[ Essay ] Individualistic Asians vs. Group-oriented Westerners

Asians are group-oriented and Westerners are individualistic. That stereotypical view remains somewhat valid:

  • Asians: eat, shop, travel, date and even marry in groups (no, it’s not what you think – it’s that multiple couples wed on the same auspicious day in a wedding venue.)
  • Westerners: eat, shop, travel, date, and marry in couples (= two individuals)

Yet when we focus on what we collectively achieve in our work, suddenly Asians start to look more like individuals (in an unflattering way):

  • Asian companies produce boxed hardware rather than networked solutions, as symbolized by e-book readers: Amazon’s Kindle (buy once, read anywhere) vs. Sony Reader (download and read).
  • The Internet, open software, cloud computing—none of those vital technologies that shape the 21st century were invented by Asians, who are supposed to be dominating the technology and science world based on the numbers of Ph.D. students.
  • Europe remains the center of soccer, the ultimate organized sport, while Asian countries are still considered Third World in footballdom (except for Korea, probably), as The Economist says:

The Buddha tells the people he can fulfil only one of their wishes. Someone asks: “Could you lower the price of property in China so that people can afford it?” Seeing the Buddha frown in silence, the person makes another wish: “Could you make the Chinese football team qualify for a World Cup?” After a long sigh, the Buddha says: “Let’s talk about property prices.”

If we Asians are truly “group-oriented,” then how come we are still unknown for system-oriented solution, a much needed trait in today’s connected world?

Maybe it’s about how we Asians perceive the private vs. work duality:

  • Private life: who we are
  • Work life: who we want to be

Because group mentality is already in our blood, we are less inclined to pursue group activities in our work. Work is also our ticket to freedom from our bondage, containment, or Guanxi in our tribes. Workplace is where we become individuals and regain who we are. Probably the following is what goes on in a typical Asian young worker’s mind: What’s the point of going back to the tribal society during my daytime job? We already have enough group activities in our lives; it’s time to have something that I can claim personally!

Perhaps we need to wait until the group/individual dilemma go a full circle—until we Asians  even get fed up of individual (=selfish in our context) work and rediscover our group-oriented roots. Maybe that’s when we start true collaboration.