Review: The Girl At The Baggage Claim: Explaining The East-West Culture Gap

  • Books
  • Friday, 02 Jun 2017

A man practising Tai Chi with a sword during sunrise at the promenade on the Bund along the Huangpu River in Pudong, Shanghai. Photo: AFP

East meets West, West meets East – say it three times quickly. It looks straightforward on paper, but, like the subject matter, turns out to be more complicated in practice.

Never judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? When I first saw the title of Gish Jen’s latest book, The Girl At The Baggage Claim, my initial reaction was “Thanks, but no thanks”.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl trope has proven remarkably resilient in the publishing industry, and even beyond that on the cinema screen. And I’m getting to the age where the number of books I can potentially read in my lifetime is dishearteningly finite.

Reading yet another iteration of the countless conditions and situations “The Girl” (who invariably turns out to be a woman, but let’s ignore the semantic infantilization of an entire gender for the moment) might find herself in was something I decided I could live without.

But then I read the subtitle “Explaining The East-West Culture Gap”. I live with one foot on either side of that gap, and am lucky and happy to do so, but at times it can be a precarious balancing act. Any insights Jen had to offer on the subject were welcome.

Though the author has written novels, this is a nonfiction academic text.

For the most part Jen spells East with a capital C and West with a capital A. While there are some exceptions, the moments when this book’s focus roams beyond China and America are few and far between.

But as the edict goes, “write what you know”. Being an American academic born of Chinese parents, Jen has an understanding of the two countries that both represent and offer extreme examples of the particular cultural traits she discusses.

Strenuously avoiding the loaded term “ego”, she opts instead for an avocado, using the large pit (seed) as a metaphor for the supersized Western sense of self. Each person is a unique individual striving to allow this “big-pit self” to flourish.

gish jen
Author Gish Jen. Photo: Romana Vysatova

The contrary (or complementary) is the Asian focus on a more expansive identity that places and favours the extended ties of family and society above personal attributes and aspirations.

The borders between the individual and the context are much more blurred than in the West.

This, Jen terms the “flexi-self”. She also refers to these two contrasting traits as the “independent self” and the “interdependent self”.

The Western focus is on originality and innovation. Standing out from the crowd is a good thing. Brand identity wins the day.

By contrast, the Eastern emphasis isn’t so much on invention, but rather on taking something pre-existing and doing it better, more efficiently, pragmatically. Emulation trumps innovation.

The Chinese copy things: handbags, paintings, buildings, even whole cities. Imitation isn’t derided as inferior, but lauded as a form of homage.

China’s fake Apple stores shocked Americans, but even when the Chinese understood the shops weren’t authentic their reaction was not outrage but admiration at how carefully and accurately these copies were made.

No one practices tai chi to change or modify the sequences. The forms are rigidly codified. There is no room for innovation or originality.

But within the constraints of that rigidity is the scope to refine every nuanced subtlety of an ideal form. Tai chi is the very antithesis of the spontaneity and hyper-individualism of Western interpretive dance.

The previous example is my own, but Jen discusses art in somewhat similar terms, from the painters in China’s Dafen Village who churn out copies of famous Western artwork, to classical Chinese paintings where the placement of the human characters is intrinsic to the literal and metaphoric bigger picture, contrasting Western art’s distinct and separate entities like the Mona Lisa, with her individuality clearly defined and asserted regardless of, or perhaps even in spite of, her surroundings.

Abstract modern art is the expression of the “big-pit self” and for this very reason has little or no currency in the Chinese context.

Mastery is more valued than genius in the Chinese/Eastern view, with the implication that persistence and hard work can compensate for lack of talent.

The Eastern mind sees patterns and connections, where the Western mind sees disparate elements.

The East moves around obstacles, keeping the eye on the prize, while the West gets side-tracked by the obstacle, expending needless effort on its removal.

The “interdependent self” seeks continuity and cohesion. It wants sons to carry the family name, and if it has girls they must be respectful and know their place and role in society.

In the “big-pit” West the individual stands alone against an unkind, uncaring world. In the East conformity has greater value than individual aspirations, or at times even basic human rights.

Freedom versus loyalty, isolation versus suffocation, both cultures have their merits and their pitfalls.

All in all an informative, insightful and worthwhile read.

The Girl At The Baggage Claim: Explaining The East-West Culture Gap

Author: Gish Jen

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

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