In 'Girl At The Baggage Claim,' Exploring The Cultural Divide Between East And West

Mar 8, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 2:53 pm

Gish Jen has tapped her Chinese roots while writing novels like 1991’s “Typical American.” More recently she’s turned her attention to non-fiction explorations of cultural issues.

In “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap,” Jen (@GishJen) looks at how differences in perception of the self in society contribute to the culture gap between Asians and Westerners. The author joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the book.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from “The Girl at the Baggage Claim”

Interview Highlights

On stereotypes versus real cultural differences

“Well, the fact of the matter is there are differences, there are underlying cultural differences. In the West, we see those differences, and we see them through our lens. So we see a self which is different and then we say, ‘Oh, they’re robots and they’re sheep.’ And what I’m trying to say is, ‘Yes, you are looking at something which is not you, but you are not looking at robots and you are not looking at sheep.’ … They look at us, they think we’re unbelievably cold and unfeeling. They look at the way we treat our elderly. They think that we’re really not as human as they are.”

On the girl who inspired the title of the book, and emphasis on team or self

“When I heard the story, of course I shared their shock and sensed that this is definitely not OK. But the kind of fraud it was, you know what I mean, the foreignness of the fraud, I felt like actually, I can tell you a little bit about how it is that the idea of substituting one person for another — which is so taboo in the West — how is it that that is… I wouldn’t say it’s OK in the East, but it’s just much more common. It’s something like, if you hear somebody was over the speed limit when they were driving, ‘Well, we all know that the speed limit is 65 and how is it that some people go 75 and it’s not the end of the world.’ Well, how is it that they look at things like substituting one person for another a little bit the way that we look at the speed laws? The flexi-self sees itself as is kind of part of a group, as part of a team. Just as the team, if your shortstop is out, your first baseman might move into that role. Of course, each individual is different from the next individual. But the question is, how emphasized is that? How much importance do we attach to that? And we, in the West, we attach enormous importance to that, but they don’t.”

On the copying tradition of first absorbing and then adding to society

“We have developed this idea that we have this thing, the self. What if you never really had that idea? What if you grew up on Confucianism and Buddhism? What if you had a completely different idea? For one thing, instead of feeling like the source of everything which is the most true comes from the self — which is what we believe — what if you thought that everything that is the most true comes from society? So, your idea is that, first and foremost, before you add anything to this great tradition, you must absorb. In that case, copying is not such a bad thing. A lot of Eastern ideas about education that include copying, that include memorization. For us, they’re taboo because those things, they’re not coming from within, so we don’t like that. The fact of the matter is, if we were memorizing, we would probably memorize in quite a rote way. But actually in the East, when they’re memorizing, it’s not the same activity. They are not just memorizing in a rote way, they are internalizing.

“Copying has been — understand that some Dynasty Emperors, everybody copied. The copying tradition is a tradition goes back thousands and thousands of years. When you elect to copy someone, it is a mark of tremendous respect. Every painter learns to paint this way. People learn to write this way. And once you have absorbed the great tradition, then you can add to it. I’m not defending, you know, copyright infringement. I’m a writer, I’m in favor of copyright laws. But you can sort of see that if you come from that kind of tradition, the whole idea that you would be expected never to copy — and that the idea that copying is taboo — is just a very, very strange idea. You can understand that that’s how the West works. But foundationally, it is not your culture.”


On addressing these ideas through the characters in her fiction novels

“Honestly, when I’m writing, I’m just writing. If you ask me later, I might say, ‘Well, you know, I understand that this particular conflict is there because someone is coming from one culture and they’re coming to a culture where things are read differently.’ An example would be — there’s a nanny in my novel ‘The Loved Wife.’ She’s coming from the mainland, and this family is very welcoming. They give her an apartment over the garage. By doing that, they mean to allow her to have some privacy, so that she has her own place. But she feels that she is treated as an outsider from the beginning, and that she is not treated as a family member, and that she has basically been exiled to this apartment over the garage. And things go downhill from there. [A westerner] would not feel that they were being held at arm’s length, and they would not feel that was a cold gesture. They would feel it was a considerate gesture.”

On the criticism she received for writing about the Boston Marathon bomber from a flexi-self perspective

“But I stand by that question. I think that because the flexi-self is more oriented towards society — there’s a perceptual difference, by the way. So if you have a line in the savannah, the flexi-self will see the savannah and will also tend to look to the savannah as a source of explanations for things.”

On how the photo of a savannah and the lion demonstrates differences in the individual or flexi-self perspectives

“It sees all these things in relationship to each other. And also it tends to, to what does that attribute a given event? Over and over again, you will see a Westerner say, ‘Oh, it’s because of the pit of the lion,’ and in the Eastern world, it’s because of the environment. So along the same lines, when I look at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I could not help but ask the savannah question — is he just a bad person with a bad pit? Or was there something in his environment that could have changed? Was there something we could have done… This is the big pit thing, is they want to hear that he is a lion and then the problem lies with his pit. That is often true in many circumstances. But we have to admit that there is the possibility that sometimes the problem is not with the pit of the lion. Sometimes the problem is with the savannah. To me, it is a very reasonable thing to raise that question, and I would raise it again — and God help me for saying this on the air — I hope they don’t come after me and my agent and my publisher. Everyone attached to me all over again.”

On how she writes from both an individualistic and flexi-self perspective

“Many people have both in them. Really, these two selves lie along the spectrum. In describing these two selves, we’re describing the ends of the spectrum. And by the way, very much influenced by the circumstances. So, in one circumstance they might find themselves toward one end of the spectrum. In another circumstance, they might find themselves toward the other end of the spectrum. Our selves are nowhere near as stable as we imagine them.”

Book Excerpt: ‘The Girl At The Baggage Claim’

By Gish Jen

An Asian girl applies to a prestigious New England independent school, Milton Academy, for admission. Her TOEFL scores are great; her essays are great. The admissions office Skype interviews her; she is great. They enthusiastically send her their signature blue and orange admissions package and look forward to welcoming her.

Since she is traveling alone, the school helpfully sends a person to pick her up from the airport. The girl arrives. But strangely, her English is not as good as the admissions office had been led to expect. Indeed, as time goes on it becomes clear that the girl who has come is not the girl who applied at all.

It is, instead, her sister.

And this is not the only story involving Asia and a certain dis- connect. Some of these stories involve fraud, but many do not—for example, the story of Korean American author Suki Kim, who is greatly dismayed when her daring investigative reporting from North Korea is packaged as a memoir. What do we make of her editor’s belief that it is not Kim’s fact-finding but her story of personal growth that matters? And what do we make of Kim’s discomfort with self-focus, of her feeling that “there is something deeply humiliating about being so self-obsessed”?

Then there are the stories involving New York’s prestigious science high schools, both of which, the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School, are now 60 to 70 percent Asian American. Is there not something discombobulating about those numbers given that Asian Americans comprise only 15 percent of the city’s students? Or what about the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s global assessments of the math and science prowess of fifteen-year-olds, in which the first five places are all regularly taken by Asian countries?* Of course, testing is an apoplexy-generating subject, sure to ruin any gathering of educators. Still, something is intriguing enough that in 2015 the BBC invited a team of Mainland Chinese teachers to Britain to teach. They filmed everything about the encounter—the classes, the teachers, the students—hoping to answer the immortal question, How is it that Shanghai kids are so good at math?† As for the answer, several hundred hours of film footage later: It’s the culture, stupid.

But what does that mean?

A great many Asians and Asian Americans—including yours truly—are not particularly good at math. In fact, some of us would rather eat raw frogs than derive anything from anything else. What’s more, many of us are not hyper-achievers. Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong Americans, it turns out, have lower rates of high school completion than African Americans and Latinos. And not all our families are models of support, either. My own Chinese American family was of the first-son-comes-first school of thought. It is inconceivable to me that they would have looked into private school for a daughter, much less plotted to get her in. Quite the contrary, their mantra was “No good for a girl be too smart” alternating with “No one wants to marry a smart girl.” Neither was my father particularly self-effacing, by the way. Quite the contrary, he loved attention and applause.

What’s more, a great many foreign students are not the girl at the baggage claim. Many are perfectly honest; and non-Asians are not saints. A professor friend recently commented that the difference between her American students and her Chinese students was not whether they plagiarized but whether they knew to hide it; American students, she said, were better about changing the font. And I myself remember the teaching assistants’ orientation at the University of Iowa in 1981, in which we were all instructed to have the students write something the first day of class and to keep it. That way, we were told, should any of our stu- dents plagiarize, we would be armed with a writing sample with which to confront them. (As for the temerity of some students, well, witness the student who handed in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as her work for a creative writing class. Even when confronted with the original, she just shook her head, flabbergasted. “Well, ain’t that the darnedest thing,” she said.)

There are good reasons why we Americans are culture-phobes: For every generalization there are umpteen gazillion exceptions. It’s the shortest of hops, too, from culture praise to culture blame (“If they can do it, why can’t you?”); and it is way too easy to use culture to support stereotypes. (No, I am not a tiger mom.) Plus, what can we really say about culture when it’s so hard to say what we even mean by the word “East,” exactly, or, for that matter, “West”; when, whatever they are, they have intermixed from time immemorial; when all cultures are ever evolving; and when, as anthropologist Richard A. Shweder put it, culture and psyche make each other up? It’s like trying to mark the shoreline. There are endless wet sandy areas, neither ocean nor shore, and everything you draw is sure to be washed away. What’s more, culture is never the whole of any answer. It is always—along with economics, politics, one’s genes, one’s neighborhood, one’s times, and more—only a part.

Yet if the stories we’ve just told tell a story themselves, it is that, paradoxically, whether or not there is an “East” or a “West,” exactly, there is still an East-West culture gap. And what with ever-increasing globalization on every level—meaning, among other things, that China is now not only the largest sender of immigrants to America, but the source of a third of all foreign college students and half of all foreign elementary and high school students—it’s past time to consider figures like the girl at the baggage claim and ask, How does this happen? What were her parents thinking, that they put her on the plane? What was her sister thinking, that she gave an interview to a school she was not going to attend? What was the poor girl herself thinking as she stood all alone by the Boston airport baggage claim? The girl was plainly wrong to agree to this plan; and her family was wrong, too, to have put her in this position. But what does it say that she and her family should have ever imagined this plan could work? And is their thinking related to the exasperation of a Korean American with her editor, or to the demographics of Stuyvesant High School? And are these things the tip of an iceberg about which we need to know more?

From the book THE GIRL AT THE BAGGAGE CLAIM by Gish Jen. Copyright 2017 by Gish Jen. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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