As most of the people who meet me would expect, I was born and raised in the West. However, I have spent the last seven years of my life in Asia, rarely going to countries that share similar cultural traces with my origins. My immersion into Eastern culture reached its peak when I caught myself thinking, “look, a foreigner!” the moment I spotted another Westerner. By then I had already understood and practiced many of the customs of that country to the point that I considered myself one of the locals. However, there was still one thing that I never got used to and avoided whenever possible: the inherent status difference.
For those who are familiar with the Korean or Japanese languages, there are special words that are used to show respect to others. Some words put the other at a higher standing and others put you at a lower standing. Also, perhaps as a result of the influence of Confucianism, people have to follow whatever the older person tells them. Ranging from your older brother to a senior at your school or your boss, it seemed to me that in Asian cultures, as far as I am aware, these people are supposed to be considered as people who are better than you just because they have been doing whatever it is they do for longer than you have. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, at least according to my Western standards, but I do not agree with that idea. And my strong opinion against this was put into question on a recent travel to, surprisingly, Europe. How bad, in fact, is this stratification?
The negative sides are easy to enumerate. For example, countless times people just do as they are requested by whoever is in charge simply because they were told to. After all, the ones in charge are more experienced, right? They have thought about everything, haven’t they? Not always the case. I do believe in educated guesses based on experience, and I actually use my empirical sources on a regular basis to save time. However, I also believe that people should think about what they are doing, and be willing to question orders when they believe it is not correct. I have had teammates that chose me as a team leader simply for being the oldest and accepted whatever random ideas I gave just because I was the oldest. And I have seen other groups performing likewise. It gets the job done, indeed, but does it lead to the best result possible? I should think not.
On the bright side, I found that if it weren’t for this inherent obedience of Eastern people many leaps of progress would have just been impractical. Our university’s almost overnight change in its language of instruction from Korean to English is a good example: the boss said so, and many people did not like the idea but we still have most of our curriculum taught in English. Overall progress was reached only at the expense of some people’s dissatisfaction.
What really lit the spark on my appreciation for the “Eastern way” was the service quality. I feel good when people treat me as if I’m the emperor of Earth. Who doesn’t like that? When at a restaurant, for example, every detail of your table is double-checked, your order comes in no time and if there are any mistakes you are compensated with more than just an insincere apology.
We Westerners live with a mindset that we are all different, therefore we seek equal treatment. Your waiter, as any human being, is on the same rank as you. And he will not think twice to fight back at you when you cross his boundaries. On the other hand, Asians generally live and perform tasks in clusters of like-minded people, which then call for some sort of differentiation. That, then, leads to stratification as well one of the most outstanding overall service quality. Service quality requires an understanding of the needs of others and trying to attend those needs, which is an interesting skill to have in society.
If I were to choose a lifestyle in which I will raise my children, I would do my best to try and capture the best of both. I believe Westerners have a lot to learn from the Orientals, and that the Easterners could also find some improvements by referring to our lifestyle. While I might not be alive to see this happen on a large scale, at least I am more comfortable with our differences now. Perhaps in the near future I will find myself surprised once again to see a foreigner.