[Read the previous part here]
As a We-Culture, the Chinese “I” starts with a very different foundation. The kind of house construction and family relationship in my childhood set the foundational experience that I was a part of a whole. Unlike the American “I” that lives inside a boundary, this “I” was a nodal point of an expanding network, just like the two-room unit I lived in as a child. Networks like this connect each “I” through a physical sense like those Hu-tongs. It is a physical sense embodied into the “I” before the conscious mind is even developed. This means that even if an “I” is physically isolated, or free from the constrain of legal, moral or religious constructs, the experience of being an “I” still feels like part of a whole.
At the same time, this felt sense of connection was further reinforced by the rich interconnection encoded in the Chinese language itself. For example, a Chinese high school student’s vocabulary averages around 3000 characters (words). An American high school student in contrast has learnt 15,000 words. When a new concept or meaning arises, English tends to assign a new word to highlight its uniqueness; whereas Chinese tends to assemble a compound phrase with basic characters to emphasize its relationship with existing concepts. Therefore, each Chinese character is associated with a much wider network of meanings than a single English word. The attention of a native Chinese speaker is therefore much more drawn to the context in which the characters are woven than the specific meanings of each character.
Furthermore, I was also immersed in the enculturation that I was part of a larger country. Not just the country defined by the political entity founded in 1949, but the culture that has continued its lineage for thousands of years with many, many rounds of rise and fall. A long and rich story-telling tradition serves to nurture the Chinese’s bond with their cultural lineage at a deep-seated emotional level and pass this bond from generation to generation.
However, no matter how expansive the network is, inevitably it will reach a point where a boundary emerges, like my childhood neighborhood. One hundred families were a massive world for a small child. I spent quite a few years of my childhood not venturing very far outside the boundary of those five Hu-tongs on my own. However, as I grew up, I started to venture outside and found bigger and bigger boundaries to cross. Whenever I crossed a boundary, first a neighborhood, a city, then a province, I looked back and discovered the limitations of the connections within that boundary. Eventually, I crossed the boundary of the country.
When people describe Asian cultures as more collective, they tend to miss the complementary side of it. On the foundation of this connected “I” is formed a “We”. This “We” is propelled to search for its own distinct identity with sovereignty and freedom. The devotion to that boundary is just as fierce and relentless as I-Culture’s commitment to individual sovereignty. That is why a lot of the immigrant communities form tightly knit clusters such as Chinatown or Koreatown in foreign countries. The food traditions and family ties serve as strong, cohesive bonds that strengthen the integrity of the boundary.
This is also why, although there might be significant “human rights” problems within a We-Culture country, if this country is challenged by a foreign entity, the people put “human rights” aside and bind together to protect the integrity of their collective boundary. In fact, this raises a question about our modern global culture. Human rights are defined primarily by I-Culture political systems. While they fiercely protect individuals’ freedom and sovereignty, this version of “human rights” still has much to learn from the experience of “I” in a We-Culture – the inherent desire to be a part of a whole and the whole’s impulse to seek its identity. From this perspective, imposing the western ideology of human rights onto other countries without understanding these needs violates a broader sense of human rights.
I feel this cultural DNA, the interconnected “I” searching for a unified identity of “We”, underlies the miracle of economic development transforming China over the last three decades. Not only did China start with virtually non-existent legal, economic and religious infra-structures, it also had to work against the massive inertia of its size and population. The grace and agility with which it has launched itself as a powerful player onto the global political and economic stage has stunned, mystified, and perplexed the western world. The key success of the Communist Party is not the result of its ideology, which most Chinese laugh it off as a façade anyway. It is because the Party has done a superb job casting itself as the representative of the We-Culture identity, thus securing its support from the people despite the rampant corruption.
Yet the Chinese people are paying a tremendous price. The Chinese have earned their enviable economic power at the cost of a disastrous, heart-breaking impact on their natural environment, as well as a rapid deterioration of traditional family values. The severe lack of respect and recognition towards individual sovereignty and freedom has escalated into mounting domestic tensions. While the in-group connections and ties are strong, the between-group conflicts can be violent and cruel. That physicalized sense of connection, without a critical thinking developed through a healthy individualism, often degenerates into narrow or even dangerous provincialism and nationalism.
The truth is, we humans have just begun to physically experience Earth as a “We”. We are the first generation of people to whom a One Earth is a lived physical reality, not a Myth or ideal. For many of us, we have the privilege to be only one flight ticket or phone call away from a wide range of places on Earth. This is something that eons of humans have only dreamt or imagined. How do we weave a We-Culture that can truly embrace the kind of diversity flourishing in the world today? How does this We-Culture support the “I” to step into a matured sense of responsibility and enjoy an even greater degree of freedom and sovereignty in its service of the whole?
I find some aspects of living organisms to be helpful metaphors for reflecting on the dynamic of I and We-Culture. For a multi-cellular organism to thrive, there are two imperative and contrasting needs. Each cell in the organism needs a healthy membrane to maintain the integrity of its internal environment and separation from its context – an I-Culture characteristic. At the same time, the cell needs to manage its energy state and metabolism in service to the well-being of the whole – a We-Culture characteristic. If a cell does not maintain a robust membrane, it will disintegrate. If it is obsessed in growing without being responsive to the whole organism, it becomes cancerous. Healthy cells balance well between its I-Culture and We-Culture.
While nature has figured out how to balance I-Culture and We-Culture in the evolution of organic matter, will the torch of evolution be passed on to human culture? This question is particularly relevant or even urgent with breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering on the horizon. Can we consciously embody this balance between I-Culture and We-culture at personal, social and technological levels? These are the questions lying at the frontier of human evolution.
Now we finish the 30,000-foot aerial view of the mountain ranges. What about our on-the-ground experience of life?
On the ground, things are very complex. I have just described I-Culture and We-Culture by contrasting American and Chinese cultures. Within each culture, there is also different conditioning based on gender, socio-economic status and other factors. For example, the We-Culture traits are more encouraged in girls in most of the cultures and suppressed in boys. I-Culture traits are the opposite, encouraged in boys and suppressed in girls. There also can be geographic variations within the country. In America, some of the southern states are much more We-Culture than the northern states. Even within the context of each person, we all simultaneously experience ourselves as distinct, unique, and as a part of a whole. We are all constantly pushed and pulled by cultural forces that connect and bind us at the same time as they tear us apart. These forces form a gyration of swirls and eddies, waves and tides that challenge us to grow, or invite us to surf and play.
Not only that, I-Culture has also spread all over the world first through colonization, then through capitalism, imposing pop cultures and ideologies along the way. The characteristics of We-Culture that I grew up with are fading away day by day in China, replaced by an extremely dynamic and volatile mixture of a burgeoning I-Culture imported from the west and a deep-rooted tradition of We-Culture. The tremendous forces of the two are interacting, inter-penetrating, clashing, and sometimes marrying each other in this cosmic play.
In this writing, I will continue tell stories in my life and use those stories as a prism to refract the spectrum of colors in both the light and shadows of both I-Culture and We-Culture.
[To be continued]
Also published on Medium.