On a Collectivist Culture Versus an Individualistic Culture

When I was teaching in China a few years ago, I allowed a student of mine to stay with me (in my university campus apartment) due to her having living situation difficulties. She used to talk about feeling miserable and I would listen. I advised her to perhaps concentrate more on herself, to think about what she wanted to do. She talked about her classmates, parents, classmates, parents. I told her that maybe she needed time to think about who she was. She told me that it was very easy for me to say that because I was born and raised in the US, an individualistic culture; a culture, she pointed out, that focused more on the individual, valuing the individual. She said that the Chinese belonged to a collective culture; she stated that happiness did not depend on the individual but on others in China (and from what I have seen, in Turkey also). She explained that social and family pressure were possibly much more intense in a collective culture than in the US. She said I could keep rewording what I said about finding her identity and shutting out the noise that the people around her made and she still would not follow my advice because giving in to social and family pressure was a way of life; it was the way things were always done in China and always will. To follow individual pursuits, she said, was perceived as disrupting stability, disrupting culture. I told her, though, that it was certainly healthier to focus on her own interests worry-free, right? She said she knew what I was saying but it could not be done. I told her that she was unhappy, that she was suffering from severe depression due to thinking about what others thought, due to her feeling indecisive about whether to give in to social and family pressure every time. I told her that there had to be a way for her to find a balance between satisfying herself and not upsetting those around her.

Sometimes, in Istanbul, I meet individuals who share similar views to me on marriage, relationships, gender roles, etc. but, even when they know this in theory, in practice everything is different. I have met some individuals in Istanbul who told me that they strongly felt that a couple living together before getting married was a good idea but they said that it was strictly forbidden in Turkey (or at least, it would be hard to confront the gossip and family criticism); some of the individuals were married and they have said this. This is one topic out of many I brought up at times in a safe and confidential environment. I asked (as I have asked the Chinese girl years ago) why give in to social and family pressure even though it does not make you happy? The response was that family was extremely important in Turkey. Following what the rest of society was extremely important. To keep everything the same, stable; to keep things regular was the way in Turkey. Even if it meant unhappiness. Even if it meant not being allowed to know oneself.

The US does not have a long history in contrast to China and Turkey. Perhaps this could be a reason why Americans are more inclined to focus more on individual identity? To be true to the individual? I have certainly heard more about focusing on the self more in the US and from Americans than from people from collective cultures. In collective cultures, is has looked to me that doing what everyone else is doing is more valued than following what the individual really feels is right or what they want to do.

I wonder how it could be possible to preserve cultural practices and still keep a level of happiness.

The world is changing all the time, though. People are changing. Everything is evolving. Cultures evolve too.

Is preserving culture worth sacrificing self-identity and happiness? How can a happy medium be achieved?

Author of ‘A Girl All Alone Somewhere in the World’, ‘Confessions and Thoughts of a Girl in Turkey’, ‘From Just a Girl Grown Up in America’. (Amazon.com)