Today, the once stark divide between East and West no longer exists – both hemispheres borrow each other’s foods, traditions, and philosophies. Yet the East’s core values, from embracing collectivism to downsizing one’s ego, are strikingly different from Western beliefs. Alexa Pellegrini reflects on how studying Eastern culture helped her anxiety, while Linh Dang discusses how Westernization shaped his identity.
Finding Freedom in the East – Alexa Pellegrini
Natsume Soseki, one of my favorite authors, wrote about how Western culture shaped individuality in modern Japan. Soseki expressed through his characters how Western values, such as self-awareness and having unlimited opportunities, often lead to isolation and sadness. I am no stranger to the anxiety Soseki’s characters felt as they tried to forge their path in the modern world. Like many of his protagonists, I have felt an aching loneliness when I question if there is a larger framework in which I belong.
I attribute a large part of my loneliness to being singled out for my passion for writing. You are different. Special. Unique. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told these words by friends, family, professors, and mentors. But in the shadow of praise lies expectations, and the possibility of not being able to maintain my performance has done nothing to ease my perfectionism. It is undeniable that there are an endless number of talented artists, writers, poets, creators. While Western culture encourages the idea that we should be celebrated and awarded for what makes us different, our individuality does not make us indispensable. Like so many writers, the fear of succeeding and then losing it all has often saddled me with writer’s block and self-doubt.
Looking beyond my roots has shown me that there are more meaningful reasons to create than being published. Over the last few years, I have been drawn to classic Eastern literature for its Confucian values, which honor society over the individual. In the West, we are taught to place our value in our work, our looks, and our number of likes; the East reminds us of the importance of humility and community, of focusing on more than our desires. Reading books by Soseki and other Eastern authors taught me to detach my achievements as a writer from my value as a person. When I worry about making a living from my art, I remind myself that I write because it makes me happy; then, the words flow.
I equally attribute my growth to embracing an Eastern approach to emotional wellness. More than ever before, Eastern spirituality is at the forefront of alternative healing in America; visit any major city and you’ll find yoga studios and meditation circles that guide you to release your anxieties. Engaging in Eastern spiritual practices helped me understand that worldly success is fleeting, and true contentment comes from within. Our society makes it easy to forget that we are worth more than our followers and likes, our awards, our clip file, that we have permission to simply be!
In just a few weeks, I will land in Narita International Airport and spend the next five months as an international student at TUJ. I chose to study in Japan to free myself from the ego game of the West, the constant pressure to create in exchange for praise and exceed society’s standards. I know that in the eyes of the East, I will always be a gaijin – a foreigner. But while I am at TUJ, I will embrace Eastern values and acknowledge that I only exist as a part of something greater than myself.
Beyond East vs West – Linh Dang
When I first considered the topic of “East vs West,” I was confident I could write about how my experiences in America diverged from my life in Vietnam. I grew up in a six-member family, in which I learned to respect one’s elders, pursue academic excellence, and uphold my duties to others. I did not just assume the role of the “model student” who follows rules and avoids mischief – I was happy to be one. However, all I could do was stare at the screen as I tried to pour my thoughts onto the page. My transition to the U.S. was a complex process of figuring out how to handle my classes, manage money, eat well, and shop conscientiously. But I struggled to recall experiencing any culture shock, confusion, or resentment. A question began to trouble me: was my lack of resistance to adopting Western ways the result of the mất gốc phenomenon, the Vietnamese term for losing one’s root?
In search of this root of mine, I recalled the constant interplay of East and West throughout my life. As a child, I often asked my uncle for glossy, cool looking issues of Nipponia magazine from the Japanese Embassy, and I wheedled my parents into buying me tankōbon manga. Manga originated in Japan, and Japan indeed belongs to the East. However, it was reading manga that introduced me to characters with personal convictions to make a name for themselves, to compete and be the best – convictions that exemplify the individuality associated with the West.
Another Western influence in my life was the English language. My family enrolled me in English classes when I was 10 because the language was deemed important in a globalizing Vietnam. However, I had more interest in learning English than any other subject. How else would I win the video game I was playing, watch Cartoon Network and Disney Channel, and wiki-walk through the Net? Or look at an online discussion and glean facts about a person’s country and its issues? For me, learning English is a series of interactions with the West; the better I become, the more interested I am in diving into this exciting world.
I also inherited my affinity for the West from my family. My family always embraced traditional Vietnamese values, but they also raised me with a Western approach; I’m grateful to have been given the freedom to develop my identity and explore my interests. Their openness to the West is understandable, as most of my family studied abroad – my parents in Russia, my grandparents in Ukraine. I followed their example by choosing America. Though this place is very different from where they studied, I arrived overseas with their same flexible mindset – that the West is not to be feared, only to be learned from.
I now see that my fears about losing my roots have no basis in reality – they came from the erroneous idea that there is an absolute dichotomy between East and West. Such a divide is impossible when both regions have crossed each other’s borders, whether in the form of manga, language, or Disney Channel. My Vietnam, whose momentum to catch up and integrate with the rest of the world, introduced me to Western influences that shaped who I am. I have stopped searching for a missing Eastern essence within and embraced the idea that there is no ‘East vs ‘West,’ but only a beautiful fusion of both cultures.