Culture Class: Western IndivIdualism vs. Eastern Collectivism

Asian Shame, Race Matters: Candid Conversations on Race & Culture0 comments

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

I was reminded once again of how stark the culture clash is between Asian collectivist values and Eurocentric individualistic values when I recently gave a presentation at a college focused on the Asian-American experience.

Sure, when immigrants of any country arrive in the United States there will be a “culture clash” of sorts as they navigate a new language, customs, and the nuances of everyday American life. But for immigrants coming from collectivist cultures of Asia, the value differences between East and West can create a chasm between parents and their children being raised in western society.

Immigrant parents are the recipients of centuries of collectivist customs and relational norms that have been passed down from generation to generation. But their children, on the other hand, are caught between trying to honor their parental and ancestral ties while also trying to redefine themselves in a society that prizes individualism. What often occurs is an internal struggle of immense proportions as two diametrically opposed values system collide.

Take a look at the differences between Eastern collectivist values with those Eurocentric Western values of individualism.
Individualistic Values:                                               

  • Me                                                                               
  • Focus on self                                                              
  • Emotions (encourages expression)                         
  • Equality                                                                      
  • Uniqueness                                                                
  • Challenge authority                                                  

Collectivist Values:

  • We
  • Focus on family/group
  • Emotions (encourages restraint)
  • Hierarchy
  • Conformity
  • Obedience to authority

Asian societies are known as collectivist in nature, where one’s sense of identity is based on the “we” factor—where your allegiance and sense of purpose is tied to your family, village, and the larger community. Who you are is based on the group you’re affiliated with. Compare this to Western notions of individualism where you are taught to value your own uniqueness and learn to express yourself and challenge authority. These values are not only very different from traditional Asian ones but they have the potential to create significant confusion, tension, and strain when these values go against each other in a traditional Asian household.  article continues after advertisement

For example, in my work with Asian-American clients who were raised in the United States or Canada, many grew up learning both these value systems. At home, they inherit the collectivist ones. But once they step outside their door into the world of school or work, the individualistic values are cherished and promoted by those around them. So it’s very common for Asian-Americans to struggle with their sense of identity, deciding which values to keep from their ethnic roots and which individualistic values they should take on as their own.

But having an individualistic mindset can cause strife as personal decisions such as dating preferences and career choices become more personal and less dominated by the group/family’s influence. Do they pursue career passions that their parents are wary of or even adamantly against? Do they enter into relationships where their parents and/or extended families may be critical of their partner’s ethnic background? And if they do so, do they dare have honest dialogue and conversations about their decisions knowing they are in effect challenging their parents’ authority, thus committing a cultural taboo?

In counseling clients with these cultural issues, there are no easy answers, nor is there a single path that is the “right” way. Just like the clients themselves, I must also walk the cultural tightrope that both honors their heritage and ancestry yet also encourages and fosters the human spirit within. My own internal compass reminds me that we must never forget where we come from but we also must learn to adapt, grow, and stretch ourselves even if it pains those closest to us.

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