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A cultural compass without an East or a West

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Wednesday, 9 March 2005

Let me start with a true story. I leave home, board a plane and fly northward. When I land the local people say, “Welcome to the East”. They call me a westerner. At the end of my time here I will fly south to land in the West. Where is my home? And, since a sense of belonging contributes to identity, who am I?

It reads like a riddle, yet it is what happened. As a teacher from Australia living and working in China, I felt more and more confused about my place in the world. Yes, of course I realise the speakers knew where Australia and other nations were on the world-map, but I resented the implication that I was in opposition to the “easterners” with whom I enjoyed life and work.

True, my everyday experience in China was replete with evidence of cultural differences between them and me and sometimes the difference was uncomfortable. Planning, for example, seemed to be nothing like the process I was used to. It was tempting at times to say that it didn’t even exist, though perhaps that would be misleading. Many foreign colleagues with years of experience in the country corroborated my observations. Arrangements for events known long in advance seemed to appear out of the blue only just before the date, despite our many requests for the information spread over weeks or months. A major event for which you plan carefully months ahead may be drastically rescheduled or re-designed with only a few days notice. Yet the organisations in which we operated didn’t fall over: in fact, we few foreigners were the only ones who seemed at all bothered. The enterprises continue to grow successfully.


Perhaps it has something to do with a difference between the Chinese concept of time and the linear time-model that Australians tend to accept. Certainly many foreigners, as they carefully consult their daily and weekly diary pages, say that Chinese waste time. On the other hand, perhaps time is simply going into other matters given higher priority by Chinese, like cultivating trusting relationships before deciding to finalise a deal. A “poetic” approach, one Chinese man called it. “We rely on the context at any one time to give importance to one option or another. We put everything in a big pot, stir it up and see what develops.” He contrasted this with the linear logic of “prosaic Westerners” who start by forming goals, from which they determine a strategy and then the tactics to put it into practice.

Putting the issue to my Chinese students as a topic for oral English discussion, I found they agreed on many other contrasts between westerners and Chinese. Western children, they thought, are born out of love, while their Chinese counterparts are conceived as a means of providing elders with inheritors of name, lineage, possessions, and family traditions. Giving a student opportunities and resources to develop his or her talents and self-esteem is an over-riding concern in the West, while Chinese parents emphasise high marks with few, if any, curricular options. These are just some examples of Chinese perceptions.

Some of my students suggested that western relationships are based on rights, whereas Chinese relationships arise from obligations to elders, family, friends and nation. Many people in some countries, notably the US and Australia, make an issue of human rights in China. Listen to Chinese explain their view of the matter and you find another example of distinct cultural difference. It was most succinctly put by one person as a clash between two concepts of the self. In America, he said, the self is an isolated individual, perhaps even so isolated that it is opposed to society. In China the self is the centre of relationships. Thus Americans talk about a person’s human rights while Chinese focus on the person’s obligations to elders, family, friends and country.

We should be trying much harder to understand the historical and philosophical factors causing these very dissimilar perspectives on the nature of being human. And let’s by all means celebrate the variety of cultures while also searching for common ground.

We are gravely hindered in this, however, by the prevailing framework used to schematise these differences across the world. For one thing, today the cultural differences between nations bear less and less similarity to their geo-physical relationships. To apply the terms “East” and “West” as labels, wrongly presents an instrument that is effective for defining spatial positions in the physical world as the tool by which we can understand cultural relationships.

Furthermore, because the compass is essentially based on opposition, when used to define inter-cultural or international relationships it tends to impel our thinking towards polarising them, denying any commonality. The concept north rests utterly on the fact that there is a diametric opposite, south. There literally cannot be a west without the antagonistic east. I believe this is a major factor facilitating a black-and-white perception of global affairs, classically exemplified by US President George Bush’s line, “If you’re not with us you’re against us”. To give people a stark choice between belonging to the West and belonging to the East or non-West makes our world a far more dangerous place than it need be.


There are signs that a healthier model is emerging. In discussions of international affairs, Chinese are often referring to multi-polarity, a term also repeatedly emphasised by some representatives of other nations like French President Jacques Chirac during his recent visit to China. The Chinese Government has declared “A Year of French Culture” in China, with a host of displays, performances and the recent opening of a French Cultural Centre in Beijing. France has reciprocated in various ways. The two countries characterise their fast-expanding ties in economic, artistic and political activities as a nexus partly built upon shared conviction that they must work together to build a multi-polar world with a more effective and stronger United Nations.

Now of course we can assume that there is in this an element of conscious manipulation in the pursuit of power. Perhaps that is inevitable - though not invincible - in politics. Some observers see Chirac as using Europe to oppose the US in a personal vendetta. It might also be true that China sometimes plays off Europe, on the one hand, against the US on the other. Nevertheless if we raise the multi-polar, UN-centred model above such negative and narrow pre-occupations it still has more promise for global peace and prosperity than the rest-versus-the West schema.

Rather than a clash of civilizations, the proponents suggest that where two camps are in dispute others would act as intermediaries or police to prevent destructive behaviour. In fact, these discussions between government representatives, academics and other commentators seem to imply not so much a multi-polar solution as a non-polar one - a circular model of nations or regional groups with the UN as the hub.

However if the world is to move towards a multi-polar or circular political configuration, or if international understanding and peace are to grow significantly, we must replace such terminology as East-West and Oriental-Occidental. Each time we use one of the descriptors it triggers the polarised perception for which the compass was devised and reinforces the polar paradigm in world politics. The semantics are essential to the cognition. There is much more to it, of course, but until we grapple with changing the language we use, a new and better paradigm will not be born.

It is very difficult to do. Over the last few months I’ve been trying to avoid using East, West, Oriental and so on when discussing politics, history and cultural characteristics of various countries. In the process I’ve found that I have to think a lot harder about the nature of societies - Australian included - and why they differ. So far I’ve found no adequate, single words as alternatives, rather, long phrases or strings of adjectives seem unavoidable. Perhaps this is because what we call the West and the East simply do not exist, but that question is too big for this space.

Perhaps Australians can start by asking themselves why they call themselves a Western nation. Since we are geographically well to the south of the planet, with which other nations are we grouping ourselves by applying the label, and on what basis? And in doing so, are we really being honest with ourselves and true to the facts? Perhaps by throwing the compass overboard we may find where we are and the direction we truly want to take in the world.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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