Author Gish Jen talking about The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap, her seventh book, and the second work of non-fiction on East-West identity divergences
Gish Jen, the author of The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East West Culture Gap, drew a full room of people to the South End library eager to hear her take on the divergent views between East and West about the importance of the individual versus the society he or she is a part of. Jen, the winner of numerous prestigious awards and fellowships who has written five novels and two non-fiction books on the East-West cultural divide, suggests that, in the West, the individual sees the path to achievement and success as inextricably linked to the core self, as if it were a “sacred avocado pit” to which one must remain true, and second in importance to the needs of community or family. Seeking that truth, moreover, is seen as a universal value, even though in most of the rest of the world a more communal view of individual achievement prevails and the idea of a “flexi-self” tends to be the norm: the ideal place to be is part of a group which, in turn, is associated with a sense of wholeness.
Gish Jen patiently signing copies of her book for her admirers, including some who drove in from New Hampshire through pouring rain.
To illustrate her point, Jen showed two short videos, one a monologue by a young American man talking about watching video games where the story plot celebrates male fighters surviving in a world where “everyone is screwing you,” a profoundly anti-establishment message, Jen pointed out. The second video was produced not too long ago in reaction to an incident at Columbia University, where a group of Chinese students found their name tags ripped off their dorm doors one morning. Titled “Say My Name,“ each student described what their Chinese names meant in English. “My parents had great hopes for my future,” said one student whose Chinese name translated as Brightest Star in the Night Sky. “My name reminds me of my roots,” said another, “the place where I came from, each time I say my name.”
Other examples of the East-West divide include the true story behind the proverbial girl at the baggage claim in which the sister of a young Chinese woman accepted at Milton Academy showed up to take her place at the school, an incident that led to accusations of fraud and caused changes in admissions rules at secondary schools. While Jen did not endorse the practice of attending a school impersonating a sibling, she explained that in Eastern cultures it is ok to help a family member because it benefits the group, even though it is seen as clumsy and wrong in the West, where individual achievement is preeminent. The extreme focus on personal success has other negative consequences, Jen suggested, including for the American unemployed, for example, who believe not having a job is “their fault.” In Israel, she said, which is a more communally oriented society, being unemployed is blamed on “the system.”
Herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen said she noticed that in the world of sports, winners of Olympic medals from the West tend to describe their individual achievements as “showing what I could do,” while non-Western winners generally make a point of thanking their coaches, friends and family, emphasizing, “I didn’t do it alone.” Jen, whose first book about the East-West cultural divide, Tiger Writing: Art Culture and the Independent Self, is based on the prestigious Massey Lectures she gave at Harvard University in 2012, made a point of complimenting New England Patriot football quarterback Tom Brady for consistently crediting his team for his achievements, even as it earned him the accusation of practicing ‘false modesty.’ “No false modesty,” she said, “He’s just Asian.”
AUTHORS COMING UP NEXT AT THE SOUTH END LIBRARY:
TUESDAY, APRIL 18, 6:30 PM
The acclaimed sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, a MacArthur Genius Fellow, will be the first African-American woman to hold an endowed chair in her name at Harvard University upon her retirement. She has written nearly a dozen books, and will talk this time, her third appearance at the South End library, about her most recent one, Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers.
TUESDAY, MAY 9, 6:30 PM
Award-winning foreign-policy journalist and former New York Times bureau chief in multiple locations, Stephen Kinzer, will talk about his new book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and the Birth of American Empire. This event is rescheduled from March 14, when a snowstorm closed the city down. In his latest examination of the US role abroad, Kinzer reframes a perennial question raging again today: Should the US be an imperialist nation or take care of its own problems first? The author of numerous books about the unintended consequences of American military intervention, (including All the Shah’s Men and The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and their Secret World War) Kinzer is a senior fellow in International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute of Brown University and Boston Globe foreign affairs columnist. He will be introduced by his admirer and friend, WBUR’s OpenSource radio host, Christopher Lydon. Lydon interviewed him on the subject on February 7.
TUESDAY, MAY 23, 6:30 PM
The iconic Mel King, former state legislator, school board member, community organizer, writer, poet, and the keeper of perhaps the largest memory bank of South End’s turbulent history. Raised in the New York streets part of the South End by immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados in the 1930s. Former adjunct professor in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and author of Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development and collections of poetry, and founder of the South End’s Technology Center at Tent City.
TUESDAY, JUNE 13, 6:30 PM
Stephanie Schorow, journalist, journalism teacher and author of many popular books about Boston’s amazing history, including The Crime of the Century: How the Brink’s Robbers Stole Millions and the Hearts of Boston and The Cocoanut Grove Fire.
ALL EVENTS ARE FREE TO THE PUBLIC. SEATING IS LIMITED. THE SOUTH END LIBRARY IS FULLY HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE.