The East-West di­vide starts with how we see our­selves

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Lisa See’s new novel, “The Tea Girl of Hum­ming­bird Lane,” will be pub­lished this month.

In her new book, “The Girl at the Bag­gage Claim,” Gish Jen turns her nov­el­ist’s eye to the exploration of the cen­turies-old enigma of why peo­ple in the East and the West see them­selves, oth­ers, so­ci­ety and cul­ture so dif­fer­ently. As she tells it, peo­ple of the West have a per­spec­tive of a “big pit self” dom­i­nated by in­di­vid­u­al­ism and in­de­pen­dence. The Eastern per­spec­tive, by com­par­i­sion, is col­lec­tivis­tic and in­ter­de­pen­dent, cre­at­ing what Jen calls a “flexi-self.” “Take a lion on a sa­van­nah,” Jen writes. “The big pit self will fo­cus on the lion while the flexi-self will fo­cus on the sa­van­nah and its re­la­tion­ship to the lion.” Jen asks us to think about how th­ese two ways of per­ceiv­ing might play out in art, ed­u­ca­tion, fam­i­lies, pol­i­tics and sci­ence.

Jen is uniquely suited to ex­plore this topic. As a nov­el­ist, she is per­haps best known for “Typ­i­cal Amer­i­can” and “Mona in the Promised Land,” which fea­ture themes about im­mi­gra­tion, iden­tity and cul­ture. She has delved into th­ese is­sues in her short sto­ries, es­says and non­fic­tion books as well. A grad­u­ate of Har­vard, she lec­tures in the United States and in China, and has an ap­ti­tude for ex­plor­ing sci­en­tific stud­ies in re­fresh­ing ways.

In this book, she has once again taken the univer­sal and made it per­sonal, and vice versa. Her em­pha­sis is on the United States and China. In many ways, the source of our cul­tural gap can be traced back to ed­u­ca­tion. His­tor­i­cally, ed­u­ca­tion and be­com­ing an im­pe­rial scholar was the way to move up in Chi­nese so­ci­ety. To­day, it’s through a col­lege ad­mis­sions test called the gaokao. The test comes after years of hard work, be­gin­ning with 12-hour days for first-graders and mov­ing up to 16-hour days for high school­ers. The day of the test is a ma­jor event across China, and ev­ery­one par­tic­i­pates. Pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tems are not al­lowed to beep their horns or run sirens. Con­struc­tion sites are shut down. Proc­tors don’t wear high-heeled shoes or per­fume, which might be dis­tract­ing.

Asian im­mi­grants brought this be­lief in the trans­for­ma­tive power of ed­u­ca­tion to our shores. China is now the largest sender of im­mi­grants to the United States, and the source of a third of all for­eign col­lege stu­dents and half of all for­eign el­e­men­tary and high school stu­dents in Amer­ica. The ti­tle of the book refers, in part, to this phe­nom­e­non. Jen writes about a young Chi­nese woman who was ac­cepted into a pri­vate academy in New Eng­land based on her great test scores, ap­pli­ca­tion es­say and Skype in­ter­view. But when she was picked up at the bag­gage claim, it turned out she didn’t speak English. She didn’t seem to be the same girl at all. It turns out that her sis­ter had done the Skype in­ter­view. While we might see this as copy­ing or cheat­ing, those sis­ters — with their par­ents’ ob­vi­ous sup­port — were op­er­at­ing as flexi-selves, with one help­ing the other for a per­ceived greater good. One sis­ter re­ceiv­ing an ed­u­ca­tion in Amer­ica would help the fam­ily now, while who knows if times would change and the sec­ond, younger sis­ter might not have the same op­por­tu­nity?

Amer­i­can-born sons and daugh­ters of Asian im­mi­grants have in many cases proved them­selves to be good at tak­ing tests and get­ting into the best col­leges. Jen uses data from the Cen­sus Bureau’s “Quick Facts” to point out that Har­vard, Yale, Prince­ton and Stan­ford are more than 20 per­cent Asian Amer­i­can, though Asian Amer­i­cans make up less than 6 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. The hur­dles to en­try are high, Jen as­serts. She cites a com­plaint filed by the Asian Amer­i­can Coali­tion for Ed­u­ca­tion that Asian Amer­i­cans ap­ply­ing to Har­vard must score an av­er­age of 140 points higher on their SATs than white stu­dents, 270 points higher than His­panic stu­dents and 450 points higher than African Amer­i­can stu­dents to gain ad­mis­sion.

You’d be hard-pressed to find Amer­i­can par­ents who would want their 6-year-olds to de­vote 12 hours a day to class­work. Kids are en­cour­aged to play an in­stru­ment, be on a soc­cer team or join a dance pro­gram.

A Western-style ed­u­ca­tion is some­times de­picted as pro­mot­ing in­no­va­tion, while Eastern flexi-selves pre­fer im­i­ta­tion. But such cul­tural con­clu­sions are not al­ways so clear-cut. In 2011, Ap­ple found faux Ap­ple stores in Kun­ming, China, that had been copied, as Jen puts it, in “painstak­ing de­tail, from the ex­pan­sive blond­wood coun­ters to the floor-to-ceil­ing glass front wall.” Even more brazen are the stores that sell the coun­ters, lo­gos, em­ployee T-shirts and shelv­ing to cre­ate even more fake Ap­ple stores. It’s all il­le­gal, but in China, “copy­ing is not only a tra­di­tion but a great tra­di­tion,” Jen writes, that dates back mil­len­nia. But, she also sug­gests, the ques­tion of what is “orig­i­nal” is com­pli­cated in the West as well, point­ing out that stu­dio artists have helped name artists — some­times by copy­ing the mas­ters, fill­ing in back­ground scenery or help­ing with mon­u­men­tal sculp­tures — from the Re­nais­sance to to­day. She quotes re­cent No­bel Prize win­ner Bob Dy­lan on the cre­ative process be­hind his work and the many in­flu­ences that go into the art of in­ven­tion: “Th­ese songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth.” Other writ­ers, artists and com­posers in the West have also said that they, too, have bor­rowed, copied and rein­vented work that’s come be­fore them.

As Pres­i­dent Trump butts heads with China over jobs and the loss of U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing, and pro­poses a re­vi­sion of our cor­po­rate tax code in hopes of shift­ing the trade bal­ance, it might be­hoove us to con­sider just how shal­low is our un­der­stand­ing of China. Jen lays out the facts via econ­o­mist and writer David Gold­man: “What mat­ters is that 500 mil­lion Chi­nese have moved from coun­try­side to city in the past 35 years — the equiv­a­lent of the whole pop­u­la­tion of Europe from the Ural Moun­tains to the At­lantic. Up­rooted from tra­di­tional life and placed in new and more promis­ing cir­cum­stances, the Chi­nese as a peo­ple are more pre­pared to em­brace change than any peo­ple in the his­tory of the world.”

Trump was elected on his prom­ise to “make Amer­ica great again,” but the trans­for­ma­tions that China has un­der­gone — lift­ing more than 800 mil­lion peo­ple out of poverty in a mat­ter of decades — seem to shore up what pun­dits and schol­ars have been say­ing for years. This is shap­ing up to be China’s cen­tury, which makes this book both timely and ex­tremely im­por­tant.


High school stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in a rally in Zhu­ma­dian, China, last month to help them get mo­ti­vated for the an­nual col­lege en­trance exam, the gaokao — which at the time was still 102 days away. Ed­u­ca­tion has his­tor­i­cally been seen as a way to move up in Chi­nese so­ci­ety, Gish Jen writes.

By Gish Jen Knopf. 336 pp. $26.95.

THE GIRL AT THE BAG­GAGE CLAIM Ex­plain­ing the East-West Cul­ture Gap

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