Copycat or Homage? Why the East Loves Imitating Western Culture

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery, or a breach of intellectual property? That depends which continent you're on, says Gish Jen.

In 2012, the southern Chinese province of Guangdong spent $940 million constructing a complete replica of Austria's most picturesque town, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hallstatt. Did the rest of the world think it was strange? Absolutely. Did China? Not at all. Gish Jen has grown up with one foot in the East and one in the West, so she's in a unique position to understand why something so taboo in America—being a copycat—is so openly practiced in China. Gish chalks it up to different ideas of the self in these two places. The US zealously practices individualism, and people's lives are spent in the pursuit of unique self-expression. Meanwhile, Asia has a more interconnected concept of identity, and of recognizing a network of ideas rather than a singular vision. In art in particular, there is the notion of education through imitation; before you can carve your own path in a tradition you should master the great ideas within it. Which explains why something that is considered an homage in China, would be an instant lawsuit in America.

Gish Jen's most recent book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.

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The Chasm Between Self-Identity in the East and West

People in the East and West really do think differently, especially when it comes to self-identity. Depending where you live, it's either associative or distinctive thinking that shapes your sense of self.

You can learn a lot about yourself by looking through the lens of a different worldview. Gish Jen presents that awareness here by comparing notions of self-identity in the Eastern world and in the West. Having grown up with a foot in each culture, she’s in the ideal position to show the differences in how the self operates in America and Asia—without prescribing the idea that one system is better than the other. In her analysis, Westerners have a "pit-self", like an avocado, where our center is this unique individual self that must be expressed in every choice we make. We are always trying to differentiate ourselves from others, it’s central to every choice we make. Easterners are undoubtedly all individuals, but they ascribe to a "flexi-self" which is more interdependent, and focused on their place within a community or family. It’s more about duty, than rights. The differences are fascinating and, if you’re a westerner, it might drag into the spotlight the interesting ways in which you assert your individuality. Gish Jen's most recent book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.

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