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East vs. West: Major Cultural Differences That Impact Our Happiness

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” ~John Milton

I’ve been living in Asia for over a year now, spending six months each in Nepal and Vietnam, with a bit of traveling around India and Sri Lanka in the middle. I wanted to put pen to paper on what strikes me as a few of the major cultural differences between the East and the West. I can see things that each side could do with a bit more of. But here I’m going to concentrate on what I've learned and what I’m going to take home with me.

Beware: I am going to generalize a lot for the purpose of this blog, so please take everything I say with a pinch of salt and be aware of my potentially rose-tinted view of Asia!

Family

Family is important no matter where you live; this is simply human nature. But I cannot help but think that the family plays a more important role in everyday life out here.

Where I live, in the UK, people are often encouraged to move out when they hit adulthood. We are propelled to either start focusing on our own future or go explore the world around us. Basically, when we hit eighteen, our parents are ready for a long-awaited break.

In Asian countries, unless you take the increasingly popular choice to study abroad, chances are you will still live at home when you study. Family is life. Particularly in Nepal, they see the idea of living on your own as absurd; people are always around and that is the norm.

There are many festivities throughout the year where feasts and family gatherings are the focus. When a woman gets married, she will go and live with the husband’s family, not like in the UK where you move out to your own house, just the two of you. The mother of the husband takes a big role in helping raise the kids.

Care homes are for the elderly and are extremely hard to come by—what a cruel idea to turf out the people who bought you into this world when they start to become a burden—so houses are always full and bursting with young and old and everything in between. They are often big houses, which will be passed down through generations. This strong and unbreakable family unit breeds love, laughter, and security!

So, if you’re anything like me, you might be thinking, “How is that possible that the families can all live under one roof happily, without killing each other?” As much as I love my family, we are all very different, and I think if we all lived together now, it would be a warzone waiting to happen. Now that we don’t all live under the same roof any longer, to be honest, we get along much better! So, what’s the difference here?

Relationships

I think a lot of it comes down to forgiveness. Being able to make a joke out of things and be light-hearted. Families will argue in every country; that’s pretty much a guarantee. But if your family lets that get the better of them, then they are probably from countries where it is more acceptable for families to breakdown.

We have a culture of separation and divorce in the West—if it’s not working, we often throw the blame at our partner. We think “I can do better.”

That being said, for whatever reason, sometimes partners aren’t a good fit. For example, if you are constantly arguing or your partner is abusive, you should probably not stay together.

You need to listen to your head rather than your heart sometimes. Our hearts have a way of making us think we want someone more when we can’t have them, don’t have them, or when they treat us badly; it somehow keeps us wanting more. This isn’t true love; it's just a very powerful illusion. In the East I think this is better understood. In the West our hearts and feelings are the ruler of our actions.

How do our feelings rule in the West? When seeking a mate, we must first feel that feeling, and if we don’t feel anything instantly, then that person is not right for us, and we keep on searching. If this person doesn’t tick all of our high expectations, immediately, then maybe they are not right for us.

As well as fancying them, they must also be funny, good looking, interested in the same things as us, hold the same political views as us, like the same films and music as us, wear the right clothes, have the same attitude toward things, and the list goes on and on. This is essentially writing off most people without giving them a chance.

Our society is very individualistic by nature; we can be whoever we want to be, and the choice is endless. Our society is born from people asking the questions “What is special about me? Why am I unique and better?” It’s engrained in us from a very young age and is tied up in our economic culture. The result? A difficulty in finding someone who we are willing to commit our own special, unique life to.

My grandma told me the most important thing in a relationship is chemistry. I was shocked because I assumed she was talking about sexual chemistry, being attracted to someone. It seems in the west our definitions and understandings of lust and love have been blurred. But after living in Asia, I realize chemistry is much deeper than being instantly attracted to someone.

That excited, euphoric, and bloody great feeling we get when we first start a relationship with someone, is, sorry to break it to you, short-lived. The “chemistry” my grandma was referring to is clicking with somebody on a more personal level.

Some people we click with and our interaction is just natural from the offset. This might be because we are actually quite similar to this person. With these people we are often able to be honest without feeling judged or wrong, and we are able to be completely our self. This is the foundation for a fruitful relationship, which is a lot like a strong friendship.

In the West we dismiss this. To love someone, it must be a rollercoaster ride full of highs and lows. Once the honeymoon period is over, we assume we have fallen out of love with that person. We stop trying and resentment occurs.

Real love is a choice, and it is available to all of us. If you aim to understand each other, there can always be forgiveness. This doesn’t happen naturally, though; you have to work for relationships. Make the jump, swallow your pride, see it from the other person’s viewpoint, and apologize. The great thing about wholeheartedly apologizing is it’s infectious, and will usually always end in the other person apologizing too.

That is the one big difference for the relationships that endure in these Asian countries: People don’t have such a warped view of what relationships will give them.

In the East, people don’t go on an endless quest to find “the one.” They recognize that relationships are born out of circumstances and chance, and you make a choice to commit to someone who is right for you.

In the UK, and especially the younger generations, we search and search for the perfect relationship, the relationship that will make our life complete, the thing people talk about in songs and films.

In the West, more often than not, we expect to find a love that will find us complete happiness, but we don’t realize that actually we need a lot of different things to be happy, and relationships are just a part of that.

We should fulfill our needs by being proactive, taking joy from a range of things, and not expect our partner to miraculously be able to give us everything we want. A good, strong relationship is a place of love, happiness, stability, and possibility.

Mentality

People in Asia really know how to laugh. If something goes wrong, rather than seeing it as an awful disaster that is unfixable or highly stressful, people often have that magical gift of being able to see the funny side to it.

This view transforms situations. Rather than seeing a job that you do as crucial to the world spinning on its axis, being able to think “Oh well” is actually a blessing in itself. Especially in Nepal, people are incredibly laid back and take their job less seriously.

I am not saying this doesn’t come without its problems. Believe me, I’m aware that it’s important to value our jobs and understand their value. But I really think it’s something we would benefit from a little bit too.

In Nepal, there is not such a need to rush, and people can go at a more leisurely pace, stopping to talk to each other and appreciate the most important thing around them—the people.

I think in the West often we are so busy getting the job done that we forget we can make our days much brighter by offering a friendly smile or having a chat with the person next to us about some irrelevant news story or how good our sandwich is.

When I’m back in the UK I want to allow myself to slow down some of the time, and maybe put the effort in to go and sit in someone’s office just for a chat. I want to actively go out of my way to make every day a little bit nicer and a little less busy or monotonous.

Living away for a year has allowed me to look at my home from a different angle. I used to think my town was boring, and I couldn’t imagine living there long term. Other cities had better nightlife or had more culture.

In the West, we live in a sort of runaway culture. When things get too much, we want to up and leave. We scroll through people’s vacation pictures and we think we will be happier in this place or that. We blame our unhappiness on things around us—the city, the house, the partner.

We forget that if we want to be happy, it’s in our hands. We have to take practical step toward happiness—having a job that feels important and meaningful to us and having meaningful relationships whereby we feel understood. It sounds simple, and once you find it, you feel it.

Now I’ll return home with fresh eyes. I know what is important now. It isn’t how beautiful my town is, because at the end of the day beauty always fades and novelty always subsides.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. It’s ultimately the people that make it, starting with yourself and your willingness to appreciate what’s around you. The rest is just kind of like a backdrop. It’s all about perspective.

About Hannah Powell

Hannah is a Linguistics graduate who has been working in Asia for over a year as a teacher. She loves exploring the world, challenging herself, and learning.

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  • Moon

    Hey Hannah,

    Loved this article…Thanks for writing 😀 yeah, the points on family bonding and relationships particularly resonated with me. Things have been changing though in the major cities where life is becoming more rushed, goal oriented with crazy competition for jobs, schools, colleges etc especially in India

  • ShaunTheCHB

    It’s amazing to me how society in different countries has different priorities. I will say I think western society has got it so wrong with so many things nowadays, it has lost track of the actual important things. Instead of being encouraged to love oneself and appreciate little things in life, we are told that money and power is all that counts. You need to be married or in a relationship by a set age or something is wrong with you and it’s too late for you. If you look a certain way, you are shamed or made fun of and society praises this. That’s why people today are not happy and cast blame.

  • justjules

    Hannah~ Thank you for this article. Your observations are eye-opening. Priorities differ and societies can falter or flourish with them. We often forget that we are society and need to make adjustments individually.

  • Doreena

    I’m glad to have read this article, everything you said was right on point, my life is mostly about surviving, I’ve never been happy in my life or with my jobs I’ve had except for one, and I never been close to my family and I never been in a relationship with anybody, so my life has been filled with misery and loneliness, if I’m not happy somewhere I just pick up and leave or if something doesn’t go right I just leave, and I tend to blame the city, the people or my situation on my unhappiness, and I haven’t always made the right choices in my life, so I end up stuck, but I realize that its about having the right attitude and it’s up to me to make the changes in my life to make it better and to make myself happy.

  • Insightful, although I can’t say that a lot of these eastern principles are apparent in China. There are lots of downsides to the eastern culture that I wish this article could also have highlighted, like the fact that they value conformity than self-importance.

  • sian e lewis

    Thoughtful and Interesting- BUT it is vital to remember that young people need to move away, at least for a while for their own personal growth. Sometimes, families have more to offer one another when there is a little healthy space.

  • Lynn

    Yes I agree, not just in China but in most of South East Asia, although it’s shifting especially with the younger generations who are more likely to be influenced by the West. It took me 24 years to be brave enough to pursue what I wanted instead of what everyone else deemed socially acceptable. Even then it’s been an extremely lonely journey and a rollercoaster ride because I’ve made such “weird” choices…the course I’m studying doesn’t even exist back home!

  • If you don’t mind me asking, what do you study? I totally understand from where you’re coming from. I’ve had a long and hard battle with my parents all my life and it still scares me to this day.

  • Barry

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Hannah. Very interesting read that makes you focus on what’s important to you. Cheers xx

  • frank hrbolich

    said a lot of things that needed to be said….I have always thought that if you want to know how to live, stay in the east for a while…especially in India because it still has a living vibrant spiritual dimension which many other places have lost

  • Absolutely agree. Family is a critical part of life, however, an individual must learn to carve out their own path, one away from the family. How else can a person become self-sufficient? I am a little bias being a Westerner, however.

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences. My family’s quite different from the experiences of other generations growing up. I’ve long wondered why the East puts an emphasis on familial harmony over the individual experience, meaning it’s better to agree for the sake of keeping the peace than disagreeing to rock the boat. Now, I know.

  • Rima

    Informative surely but I wish you would also put out the cons in those eastern cultural differences you mentioned. From personal experience and from others, families living together is never a pleasant rosy picture. No one forgives really. People just live in resentment under the same roof and it takes a little bit of change to start a fight anew. More people choose to live close by, but different homes for that reason. Next generation kids are prevented from exploring new careers or life changes lest they have to move away from their parents. And eastern parents do their part in shoving guilts on their kids. Kids are shameless enough to ask for help even when they know its hard for their parents to offer the help. There surely is a great family structure in east that definitely is missing for the most part in west but it is in need of redefining with the way the world has broadened.