Looking at Pictures in East and West PDF
Written by Hans Durrer   


There is no reason to assume that a Thai, when looking at a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, should see a different Eiffel Tower than, say, a Swiss does. What Thai eyes and Swiss eyes register is the same, how they interpret it might however be another story.


Our interpretations of pictures depend not least on our cultural upbringing. The famous picture of the lonely man facing the tanks on Tiananmen Square in 1989, for instance, has been read, by the Western media, as a symbol of exceptional bravery in the face of a massive threat, whereas the official Chinese reading saw it as an expression of extraordinary restraint by the tank commander.



June 4th, 1989


“East and West part ways in test of facial expressions” the International Herald Tribune (IHT) recently titled and asked: “How do you know how someone is feeling? For people in Western societies, it is usually easy: look at the person's face. But for people from Japan and other Eastern societies, a new study finds, it may be more complex - having to do not only with evaluating the other person's face but also with gauging the mood of others who might be around.”


The study had shown two groups – one Western, one Japanese – of about three dozen students a series of drawings of five children. The expressions of the children in an image often varied but sometimes were the same. The students were asked to rate the face of the child at the center of the picture on a 10-point scale for happiness, sadness, and anger.


The assessments of the Japanese students were heavily influenced by the mood displayed by the other faces on the picture: when all faces looked happy, they gave the figure in the center a higher score than when the faces in the background looked sad. The Western students however remained largely unaffected by what was going on in the background.


The IHT concluded: “The differences may speak to deeply ingrained cultural traits, the authors write, suggesting that Westerners may "see emotions as individual feelings, while Japanese see them as inseparable from the feelings of the group."




It goes without saying that when arguing about values, one easily falls into the trap of stereotyping – Westerners and Asians, us and them, that is. This seems to be almost unavoidable although, in theory, we might know better – the rich in London have, arguably, more in common with the rich in Singapore (preserving their wealth, to start with) than with the poor in their own country, a fact that such ideological debates often ignore. Nevertheless, we do not seem able to do without clichés which – it should be stressed – often serve (if not taken deadly serious, of course) as helpful signposts for mutual understanding.


While suspecting that public disagreements on values are more likely caused by politics – in other words, the power interests of the arguing parties – than by fundamental differences in values (after all: the universal declaration of human rights was signed by the UN-member states from East and West; family life is collapsing in East and West, drug abuse is a worldwide phenomenon etc.), one nevertheless needs to ask whether there isn’t some truth to Kipling’s famous “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. The quotation seems “gently dated”, as Janwillem van de Wetering, in “Afterzen: Experiences of a Zen Student Out on His Ear”, puts it, for East keeps meeting West and the dalliance, however hostile at times, gave rise to the birth of the Toyota, Japanese jazz, a movie harmonizing the talents of Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, much better TV sets. My neighbor in Maine thanks Honda’s competition for the fact that his five-year-old Ford product does not rattle. (“They used to, you know, them Fords, but no more, no more. Thanks to them Japs. I fought them in the Pacific. Clever fellers, don’t you think?”).


Moreover, after the Swiss philosopher Elmar Holenstein addressed an international audience of fellow philosophers by reading from an unnamed classical text that was said to point out the characteristics of Asian thinking and acting, he asked who the audience thought the author was? Confucius argued some, Taoism said others, Shintoism postulated yet another group. Well, it was a text from the Swiss author Peter Bichsel who had put to paper what he considered peculiarities of the Swiss national character.

Nevertheless, cultural differences do of course exist and they appear to have a tendency to pop up when we least expect them, as Mont Redmond in “Wondering into Thai culture, or, Thai whys, and otherwise” explains:


On the surface of things, Thai life is like life everywhere in the world these days … If your stay lasts years, however, and if you are more than ordinarily perceptive you will discern an even deeper level in the lives of Thais. Those niggling discrepancies of behavior and attitude, cultural relics which hitherto hardly caused a ripple in your picture of universal human nature, are beginning to form a pattern … One thing that is continually underestimated and so is forever springing out at us when we least expect it, is the high-low factor. Intellectually, we know that Thais read the world around them in these terms, but emotionally, pre-intellectually, we forget, and hence are never really ready or aware. We force ourselves to play their game, politely humble to those “above” us, politely patronizing to those “below”, and then suddenly discover that Thais are in mortal earnest about the whole charade. It is a shock to which we will never be entirely immune.


The question however is – and this is what we should ponder when again another study claims that people in the West and in the East (or in the North and the South, for that matter) see the world differently – whether we are condemned to see the world in a culturally conditioned way. In other words, will I, because of the fact that I was culturally conditioned in Switzerland, always see the world through my Swiss value system? In part, sure, but a value system is not fixed, it is in a constant state of flux.


Moreover, we also have the ability to choose and can thus become willing to see the same picture that somebody from another culture sees. When we understand, and are aware of, our cultural conditioning – that Westerners focus on the individual, Easterners on the group, for instance – we can decide what we will focus on. So why not, from time to time, look at the world through the eyes of a culture of our choosing?

"Looking at Pictures in East and West" appeared in the Straits Times, Singapore (24 June 2008)


Hans Durrer







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