Gish Jen, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap

The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture GapThe Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap by Gish Jen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One time, teaching a course on the graphic novel, I described the differences in artistic form and storytelling technique between manga and Western comics. A student raised her hand and offered the opinion that the contrast between the two modes reflected the difference between individualist Western culture and collectivist Eastern culture. The student was Asian-American and so presumably permitted such an observation. I am professionally committed, I believe, to promulgating anti-essentialism; therefore I did not feel I was permitted to agree with it. Like the Holy Trinity, anti-essentialism is a mystery beyond human experience, as you have to be an essentialist—naïvely believing in the unity of your personality, the power of your conscious intention, and the stability of matter—just to walk across the room, so I did not press the point very hard, but I did caution against overly broad generalizations. All the same, cultural difference exists and is even visible to the naked eye: there should be some way to discuss it without undue reductionism or stereotype.

Novelist Gish Jen’s nonfiction study The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap attempts a nuanced and well-informed exploration of this divide between Western and Eastern culture about the importance that should be accorded the individual—though Jen does dismiss “collectivist” and “individualist” as terms with too much Cold War bias and prefers to speak in the more neutral language of independence vs. interdependence instead.

The Girl at the Baggage Claim takes its title from its opening anecdote: an Asian woman applies to a prestigious Western academy and demonstrates her English-language proficiency in a Skype interview with the school authorities. Yet after she is accepted for enrollment, it is discovered at the airport that “the girl at the baggage claim” is not the girl they interviewed. The young woman had asked her sister, whose English was better than her own, to substitute for her in the Skype interview, and evidently saw no problem in doing so. What ideas about the self and society allowed her to think this appropriate behavior? Jen’s book is essentially a comparative study of Western and Eastern sensibility attempting to explain and defend the latter to puzzled Westerners (and Jen, a first-generation American, as I am [on my mother’s side], considers herself one such Westerner).

Jen divides West and East by two concepts of the self—the flexible, interdependent self of the East, embedded in its social environment and alive to its context, and the “avocado pit” self of Western individualism, self-assertive and self-esteeming. This book draws extensively on social-psychological studies to prove this split in sensibility, though the rapidity with which such studies seem to be debunked and the replication crisis affecting the field makes me wonder how persuasive this is. Her many examples from the arts are perhaps more convincing—to me, a humanist rather than a scientist—though obviously more impressionistic. The book concludes with a plea to synthesize the two sensibilities in an “ambidependent” self that would combine the freedom of the Westerner with the responsibility of the Easterner, and it is difficult to argue with this argument for nuance and complexity.

This book is a work of somewhat breezy, TED-talk-like pop-nonfiction, though, and it definitely creaks under the complexity of its task. For one thing, Jen often admits that her binary barely holds—that, essentially, only well-off Americans fit the mold of the “avocado pit” individualist, while almost everyone else in the world, including most Europeans and many Americans (such as Catholics or the working class), exhibit higher interdependence. Attributing cultural difference to economics, Jen suggests that the source of divergent cultural sensibilities goes back to the differences among rice farming, wheat farming, and nomadism; but she also says that such difference is perpetuated through time not by genetics but by habit and cultural “contagion.” Even so, it does make one wonder how much culture on this model can really change if it is so determined at its source by economics?

On the other hand, to note one detail that troubled me, it is surely ironic that she keeps mentioning Emerson and Thoreau as examples of Western or American individualism, since their Transcendentalist philosophy entails that what the individual actually expresses is nature and the world-spirit streaming through every particular soul. “Self-Reliance” as promoted by Emerson and Thoreau is a complicated dialectical notion bearing many similarities to Taoist thought—and this is not even to note that both authors were early Western devotees of Indian, Persian, Arab, and Chinese thought. Like all binaries, independence and interdependence have a way of becoming each other in the mystic union of opposites foretold by many thinkers and writers, Western and Eastern alike.

Jen also makes things politically easier for herself than she should in defending interdependence. At one point, she mentions as an example of excessive American individualism the preference for choice in all things, alluding to ice cream flavors—but would she mock so readily the increasingly multiplicity of genders? Her critique of self-esteem-based education, meant to foster the student’s individual expressivity, raises similar questions (though I agree with her at least provisional defense of prematurely discredited pedagogical methods like memorization).

For better or worse, American individualism does not merely implicate targets agreed upon by the liberal literati, like rampant consumerism, the greedy businessman, or the gun-toting bigot; it encompasses also figures and causes who would be sympathetic to this book’s target audience—think of the role played by heroic individualism in African-American culture from the emancipatory slave narratives onward or the assertion of individual preference and identity in queer culture—and I would have liked to see Jen deal with these harder questions of cultural politics. (In this context, it might be notable that the latest Chinese word to break into Western awareness is baizuo, or “white left,” a term that like “social justice warrior” is used to mock cultural liberalism as so much whining and opportunistic—i.e., “virtue-signaling”—hypocrisy.)

Jen’s comments on the arts, though, are welcome and suggestive, even if, as with the rest of the book, somewhat over-generalized. She argues that the great artist in Western culture is the genius, a grand individual expressing his or her vision in startlingly original terms, while the great artist in Eastern culture is the master, who has so totally merged his or her sensibility within craft, nature, and tradition that the resulting work has an air not of disruption but of smoothness and calm. She allows that this ideology of mastery may make the East a culture of excessive copying (in her own Westernized view) when she discusses plagiarism in academia and dwells at length on Dafen Oil Painting Village with its teeming replicas of classic paintings.

But she also claims that mastery, in its emphasis on tradition and learning, is an aesthetic that can be a corrective to the West’s enervating pursuit of novelty and transgression. Without referring to any binary of East/West, I have had similar thoughts when encountering arguments that seem to want to mandate avant-garde aesthetics for any writer with serious literary ambitions—hence my occasional defense of seemingly “traditional” novelists like Jonathan Franzen and Kazuo Ishiguro for using recognizable and even sociable literary forms to communicate their difficult truths, rather than willfully defying tradition and the reader with overt radical gestures like subtracting punctuation marks or paragraph breaks or whatever. It is just too simple to dismiss any use of traditional forms in art as hidebound complacency, and Jen’s defense of mastery over genius helps to articulate why this is so.

In conclusion, The Girl at the Baggage Claim, while perhaps suffering from its pop-nonfiction simplifications, is nevertheless well worth reading as much for Jen’s own genial, wise sensibility as for the examples and data she marshals.