Questioning the East vs. West Divide in China

July 23, 2015
china, china culture
East vs. West

Even after moving to China, I didn’t readily agree that there is this East vs. West divide in the way that people sometimes say there is. Sure there are differences, but is it everything Edward Said and new age yoga practice makes it out to be? I am generally of the opinion that humans think like humans, and culture and society take the second tier of influence. But as a friend said over dinner last night, “Your mind is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open.” So it’s time to take my presumed open-mindedness and stretch it a little further.

I was at a fundraiser for Kathmandu disaster relief in April. My friend is dating a Nepali guy, and he made quick friends with the Nepalese crowd in Nanjing that was putting it on. So that’s how I fell into a very philosophical conversation with the band’s drummer.

What he had to say broke my brain. I’m used to being a mediator of sorts, able to understand the multiple perspectives that people have. But that part of my nature failed me this time. It was a fairly simple statement that broke my brain: He told me in life, “Don’t try, never try. Just do what is natural.”

He sat there serenely, and countered all of my doubts by maintaining that not trying is the Eastern way of doing things, and that I was thinking about it all wrong.

I jumped immediately to all the reasons we should try. I live in China. Shouldn’t we at least try to reduce carbon emissions? There are days where you can literally see the air. If we don’t try, the best we can do is just stop breathing. My mind jumped to all of the seemingly insurmountable tasks that would make us despicable human beings if we didn’t try to do something. Human trafficking? And even the mountains of daily life that we climb. Raising kids? Loving someone? How would we get through life without trying?

He sat there serenely, and countered all of my doubts by maintaining that not trying is the Eastern way of doing things, and that I was thinking about it all wrong. Living a life without trying was so bizarre to me that I gave myself a challenge: I would live the next week without trying. In fact, I wouldn’t even use the word “try”.

Questioning the East vs. West Divide in China

Enjoying the serenity of Xuanwu Hu Park, Nanjing
Enjoying the serenity of Xuanwu Hu Park, Nanjing

I liked what I found. I found that I had more confidence when I cut out the word “try” from my diet; there was no trying to get something done, but rather just getting it done. So what does it mean not to try? Before that conversation, I assumed not trying meant being passive. But it has to be more nuanced than that. Maybe it means that when someone close to you passes away, you mourn until you finally feel okay moving on. Maybe it means that if your heart is caught up in a specific cause, you can follow a natural instinct of right, instead of just following the natural path of least resistance.

My little experiment also helped me figure out why I personally am obsessed with the idea of trying: I want to conquer the obstacles in front of me, an idea which has been celebrated in all of my favorite stories and cemented in the Western ideal of heroism — from Aladdin to the Count of Monte Cristo.

Do I still not agree with all the hype that  “East vs West” gets? Yes, but I have to concede it’s more like the borders in the South China Sea — it’s difficult to see where the line is drawn.

Have you experienced an East vs West mentality?

 

Questioning the East vs. West Divide in China top photo credit:  Thomas_Depenbusch 

About Anne Twombly

Anne TwomblyAnnie Twombly is a born Oregonian, resident of nowhere, and curious of everywhere. She has lived in and traveled to France, Switzerland, Senegal, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and South Korea. When traveling to a new city, the two things she looks for first are: live music and a pretty park.

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