Since childhood, I always had the notion that the world is divided into two different “worlds”— the West and the East. The McDonalds— it’s western, speaking English —it’s western, and the sense of individualism and freedom— it’s western. On the other hand, rice, Chinese, and a sense of conservatism and tradition, they are from the “East” where I grew up. So when someone says “Oh that girl looks so yangqi (洋气，which means embodying a somewhat western and modern style) ”, an image of a typically sporty American undergrad wearing shorts and flip-flops who looks energetic and outgoing takes shape in my mind. When someone says “western education”, I would imagine a small group of students enthusiastically discussing social issues with the professor, each contributing his or her original ideas. When someone says “western values”, I think of words like “individualism”, “freedom” and “openness”. After I went to the United States for college, the liberal Brown campus further reinforced my perception of the “western world”. I thought that China represents the “oriental world” of Asian countries, and the United States represents the “occidental world” of European and American societies. However, after I came to Paris for a study abroad program this Fall, my notion of the “western world” built on my experience in the United States started to disintegrate: on the first day of the program, the professor told us that one ideal of the French society is to “live together” (vivre ensemble), which really surprised me because the word “together” sounds very “Chinese” to me since the Chinese often emphasize “solidarity” and “collectivity”. Shouldn’t the “west” prefer “individuality”? When my French sociology professor talked about the French education system, I learned that French teachers actually discourage “creativity” and encourage “uniformity”. Realizing that French students should always follow certain rules while writing an essay rather than being original, I felt as if I was back in high school, where I also learned similar rules. Such a system is not even close to the American education, which I used to generalize for all occidental countries. Moreover, I was also surprised to know how conservative many French people are, and their fear of the “intrusion” of American culture, which somewhat resembles the fear that many Chinese have for the United States too. Even though France is no doubt part of the “western world”, it is different in many aspects from the United States, which is also part of that “world”. I used to stereotype the whole occidental world based on my knowledge of the American culture. But now, I realize that no single culture could define the whole “western world”. Similarly, China doesn’t represent other oriental countries either. And even within a single country, different regional cultures exist. The world in which we live is not a simple dichotomy between the East and the West, but rather a rich mixture of similar and dissimilar, contradicting and complementing cultures that contribute to the broad diversity of our dynamic world.
Fang is a senior at Brown University. You can contact Fang Guo at firstname.lastname@example.org.