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East and West far apart when it comes to egos

East and West far apart when it comes to egos
Created: 2012-5-9
Author:Andrew Lam

IN the age of Twitter, Skype, YouTube and Google, the space between East and West seems to compress and shrink. 

But in the area of self-perception, there remains a psyche gap that can often be as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

Take Heejun Han, an immigrant from South Korea who became one of the top 10 singers on "American Idol"this year that began with more than 100,000 contestants. Though his last performance garnered a standing ovation by all three judges, he was self-deprecating. "Do I really belong here? Do I really deserve this spot?" he was quoted in an interview as saying. 

Anyone else with this kind of media spotlight would take advantage of it but not Han. "I don't want to be a star," he said on stage. He later said, "I'm just a guy, an ordinary guy who happened to be on `American Idol'."

Six years ago, Virginia Heffernan wrote in The New York Times about Lim Jeong-Hyun, another Asian musician. Lim, a business student in Seoul, was popularly known as Funtwo on YouTube, where his rock rendition of Pachelbel's Canon has turned him into a global phenomenon with millions of followers. 

Someone in the West with this kind of media spotlight and Internet following would hire an agent and make a CD. But Lim told Heffernan, "I am always thinking that I'm not that good a player and must improve more now." He rated his playing around 50 or 60 out of 100.

Heffernan called his "anti-showmanship" "distinctly Asian," adding that "sometimes an element of flat-out abjection even enters into this act, as though the chief reason to play guitar is to be excoriated by others," she noted.

Asian modesty

Yet both Han and Lim's self-effacing modesty is reassuringly Asian, echoing the famous Chinese saying: "Who is not satisfied with himself will grow."

Two decades ago in a classic study, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared academic skills of elementary school students in China, Japan and the United States. 

It showed a yawning gap in self-perception between East and West. Asian students outperformed their American counterparts, but when they were asked to evaluate their performances, American students evaluated themselves significantly higher than those from Asia. "In other words, they combined a lousy performance with a high sense of self-esteem," noted Nina H. Shokraii, author of "School Choice 2000: What's Happening in the States," in an essay called "The Self Esteem Fraud."

Since the '80s, encouraging self-esteem has become a movement widely practiced in public schools, based on the belief that academic achievements come with higher self-confidence. 

Shokraii disputed that self-esteem is necessary for academic success. "For all of its current popularity, however, self-esteem theory threatens to deny children the tools they will need in order to experience true success in school and as adults," she wrote.

A quarter of a century later, a comprehensive study from San Diego State University released in 2007 maintained that too much self-regard has resulted in college campuses full of narcissists. 

Researchers said two-thirds of the students had above-average scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory evaluation, 30 percent more than when the test was first administered in 1982.

Researchers like San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge worried that narcissists "are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, to be at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors." 

The author of "Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before," Twenge blamed the self-esteem movement for the rise of the Facebook generation.

Has the emphasis on self-confidence gone too far in America? 

Twenge seemed to think so. She pointed to the French tune "Frere Jacques" in preschool, for example. French children may still sing it as "Brother Jack! You're sleeping! Ring the bells!" 

But in America the once innocuous song is sometimes converted to: "I am special! I am special! Look at me! No surprise that the little train that could is exhausted: It's been laden with super-sized American egos.

That Asian Americans dominate higher education in the last few decades in America is also worth noting. 

Less than 6 percent of the country's population, Asian Americans typically make up 10 percent to 30 percent of enrollment in the best colleges. In California, Asians form the majority of the University of California system. And at the University of California, Berkeley, Asian freshmen have reached the 46 percent mark this year. 

Also worth noting is that of the Asian population in the United States, two out of three are immigrants, born in a continent where self-esteem is largely earned through achievements, self-congratulatory behaviors discouraged, and more importantly, humility is still something of a virtue.

In the East, the self is best defined in its relation to others - person among persons - and most valued and best expressed only through familial and communal and moral deference. That is far from the self-love concept of the West - where one is encouraged to look out for oneself, and truth seems to always originate in a minority of one.

In much of modernizing Asia, of course, individualism is making inroads. The Confucian culture that once emphasized harmony and unity at the expense of individual liberty is now in retreat.

Spiritual discipline

But if there's a place in Asia that still vigilantly keeps the ego in check, if not suppressed, it's the classroom. 

In Asia, corporal punishment is still largely practiced. Self-esteem is barely a concept, let alone encouraged. 

Though not known to foster creativity, an Asian education with its emphasis on hard work and cooperation, critics argue, still largely provides the antidote to the culture of permissiveness and disrespect of authority of the West.

In the West, the word kung fu is known largely as martial arts. It has a larger meaning in the East: spiritual discipline and the cultivation of the self. 

A well-kept bonsai is good kung fu, so is a learned mind and so, for that matter, is the willingness to perfect one's guitar playing. 

East and West may be commingling and merging in the age of globalization, but beware - that ubiquitous baseball cap that Funtwo is wearing on YouTube can mislead - it houses very different mentalities in Asia - for when it comes to the perception of self, East and West remain far apart.

Andrew Lam is an editor of New America Media and the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His book of short stories, "Birds of Paradise," is due out in 2013.

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Humility Misunderstood

Andrew,
Your blog made me think of how humility, particularly among Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, is often mistaken as low self-esteem in the U.S.

As a teacher, I have observed how educators typically value the Western idea of self-esteem---boosting egos and demonstrating self-confidence (even if we aren't feeling it)---and adopting personality traits typically associated with extroverts.

Although it's not directly related to what you're speaking of here, this TED Talks video on valuing introverts came to mind as I read your words: http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_cain_the_power_of_introverts.html

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"A well-kept bonsai is good kung fu..."

How I agree!

Humility is a deeply misunderstood virtue and, in its true sense, though it may cut us down to size, it releases our capabilities to be naturally celebrated which boosts self-esteem alongside everyone else's. This is life-affirming.

The present overweening cult of celebrity is symptomatic of soullessness.

"The Confucian culture that once emphasized harmony and unity at the expense of individual liberty is now in retreat."

As a Westerner, I could equally substitute 'Christian' for 'Confucian' which, I think, makes your point about the spread of western values into Asia.

It's not an attractive trait - nothing like the American Dream which fosters the optimism that anyone can be anything and do anything (great in itself!)  - but, in Britain, we have a cynical approach to celebrity. We reluctantly raise pedestals for our gods only to bring them down and prove we're really better. (Relics of both severe Catholicism and Puritanism, I guess.)

It is wise never to crave or court fame. The famous become public property to a point where the individual may cease to exist.