In the age of Myspace and YouTube and Google Earth, the space between East and West seems to shrink. But in the area of self-perception, especially, there remains a cultural gap that can often be as wide as the ocean.
Take Jeong-Hyun Lim, a 24-year-old business student in Seoul. Popularly known as Funtwo on YouTube, his rock rendition of Pachelbel's Canon has turned him into a global phenomenon. Lim's dizzying sweep-picking -- sounding and muting notes at breakneck speed -- has had some viewers calling him a second Hendrix. His video has been viewed on YouTube 24 million times so far.
But Funtwo himself is self-effacing, a baseball cap covering much of his face. No one knew who he was until Virginia Heffernan wrote about him in the New York Timeslast August. She 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."
Anyone 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 than now." In another interview, he rated his playing around 50 or 60 out of 100.
Lim's modesty is reassuringly Asian, echoing the famous Chinese saying: "Who is not satisfied with himself will grow." In a classic 1992 study, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler compared academic skills of elementary school students in Taiwan, 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, self-esteem has become a movement widely practiced in public schools, based on the belief that academic achievements come with higher self-confidence. Shokraii disputes 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," writes Shokraii.
A quarter of a century later, a comprehensive new study released last February from San Diego State University maintains that too much self-regard has resulted in college campuses full of narcissists. In 2006, 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, 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 "Myspace" generation.
Has the emphasis for self-confidence gone too far in America? Twenge seemed to think so. She points 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 has been 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 5 percent of the country's population, Asian-Americans typically make up 10 percent to 30 percent of the best colleges. In California, Asians form the majority of the University of California system. And at 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.
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 of 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 the editor of New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.