शुक्रबार, भदौ ३ २०७९
काठमाडौं १०:५२
वासिङटन डिसी 01:07

East vs West: My Experiences (Part I)

Bishwaman Angdembe, Atlanta, GA, USA २०७५ पुष १५ गते २०:३० मा प्रकाशित

East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” – Rudyard Kipling

It was September 2013 when I had just arrived in the US for the first time for my MBA at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon and was staying with a very kind host family. The mid-40’s church-going white couple, Duane and Jodi Decker, were my second encounter with Americans. I had already met Americans, Gary Boe, John Lacquey, and Jim Miller, back home in 2007-8. They were Rotarians and ShelterBox volunteers who had come to Nepal on ShelterBox mission during the floods of 2007 and the great Koshi Flood of 2008. They were great people – warm, open-minded, easily approachable, and conversational. They left a lasting positive impression of Americans in my mind. When in the US, I happened to meet Gary and John later. Going back to the host family, after having dinner, Duane kindly asked me to help with the dishes. There were 3 other foreign students (all Chinese) staying with them since before I came. They were already getting their feet wet in the American (western) culture. They were already doing things themselves after dinner such as cleaning the table, mopping the floor, managing the trash, etc. Having come from eastern culture, I was brought up to think guest should not be allowed to do anything. Hosts should do everything and treat guests like Gods. Here in America, it was different. The way of viewing life and the world was very different. I realized that it’s the American “do it yourself” culture and “be independent” culture that was the reason behind why we (guest students) were asked for help with chores. And, of course, especially for children and young people, it even matters more as they learn by doing things including different cultural things. This was one of my first tastes of American culture and it was an insightful one. It was the beginning. I began to question a lot of things I had learned.

Independence vs Interdependence

Independence is the linchpin of western culture. People are brought up from the very birth to become independent. Children are taught from the very first years to think and decide for themselves and make choices for themselves. They are taught to speak their minds, disagree with and object to older people’s orders or requests, which is inconceivable in the eastern culture that considers “obedience” and “respect” as key values. Questioning older people’s opinions and orders are considered inappropriate at best and straight rude at worst. But things are changing in both sides of the world. An economy should also support any cultural trait or value. Any trait or value not supported by economy is bound to lose influence. American and the whole western economies are geared towards shaping this key western value – independence. I asked Jodi (host lady) if there is a place to wash my clothes (and a place hang them to dry under the sun)! She just asked me to put my clothes in a washing machine. That was the first time I had ever used a washing machine. Then, there was a dryer to dry the washed clothes. The availability of modern tools and devices requiring less human effort or even totally replacing human effort has certainly helped people to live independently.

Horizontal vs Vertical

Western society is an egalitarian society. Eastern society is a hierarchical society. And, I mean in relative terms. When I met my first American, Gary Boe, we were in a taxi in Kathmandu. I repeatedly called him “Sir” and he cut me off in the middle of the conversation and told me “Don’t call me Sir”. And, he meant it seriously. Since he was in his 60’s at that time and much older to me, I was very hesitant to call him by his first name “Gary”. But I didn’t know that it was different in the west. Even the language tells it. In English, there is just one “You” for all types of persons. In Nepali, Hindi, and other eastern languages, there are 3 different “You’s” for 3 different types of persons – younger than yourself, equal to your age, and older than yourself. In the beginning, I used to call Duane “Mr. Decker” and Jodi “Ms. Decker” while the other 3 Chinese students were calling them just “Duane” and “Jodi”. I was thinking “How could they do that?”. I was very hesitant. Later I asked them what they preferred to call by with. I got the sense that they preferred the usual first name. Then, I went by it. It took me time to get used to it. Even in the university, I used to ask Professors what way they would prefer to be called by with. In my MBA class, there were around 10 int’l students from 8 countries, all of them except 2 from eastern culture. One from South Korea, Hoil Lee, never really got used to calling Professors by their first names. He used to call them “Professor” whenever asking a question in class or outside. American classmates and even the Professor used to feel little awkward on that. Generally speaking, I think the way people address each other makes a real difference in how they treat each other and each other’s opinions and values. If you are addressing someone with a lower pronoun, you are less likely to value her opinions than if you are addressing someone with a higher pronoun. But, if you are addressing someone equally, you are more likely to value each other’s opinions, do debates and arguments, etc. In eastern culture, we have this inherent problem of valuing older people’s opinions more highly than younger people’s irrespective of the quality of opinions and ideas. In this regard, we need to learn from the western culture.

Formal vs Informal

My first few classes of MBA at Portland State University (PSU) were eye openers for me. I had never seen Professors so informal. They were coming to school in shorts and snickers! One Professor of Accounting, Donna, was one day in shorts and a T-shirt. Another one, Dave Garten, was riding to school on a bike in shorts. I used to occasionally see some Professors in shorts in classes. My idea of Professors being in a suit and tie with black/brown shoes or office-like formal dress was blown to pieces. And, what more, we had some Professors as young as ’30s or ’40s. In eastern culture, we have a lot of respect for grey-haired teachers. We usually tend to value younger teachers less and don’t expect them to be Professors for higher classes such as graduates and doctorates. Well, that was about teachers. What about the students? Students too were no less informal. They were coming in all sorts of dresses from biker’s pants and helmet to hiker’s shorts and snickers. In one of the first days of my class, I was listening to the Professor when I heard (well I guess whole class did) a “crack” noise from the back. I turned back to see what it was. To my disbelief, a tall and lanky girl was having her lunch in the class! She was having some carrots from her Ziplock bag full of salad. Welcome to America! I thought. The class used to be very informal compared to what we have in the east. Students used to do most of the talking (debates, discussion, and arguments) and teachers used to listen. Teachers were mostly facilitators. 80% of the input came from students themselves, and I say most of them from domestic (American) and other western students. Most eastern students, except me and a couple others, used to be silent the typical eastern way. Later, I found that food, as long as they are not smelly and do not disturb the class, were allowed inside the class. Everywhere, from home to school, the environment was designed to let people speak their minds and be more participative in debates and discussions.

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