“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” is a famous line from Rudyard Kipling‘s poem the ‘The Ballad of East and West’. I was frequently quoted this line in my youth, whenever I tried to emulate western lifestyles. My generation and the ones afterwards grew up with intense influence of western media, entertainment and lifestyle coverage due to internet, cable TV and globalisation. From our childhood we were exposed to western literature, characters like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were common discussion topics among school kids. Sheba Prokasoni, Bangladesh’s popular publishing house not only produced translations of western classics but also commissioned series like Tin Goyenda, where three teenage Bengali kids growing up in the US solves exciting puzzles surrounding their lives. Their stories and even mere descriptions of their neighbourhood, schools and friends in the US leave profound impression on ordinary kids growing up in middleclass households in the country.
Like many youth in Bangladesh in the ‘90s, I was planning an escape route to supposedly comfortable and prosperous West. When I broke the news to my mother she was aghast with thoughts of my leaving my roots, culture and religion. Her fear was justified since I was an impressionable teenager wanting to attain success without much understanding of practicalities of life, knowledge and appreciation for my culture and religion. And that ‘success’ was largely one dimensional – everything in the West appeared rosy through western movies, TV serials and novels and through anecdotal stories from relatives and friends living in the West. Migrating to a western country became a fantasy and a dream.
I realised this dream in 10 years and after completing a number of painful student-years in a western university. Naturally, my study materials, in particular those used in business studies referred to successful western business models that contained examples of utilising cheap resources available, including in the eastern and less developed world – the underpinning rationale was: it benefited both and satisfied an ultimate economic principle supply meeting demand. So as a graduate I easily formed western views and was quick to pick on shortcomings of the eastern states, cultures and politics. I became aware that western tradition gives strong emphasis on individual inquiry, responsibility and critical thinking compared to collectiveness that I experienced growing up in the East. To an eager post-graduate student the West was an ideal where uncertainties appeared remote and opportunities seemed real, where emotion gave ways to practical decision making, where humanity, rule of law, equity and fairness were norms.
I compared different reactions of the West and the East to common challenges: political accountability, social inequality, disparity and attitude towards minority groups and women. At a broader level I was frustrated to see despite prevailing collective attitude and incredible inherent richness of our culture, the pressure of immediate self-interest hindered national progress. At an individual level I tried to discern the differences in social interaction, management of friendships and emotion that I found perplexing.
Even though I am still looking for answers, these thought process gradually led me to an even larger topic. As my reading, social interaction and recreational activities expanded beyond university and only Bengali friends, I became interested in distinctive cultural, political and socio-economic differences between the West and the East, more broadly.
A usual first step to understand any issue is to understand its history, albeit the winners often write it. The relationship between the East and the West has always been intriguing – whether we consider the Silk Road Journeys, the Crusades, western curiosity in Japan, the Raj and the cold war. As it is today, reasons for these events were largely economic and political. In spite of the reasons we were told, the West led a number of major wars in the East (including Middle East) post-second world war, most notably Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Even now the West is focussed on controlling the East (China). For example, in spite of the spectre of Barack Obama’s eight-day tour through Asia (and Australia) in November 2011, behind the talk of a trans-Pacific free-trade zone it was all about China. The agreement to rotate American troops through a base in northern Australia, one could only imagine is to reinforce the western presence and exert control around an ever interesting periphery – the South China Sea – as if continued American presence in the Philippines and South Korea is not enough; needless to mention other western bases and military outposts across the globe.
Justified, it may well be the western media outlets have been relentless and at times biased. They highlight eastern faults and create phobia, may they be in China, Iran or even in Pakistan and in India. Even a smaller country like Bangladesh feels this tension between the East and West due to its strategic location in the South-East Asia.
However, it is wrong to generalise and blame a region, religion or ethnicity and despite history, today the East and the West are closer – never before there have been so many easterners living in the West and vice versa. Globalisation, trade, migration, technology, educational and cultural exchanges forcing leaders, educators, policymakers and citizens to be aware and sensitive to all. Further, western citizens have been extremely generous in their support and involvement to help the people of the East during emergencies, natural or otherwise. A lot of westerners are studying and learning about eastern languages, cultures and philosophies.
In fact, now more than ever before the two needs each other. As an example, consider the ongoing global financial crisis: apparently the growth in developing world (e.g. China and India) is compensating for subdued economic conditions in western, developed economies. China has invested trillions in the US Federal bonds and needs its major importers namely the US and the EU to do well economically. Can anyone imagine the Silicon Valley without IT specialists from India and China? Increasing number of eastern cities today has western appearances. More people in the developing world are moving to cities and adopting urban (western) lifestyles. A large number of eastern universities are modelled on prestigious western educational institutions.
So, despite Kipling’s warnings the East and West is immensely intertwined today, but to understand cultural (and/or political) differences between them is complicated and difficult. While one could easily spend a lifetime researching this fascinating topic, I was curious, perhaps to discover, an East-West fusion where humanity is given priority ahead of greed, creed and selfish economic pursuit. Among the positives I find flourishing businesses, economic development, heart warming cultural and educational exchange; but on the negatives I find aggression, imposition, endless manipulation, hypocrisy and opportunism by politicians.
The reconciliation between the East and the West, even within an individual is ever evolving, if not impossible. It is hard to imagine a time when all accounts are settled and everything is even. In quest for that Shangri-La, a harmonious fusion of West and East, a lot of us realistically would find ourselves rather in ‘In Between’, where we experience no particular affinity to either East or West solely, but where we choose to enjoy a plethora of goodies from the both worlds.
And, as happens with a lot of our reading and quotations, sometimes we tend to miss accompanying lines. Kipling’s poem was often misunderstood as readers mainly focussed on the opening line. The poem’s closing sentences are:
“But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”
Irfan Chowdhury writes from Canberra, Australia.