the real battle, and which provides the tools to fight external forces. For example, an ordinary person faces terrible circumstances where the drama and conflict is found in how they rise above it. They may not survive the ordeal (yes, Korean and Japanese dramas are known for their rash of terminal illness storylines) but in the end they face it with courage and without bitterness. Or an extraordinary person faces extraordinary circumstances, but they have a dark past they must overcome and rise above before they find their true power and defeat the bad guy.
There are many more examples and also many cases of Western/Asian stories that buck the trend, and there are certainly other differences as well. But if you think about the stories that have become a large part of our cultures, it’s possible to see how deeply rooted they are in our values. A good story is a good story, and will be appreciated no matter where it travels; and yet, it will also give hints to who we are and where we were raised. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to write one that shows the best of these two worlds I love, and the mix of cultures that is who I am.
Leanne Yong is an aspiring author who is working on her second young adult novel. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing.