Understandings of “Asia” and “the West”

Perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves when trying to re-recognize Asia as both a territory and a mindset is to establish why we are doing so in the first place. Over centuries many have tried to ‘pin down’ Asia to a single ideology so that it can be conveniently packaged for a Western audience to study at length and leisure. This perennial quest of the West to somehow ‘figure out’ the East is more than deluded, it is also presumptuous. The assumption – on our part – that we are the only ones seeking definition is misguided. We are not the only ones that need answers and solutions. What separates these two chunks/ people/ ideologies? What really needs to be discovered is ‘why’ we so badly (now more so than ever) need to understand these ‘Others’?

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The stereotypes that surround the East are many and they all take root in the glamour we reserve for a lifestyle and outlook that is foreign and thereby glamorous for those of us living in the West. Over the past decade, it has even become impossible to identify who each of us is, seeing as the West is widely considered the banner under which only the US resides and the East is often synonymous with the Middle East. Grant Evans, in ‘Asia’s cultural mosaic’ has mentioned our clichéd quest to discover what constitutes ‘oriental disposition’ and ‘ the Asian mind’. In order to do so one first needs to define the territory. Where exactly is Asia, or what is it for that matter? Further, this all-encompassing tangent we keep talking about – the clash of civilizations – West VS East, what is our initial bearing? Where are we measuring West and East from? At present, and for argument’s sake, one can assume that the West consists of the United States and the United Kingdom and that Asia largely consists of the Muslim world post 9/11. Our need to understand Asia has increased exponentially as the latter’s earlier oriental mystique and mesmerizing idiosyncrasies have turned into a launchpad for anti-western-ism.

There are several stereotypes that surround Asia, but since Asia consists of numerous communities and ethnicities, all these stereotypes are rendered useless in helping us come up with a suitable ‘Asian Profile’. The stereotypes vary from Pakistani to Indian, Indian to Japanese, Japanese to Chinese, Chinese to Korean, Korean to Iraqi, and Iraqi to Saudi. The only semblance of a system the West has managed so far is to categorize Asia geographically or by religion. Whether or not we acknowledge the latter, religion has become the modern staple by which to segregate the Asian mindset and thereby study it. Global terrorism and religious intolerance have rendered a force of fear so strong in the global mindset that the lines between East and West are fast becoming set in stone.

Whether or not this is the right approach is beside the point, the fact of the matter is that it is the only approach currently operating. The West, according to the accepted norm, is progressive, modern, secular, and logical and the East in turn is regressive, traditional, conservative, and mystical. There is always a certain degree of truth to stereotypes. They are generalizations and that is why they thrive in our society because they are general. The problem occurs when they become the basis for factual assumptions and judgment. Unfortunately in the volatile religio-political climate of today, they often end up being both. Said has written “The hold these instruments have on the mind is increased by the institutions built around them. For every Orientalist, quite literally, there is a support system of staggering power, considering the ephemerality of the myths that Orientalism propagates. The system now culminates into the very institutions of the state.”

The trouble is that even though Asia has always held an illusion of mystique and grandeur for the West, it has also represented the uncontrollable and the somewhat unchangeable. Where one functions on the basis of rationality and independence, the other is bound by tradition and faith, neither premise has the power to alter the other and the fact that the West now needs to find a way to get ‘Asia’ on board with its plans is thereby proving trial some. The thing is, while we in the West might find Asia mysterious and a little scary, many in the East simply resent Western presumptuousness to decide what ‘they think is best for the entire planet. This sentiment is unlikely to go away unless we try to comprehend what makes Asia stick to its past and unless they can be made to understand why the West is so eager to make new forays into the future at light speed.

The fact that it is the Western world that is driving the struggle to ‘reform’ and ‘enlighten’ Asia is not hard to understand. Time has shown us that power and dominance form the premise for ‘conquering the world and every nation that has had its day in the sun has ruled without qualm and with an agenda that has always been ethnocentric. If the law of the jungle truly applies, then it is little wonder that it is the West that is presently dictating its terms to the East. Our mistake, however, is in expecting them to enjoy it, so is our delusion.

Asia functions primarily on the premise of ‘tradition’. This one word represents something far more tangible in the East than it does in the West, for most of the West tradition forms a polite variation of nostalgia that we still tend to humor for the sake of grandeur and posterity. It is not really ‘real’ or sacred for that matter, it is pretty and it represents something that makes us feel connected to the past in a polite yet uncomplicated manner. For the East ‘tradition’ forms the bearing for the future. Logic and rationalization are only entertained if they are in conformance with tradition, if not, then tradition will almost always take precedence. This notion of antiquity, when coupled with religious sentiment and fuelled with constantly changing customs forms a volatile combination. In his book ‘Inventing traditions’, Eric Hobsbawm has mentioned the difference between ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’. This is an essential distinction to make when one is concerned with understanding ‘Asian’ or ‘Eastern’ motivations.

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Tradition is permanent in its stature and reverence, and customs are the foil around it that are ever-changing and subtle. Customs essentially fuel tradition in most Asian countries and often times the rigid premise of tradition can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of custom. The problem with customs is that they are hard to control and understand, they are essentially the myriad of tiny rituals that – when combined – form a force to contend with for a rationalist who can find no basis for their very existence. In a world where religious tradition is a defining matter in international politics, economics, and survival, it is very important to evaluate where tradition takes us and its purpose. Western traditions, even the illogical few, have boundaries and limits placed upon them by the rational majority that would pounce on the intangible concept of ‘tradition’ if it ever began to impinge upon tangible realities such as human rights. We see this battle being waged every day with gay rights, the woman’s movement, and freedom of expression. Eastern traditions are exactly the opposite, the ones that are harmless are seldom paid much attention to and the ones that can lead to death, forced marriages in the name of honor, and suppressing freedom of thought in the interest of preserving a notion of reverence for authority figures and religion are the ones that are actively encouraged.

While propagating the counter-argument to Orientalism, Ian Buruma, and Avishai Margalit in their book Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies managed to show us how the East views the West. Buruma and Margalit argue that this nationalist and nativist resistance to the “West” actually replicates responses to forces of modernization that have their roots in the Western culture itself, among both utopian radicals and nationalist conservatives who saw capitalism, liberalism, and secularism as destructive forces.

While there is no sense in denying that Eastern thought and history has had as much influence on framing the West as the West has had in revolutionizing the East, the present conundrum we face seems to be that one tangent seems to be moving forward and the other seems to be holding back.

Only time can tell if both can even out their pace and their priorities enough to prosper rather than perish.


Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T. 1983, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Evans, G. 1993, Asia’s Cultural Mosaic, Prentice Hall, Singapore.

Burama, I. & Margalit, A. , 2004, Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies, The Penguin Press, New York.

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Bonnett, A, 2004, The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Said, E. 1978, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Pantheon, London.

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