A Chinese-American novelist and essayist investigates how culture shapes identity.
Award-winning writer Jen (Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Independent Self, 2013, etc.) continues the inquiry of her last nonfiction book, in which she examined differences in Eastern and Western writing and art. Here, drawing on abundant research from psychology and sociology, the author probes East-West distinctions in self-definition and community. These distinctions are so profound, she asserts, that they affect personal relationships, teaching, storytelling, architecture, and even “our ideas about law, rehabilitation, religion, freedom, and choice.” In the individualistic West, Jen argues, the self is “a kind of avocado, replete with a big pit on which it is focused.” In the collectivist East, the “flexi-self” is interdependent, “a context-focused self, oriented toward serving something larger than itself.” Whereas the big pit self believes that individual ability and drive lead to achievement, the flexi-self, Jen asserts, “starts with debt” to parents, teachers, and community. The flexi-self is more attuned to patterns than to “the strange and novel”; the Chinese, therefore, are not “divergent thinkers—thinkers who can easily generate novel uses for a brick, say, or a tree branch,” but rather can adapt others’ ideas to their own needs. Jen makes much of the Chinese college admission exam, in which students’ success is supported by the entire nation. Traffic noise is forbidden so as not to disturb the test-takers, and taxi drivers offer students free rides to the exam site. Yet despite the “self-sacrificing help” of parents and teachers, students are under extreme pressure to perform, since their entire future depends on admission to an elite college. In asserting that American schools “concentrate more on imagination and resourcefulness”—big pit traits—Jen ignores the competition for top nursery schools, emphasis on resume-building extracurricular activities, and intense test-prep tutoring that mark the experiences of many students.
While Jen’s findings are undoubtedly intriguing, she is not fully convincing in her portrayal of the modest, hardworking flexi-self and the big pit self “with high self-esteem and a lack of stick-to-it-ness.”