East and West Used To Be Similar?
The cultural gap with Asia wasn’t always as wide as it is today
I’m originally from Europe, but in recent years Asia has become the center of my life and affairs. I enjoy comparing and contrasting the two macro-cultures, and I couldn’t help but notice something interesting: many Asian customs and values were, once upon a time, shared by Westerners.
What many of us think of as quintessentially Asian tropes are, in all actuality, Eurasian tropes, that used to be common across both cultures, and that the West has gradually abandoned over time.
Don’t believe me? Let me give you a couple of examples.
Bowing is a gesture usually associated with Asian cultures. Today it’s most prevalent in Japan and Thailand, and to a lesser extent Korea and Cambodia, while it seems to have fallen out of fashion in other countries (e.g. China).
However, it wasn’t that long ago that Europeans, too, would bow down for people they perceived as having higher social status, or among equals for the sake of politeness.
In Medieval Europe everyone would kneel before their king or queen. As late as in the Victorian era, it was still common for people to bow head and torso when meeting someone. By the 20th century the practice had already died off, but men would still take off their hat and nod ever-so-slightly to show deference. Now even that is gone, and at best you shake hands.
These days, we only get to catch a glimpse of the old courtesies in movies and TV shows. For some time now, the cultural trend in the West has been to do away with all things ceremonial and formal (to the point that, dare I say, politeness toward strangers is at an all-time low: we could really use some respect and good manners, in my opinion).
The only remnant of those affectations can be found in theatre, where you can still see performers holding hands and collectively bowing to the audience at the end of a stage play.
In Asia, meanwhile, millions of people are still bowing to each other in daily life — and it’s not their unique quirk, but something Westerners used to do and understand well. We have simply ditched the habit, whereas they haven’t.
In the Italian comedy film Poverty and Nobility (1954), featuring Sophia Loren, there is a famous scene in which five hungry people literally jump on a bowl of spaghetti and eat from it with their hands, rather than each putting a serving in their own plate, as should have been the case.
What’s interesting to me is that the practice of placing food at the center of the table for people to share has long since been abandoned in Italy (and indeed most of Europe): such a scene could hardly be filmed today, and not without the spectator scratching their head and wondering why everyone doesn’t simply receive their own individual plate of food from the start.
Go to Asia, however, and you’ll quickly discover that little has changed over there. To this day, the Asian way of bringing food to a table is to place the dish in the middle and let each person take from it as much or as little as they want. It’s also bad form for the youth to start eating before their elders.
Table manners, and sharing food, were once a big part of Western culture too, but as time went by people became less fussy about it.
I Could Go On…
Imagine a city where people dress to impress, smoke in restaurants, have strong family values, and frown upon public displays of affection.
I could be talking about New York in the 1920s… or Tokyo in the 2020s.
Although Asian countries have enthusiastically adopted Western technology, they have been more lukewarm when it comes to societal change. Whether that’s good or bad is not for me to say.
What’s not up for debate is that East and West used to have a lot more in common then they do now. Some of the differences we see today are, surprisingly enough, a century old at most.