Why you’re not better than me (and vice versa)

The definition of ethnocentrism goes like this (according to my Intro to Cultural Anthropology class): The tendency to view your own culture as superior and more logical and natural.

Ethnocentrism has been an issue that’s been on my mind lately as my time in the States continue to expand beyond a single year and I find myself facing real life situations that are affected by ethnocentrism. Since the end of the last school year, I’ve been struggling to maintain my relationships with people back home. As I pour time and effort into my friendships in the here and now, I have less and less of myself to give to friendships that are maintained solely through the internet. At times when I realize I’ve neglected my older friendships, a surge of guilt overcomes me and I find myself thinking “Am I being ungrateful and forgetful? Seperti kacang lupakan kulit? (A Malay idiom which means forgetting your roots/the people who have helped you during trying times)”

I’ve also been wondering if I’m becoming very “American” and of course, with that thought comes a negative connotation because I think in general, we are all taught to never forget our roots because it has shaped and formed who we are today (presuming that you like who you are today). Remembrance is important.

But then why is it that we tend to think that being affected by a foreign influence is always negative? Of course, not everyone thinks this way, but this is prevalent in the Malaysian society. I think this is becoming an increasingly real issue for Malaysian students abroad as a majority of us leave home for university around the age of 20 or so. We do this because it is part of the Malaysian culture and this is due to the mindset that our educational opportunities are far greater abroad, which I definitely do not deny. We go abroad for exposure to a different part of the world, a different way of life, an entirely different culture. We take advantage of the scholarship opportunities and learning opportunities which are not available for us in our home country.

So why do I have this huge fear that I’m being “American” and that I will be judged when I return home for the first time in two years in 8 months’ time? I have changed a lot since I left home. Some for the better; perhaps some for the worse. Hopefully the former outweighs the latter. While the Western Superiority Complex has always been a part of our Malaysian lives, a lot of people still have a negative view of Americans. The word “American” is a trigger word for divorce, sex, drugs, drinking and other hedonistic acts, as the media which permeates all over the earth have so conveniently informed us. And this is where I find myself getting frustrated with the Asian mindset. (At the same time I’m beating myself up as this thought goes through my mind. What is wrong with you ah? Why you like that wan? So American already lah? Be careful, if you’re so open minded, one day your brains will fall out.)

There is more than one view of  the world. It is possible for both to be completely logical and true. It is possible for two truths to coexist. Now, I’m not advocating relativism. I do believe in absolute truths. However, I believe that there are many layers of truths and more often than not, the bottom layers are left undiscovered because we do not take the time to peel away the first layer.

So yes, it is true that some Americans spend a lot of time getting drunk, having sex and doing drugs. It is also true that some Americans are God-fearing Christians who spend a lot of time in prayer and have a strong relationship with God. And this does not apply specifically to Americans; this applies to the entire human race.

At the same time, just because about 3 out of 5 of my American Christian friends have tattoos and find some other things acceptable (which would be considered blasphemy in the Malaysian Christian circle) and you don’t; it doesn’t make you (or me) a better Christian than them because at the end of the day, who are we, feeble sinful human beings, to take the place of our holy God to judge?

Yes, I have become more open-minded as compared to a year ago. I’ve come to see that there can be more than one way to do things and live life, there can be more than one way to be a genuine Christian and love God and just because you miss a week of church, it doesn’t make you a “bad” Christian. The same haunting fear returns at this point of time because open-mindedness has been generally regarded as the very “rebellious” Western mindset in Asia.

Why is it so hard to accept the idea that just because I’ve been influenced by Americans to be more open-minded that I still hold on to my Asian values? Is it not possible for a person to hold onto both at the same time? I understand that some of them conflict and this is where the importance of our discernment as young adults come in. A main purpose of an education abroad is to expand our horizons and to gain new experiences. With that, we pick out what we find to be beneficial and adopt it into our original mindsets because we believe that that will aid us in our growth as a person and very often for me, as a Christian. As we exploit educational resources abroad, we (and our parents) need to remember that there is also an expanse of cultural resources for us to exploit. Without it, it’d be like licking off the icing on a cupcake and throwing the actual cake away.

We need to shed our ethnocentric mindset in order to gain the most out of our education abroad and for the rest of you (young and old alike) who are not studying abroad, to gain the most out of life as cultures of the world become increasingly integrated and inescapable with globalization (I feel like I’m writing a school paper because I just used that word). There is so much more to life than what we can see within our cultural barriers which simply reduce the giant valley of life into a dark and narrow alley.

Alas, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.


3 thoughts on “Why you’re not better than me (and vice versa)

  1. Hi Joyce! I’ve been struggling with this issue ever since I was a freshman too! I think I lost a little of my identity during my second year, and now that I’m in my final year (eek! I’m getting old!) I think I’ve finally managed to maintain a balance between who I was and who I have become. I think that I am quite “Americanized,” so to speak, in the way I do certain things, but I find that I will always go back to my roots. For example, I will always love Malaysian food, I will always value family and the more “chinese” traditions that come with it. At the same time, I appreciate the hardworking, DIY, “tough love” mentality of the Americans, and I appreciate the convenience of living here too.

    At the end of the day, I think that I have become MORE of myself, not less, after being here for almost 4 years. Also it helps that my college classes have made me think about who I am (I took an Intro to Cultural Anthropology too!), and opened my eyes to the apparent racism we experience in Malaysia, and the racism experienced here in the States. I’m also taking an African-American Lit class and it’s a HUGE eye opener to this world that Malaysians never learn about. Makes you think a lot about the importance of your upbringing and what you’re going to do with what you’ve learned in the States. I think that’s the essence of getting a good education; being able to struggle with these matters. Anyway, I’m glad that I’m not the only Malaysian studying in America experiencing this! We may never come up with answers, but I think it’s important to think about such things as identity and racism la. I’m happy your Uni makes you think about it. :)

    • hi tabby. :) thanks for your comment. it’s also comforting to hear that i’m not the only one experiencing this. makes me feel less like a rebel. i absolutely love it here for many reasons – one of them being the challenge of thoughts i would never get in malaysia. at the same time, i also feel like i absolutely NEED to go home next summer because i want to remember my home and my roots because it’s still important to me despite how i’ve been influenced so far.

  2. We have been talking a lot about race and racism in my Urban class, and I’m always interested to hear how other people think about it (especially non-whites). I must admit that I have been very ignorant about racism until fairly recently.

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