Culture and Identity: East and West

Cultural psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner studied different ways of being, or what they term the independent and interdependent selves. Markus and Conner looked at a range of environments, from classroom participation to ways of parenting, between students from Eastern and Western cultures. While there are important variations and distinct differences within these regions and cultures, Markus and Conner shared some general observations:

For many East Asians, and their children growing up in the West, listening, following the “right” way, fitting in, and keeping calm are not odd classroom behaviors; they are the very route to being a good person—a good interdependent self, Eastern style. But for their Western classmates and teachers, speaking up, choosing your own way, standing out, and getting excited are also ways of being a good person—but in this case, a good independent self, Western style. . . .

Independent European-American parents and teachers say that a student should first choose what she wants to do, and then do it her own way. In the West, choice is perhaps the most important act because it lets people realize all five facets of independence. Choice allows people to express their individuality and unique preferences, influence their environments, exercise their free will, and assert their equality.

But interdependent parents lay out a different agenda: I show my child the right thing to do, and then help her do it the right way. In the East, following the right way is a central act because it lets people realize all five facets of interdependence: relating to others, discovering your similarities, adjusting yourself to expectations and the environment, rooting yourself into networks and traditions, and understanding your place in the larger world.1

A portrait of the author Gish Jen, whose book Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, explores Eastern and Western differences in self-narration. To hear more reflections from Gish Jen, click on her portrait and listen to an interview conducted by Harvard University Press.


Author Gish Jen feels the tension between cultures in very personal ways. in an interview conducted for Harvard University Press, Jen reflects on her individualistic, or independent, self that dominates in the West, especially America, and her collectivist, or interdependent, self that dominates in the east, including China. Jen first came to understanding this continuum in herself after reading her own father’s autobiography:

I was not a narrative native. We didn’t do this in my family. I was not asked what do you want, as if what I wanted was a very important thing or what do I like. I was not encouraged to think of myself as a unique individual whose uniqueness was really a very important thing. Quite the contrary. And so therefore it wasn’t until I started reading that I realized that in the West . . .  this was a foundational idea. That it started with pictures of you  as a baby. I don’t have any pictures of myself one minute after I was born. In fact, I have very few pictures of myself and there are few stories also about me as a child. As I started to get interested in this whole question of narrative difference, which is tied to a difference of self and difference in perception, I happened to start to work on my father’s autobiography that he had written when he was 85.

When I first looked at it, it just made no sense at all to me. Here was this thing that was supposed to be an autobiography about his growing up in China, and yet he, himself, did not appear until page 8. This autobiography did not start with “I was born in such and such a year.” No, no, no. It started way, way before that, thousands of years before that, and went through the generations. By the time my father gets to his birth, he mentions his birthday in parentheses, in conjunction with another event. I remember reading that and thinking, “How very interesting.” I could both see that it was “weird” from a Western narrative point of view and yet of course there was something about it that was incredibly familiar to me. I understood this. I understood this diminishment of the self. One thing was something I knew with my left hand and another was something I knew with my right. 2

In her book Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, Jen expands on the differences between the independent and interdependent self even further:

[T]he “independent,” individualistic self stresses uniqueness, defines itself via inherent attributes such as its traits, abilities, values, and preferences, and tends to see things in isolation. The second—the “interdependent,” collectivist self—stresses commonality, defines itself via its place, roles, loyalties, and duties, and tends to see things in context. Naturally, between these two very different self construals [self-definitions] lies a continuum along which most people are located, and along which they may move, too, over the course of a moment. Culture is not fate; it only offers templates, which individuals can finally accept, reject, or modify, and do.3


  • 1 : Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner, Clash!: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2013), 5-9.
  • 2 : “Gish Jen, Tiger Writing,” Youtube video, 3:35, posted by “Harvard University Press,” November 14, 2012.
  • 3 : Gish Jen, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 2–7.

Connection Questions

  1. What differences do Markus and Conner suggest in the way that East Asians and European Americans think about the relationship between the society and the individual? How do those different cultural ideas about independence and interdependence shape the way that the people they studied raise their children?

  2. In Clash, Markus and Conner’s work, they spoke to many of their graduate students of both Eastern and Western backgrounds. Students and teachers from Western backgrounds shared frustration with what they perceived as a lack of participation in class from students who had been schooled in or come from East-Asian cultures. At the same time East-Asian students shared their frustration with the American assumption that “talking is thinking.” In their book Akiko, a graduate student from Japan, shared a handful of proverbs from Japan that he felt expressed these differences.1

    The mouth is the source of misfortune. Guard your mouth as though it were a vase. You have two ears and one mouth, to be used in that proportion. The duck that quacks the loudest gets shot How do you interpret these proverbs? What larger ideas are these proverbs expressing?

  3. Another graduate student of Hazel Markus was Heejung Kim from South Korea. After being confronted with not speaking in her class, Heejung wrote an email to Hazel and added the following as a new signature to the note: “The empty carriage rattles the loudest.” Heejung later shared the saying of the great Confucian sage Lao Tzu: “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”2 What larger ideas of culture are all these proverbs communicating?

  4. The excerpt from author Gish Jen begins with the sentence “I was not a narrative native.” What does she mean? How does the sentence represent what she hopes to communicate about how culture influences the way people think about themselves?
  5. Author Gish Jen describes the delicate balance people face when talking about cultural differences:

    I’d like to say that with this, as with all discussions involving cultural difference, I am aware of the danger of stereotyping. “Simplistic and over exaggerated beliefs about a group, generally acquired second-hand and resistant to change,” as sociologist Martin M. Marger put it, are obviously to be roundly condemned and absolutely avoided. I am also aware, though, that fear of stereotyping has sometimes led to a discomfort with an assertion of cultural difference, no matter how thoroughly accepted by psychologists or how firmly grounded in research.3

    How can we talk and learn about the influence of culture without relying on stereotypes? What suggestions, warnings, or advice would be helpful to prevent discussions of culture from reinforcing stereotypes?


  • 1 : Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner, Clash!: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2013), 6-7.
  • 2 : Ibid., 7.
  • 3 : Gish Jen, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture and the Interdependent Self, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 5.

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