Is it appropriate to always deal with even the most off-putting un-Western thing by binging on Western culture? When I walked around a poor section of Shanghai only a few blocks from where I taught English, I would have trouble reconciling seeing dogs for sale for obvious consumption or hearing people slurp noodles or eating loudly. The problem with my extreme Western reactions to these events back then—usually involving Western alcohol and ‘80s songs, just as they do now—is that my reaction was so extreme that I made my own studying abroad experience almost unbearable. I began to completely reject the culture around me because it didn’t conform to my Western notions of what a civilized person should do. Somehow civilization seemed to always involve margaritas and “Blue Monday” and I saw any Chinese person’s desire to not conform to Westerners’ cultural imperialism to be off-putting.
It’s much harder to see your own culture from someone else’s eyes. Western culture is held is such esteem across the world, especially American culture; Palestinians and Taiwanese alike thus try to appropriate it for themselves in various forms. The people of Taipei share a lot of my habits and interests because of globalization and the primacy of Western culture—this non-Western gravitation towards things associated with a seemingly more “advanced” scientific, economic, and military power is rooted in inventions and ideology in the Western world from the time of Prince Henry the Navigator and in the centuries which followed. Having figured out that rejecting the sights and stories around me in Taipei is an understandable, but avoidable reaction, I’m instead using history and context to evaluate cultures to come up with a better coping mechanism. This requires a much more nuanced view, but it may ultimately lessen the likelihood of this alienation occurring.
In the future I’ll try to keep in mind that many Taiwanese, Chinese, Iranians, etc. have already discarded many elements of their native cultures as a result of geopolitical, economic realities which ultimately determine their habits. I’m a student of Chinese and Taiwanese history and even I fell into this really easy trap that many Westerns fall into. Ultimately, it is worth your time to study imperialistic histories to really grasp how differently things could have been had economies and ideologies operated slightly differently. Some Westerners deal with this alienation by living in bubbles filled with other alienated Westerners. I’ve been the person who can’t deal with this alienation and loses out on learning a lot while abroad. When you go out and explore a new place that isn’t Western, come with an open mind that is still packed with a lot of history.
Also, keep in mind that many foreigners understand Western cultural nuances far better than many Westerners grasp foreign mores and norms. Not knowing Western culture can lead to a loss of face in many social circles within non-Western cities. This burden isn’t as present for Westerners studying in Beijing or Moscow. Cultural exchange shouldn’t be such a one-way street. Finally, I realize I was given a scholarship to go to Taiwan in order to participate in such exchanges. I should probably become a little more adept at describing the distinctions of different kinds of Oolong tea and drink a little less of the tasty, strong, and cheap American coffee that’s brewed at Taipei’s 7-Elevens—this won’t be easy, I admit. Yet I’m satisfied with knowing that breaking down Western cultural hegemony can be a really great opportunity to grow and make some new friends.