One night, I found myself in a hostel bar with other backpackers along the Banana Pancake Trail13 in Southeast Asia. I couldn’t remember exactly where, but I did remember drinking a beer alone in a bar called “Happy Monkey” or “Smelly Pig” or some cheesy name with an animal.
I was drinking alone, but I wasn’t traveling solo. My travel companions preferred to stay in the bedroom, while I preferred to lurk in the common areas to get to know the travelers along the way.
Along our journey, my solo drinking sessions were becoming more frequent, and I casually told the bartender I read on a blog about solo female travelers wearing a fake wedding ring to ward off unwanted attention.
“I should do that too,” another girl in the bar responded with a smile, showing her dimples. She was a Scandinavian girl by the name of Janet. Her looks immediately caught my eye. Janet had the beauty that deserved delightful scrutiny: strawberry blonde, blue-eyed, statuesque.
From our conversations, I can already tell that she was bubbly and friendly, and extremely likeable. Not long after, we began to talk less about travel and shift toward love and relationships.
Janet was indignant that she would “never date an Asian guy.” I asked her why.
“Guys here simply aren’t just as independent as us Westerners,” she said while slurping on her long island iced tea. I shrugged my shoulders, agreeing nonchalantly.
“Well, wait a minute . . . ,” the Indian guy beside Janet started, with a strain in his voice that indicated annoyance.
A few moments ago, Janet introduced the Indian guy to me as Dhruv. Dhruv, whom she had also met while backpacking in Laos a few days back, was totally quiet while we went on girly chatter for the past hour. Janet’s remark obviously irked him because he started talking.
“I don’t think that’s fair.” I knew it was going to start a heated debate, so I ordered another drink, upgrading my drink from a Heineken to a whisky.
“What were you doing a few hours before we had this drink?” he started. Janet’s face was totally blank, so he continued, “Miss, you were on your laptop, requesting for your government to give you some money because you are unemployed, so you can use your benefits to fund your little Asian trip.”
This was getting interesting, and I wished I had some popcorn as well.
“Janet, we were not granted the welfare system that your country has. Maybe in your developed country, your government has replaced family in providing you with support, education, health care, everything—so much so that you don’t need family.”
Dhruv wasn’t done. “God forbid, if you get cancer, you’ll be ne with your elite health care system and welfare benefits. But if I get cancer, I’m screwed, and my whole family is financially ruined.”
Dhruv made a point. I never really saw it that way. I had always wished Asians would be more independent like Westerners. I had wondered why we still live with our parents at twenty- while Westerners leave their family homes as early as sixteen. (Although I was told that these days, this doesn’t happen anymore out of necessity—in the West, kids in their thirties staying in their parents’ basement becoming more of a norm nowadays.)
The state has become the family.
I had questioned why a lot of Asian businesses are family businesses and still heavily based on “connections,” whereas Western companies seem more professional and efficient as they rely on more quantitative KPIs.
In Asian countries, it is prohibited to eat and drink in public transport systems. Citizens willingly give up their right to eat and drink in public for the common good of the society. However, if such law is enacted in France, one can already imagine the public outcry of how the government is oppressing their individual rights.
This is one interesting contrast between Western and Asian cultures. Westerners perceive Asians as overly shy, passive, and obedient; while Asians see Westerners as confident, obnoxious, and selfish. But when we try to understand how each culture perceives themselves and the world, we somehow understand why.
The Judeo-Christian belief that every person has an “innate soul” and that that all persons are equal, and each one is bestowed with equal rights to live. Going further back in history, the classical Greek school of thought has a strong sense of identity and personal agency. At a young age, Western children are already given the right of self-expression with the privacy of their own rooms that they can decorate according to their own will. Parents have to knock on their door before being allowed in, to respect their children’s privacy.
My car. My room. My rules. My life.
The East, on the other hand, has a stronger sense of collective agency and understands the interconnectedness of the world. Every life is interdependent and interconnected, that every person is just a piece of a bigger, more complex system.
Eastern belief values family and community roles, as in Confucian teachings. Hence, we have sibling nomenclature in terms of the hierarchy in the Chinese family structure: achi, diche, ahia, and shobe, among others.
The concept may sound very communist-y to an outsider, but the Chinese would not have felt as being helpless pawns themselves to their superiors or family. The sense of collective agency made them feel that they are sharing the rights to their community, rather than just pleasing the higher- ups.
Categorization is a universal thing, in our human attempt to keep things in order. In the West, items are grouped in terms of their defining characteristics; the East also has the same need to group items in terms of their relationships to the whole.
Oddly, it reminded me a lot about a conversation I had with fellow travelers as they tried to categorize me—a Filipino—into what exact ethnic group I should actually belong to. It felt strange to be the center of an intellectual duel, and stranger as to why it should matter so much.
Unfortunately, my Asian meekness triumphed over. In light of wanting harmony and keeping peace, I didn’t tell them to fuck off as well.
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