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How Non-Western Cultures View Western Cultures

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do you view the West? How do you think other people do? Why do people have these opinions? These are some complex questions, and some that we'll start to examine in this lesson.

The West and the World

We often talk about the Western world, but what exactly is that? While some definitions vary, most people define the West as those countries with a strongly European sense of culture. This includes most of Europe, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia, and sometimes parts of Latin America and non-European Mediterranean countries. The term helps us to identify a range of cultures that have some very important foundational elements in common.

So how does the non-West feel about the West? That's an important question in geopolitics and global relationships, but far from an easy one to answer and that brings us to this lesson's disclaimer. For the next 1,000 words, we'll be taking a very broad approach to the topic by examining major trends. This will require a lot of generalizations, and it's important to remember that there will always be exceptions, based on the individual country and the current geopolitical situation, the latter of which can change very quickly.

We can never assume that such a broad perspective can represent everyone equally, and it's even dangerous to see the world in terms of 'West' and 'the rest'. For one, not all Western countries get along, or handle things in the same ways (note the history between Catholic and Protestant nations). For another, just because countries aren't part of the West, doesn't mean that they feel the same way about Western nations. China and Japan, for instance, while relatively close geographically, have vastly different relationships with the West (not to mention each other).

With all of that being said, when we take this broad approach to look for major trends, we can see that non-Western countries often view the West through two frameworks: history and Hollywood.

History

A lot of how non-Western countries see the West is based on history, or the centuries of interactions between regions. This can manifest in a few ways. For one, a history of cultural interactions and exchanges often results in cultures internalizing opinions about each other.

For example, when East Asian countries (like China) think about the West they very often focus on what they see as the core Western values of individuality and independence. These values can feel very contradictory to Chinese values of filial piety, interdependence, and tradition. After years of interactions, many people in China have internalized a view of Western peoples as super independent and individualistic. This can make it seem like some people in the West are selfish, not caring about maintaining family or even national traditions.

Of course, that's far from the only view of the West. Perhaps the most significant historical factors in determining how the West is viewed are experiences with imperialism. From about 1500-1900, Western countries invaded and colonized vast swaths of the globe. Decolonization picked up after World War II, but was a process that lasted into the 1990s. Even countries like the United States, which were less involved in militant imperialism, still participated in economic and cultural conquests. This was especially true in the Cold War, when the U.S. led Western Europe in trying to force capitalism on decolonizing countries, if only to fight against the spread of Soviet communism.

Obviously, being colonized for centuries can leave a bitter taste in your mouth. It also has real ramifications. European empires, for example, drew the boundaries of modern African countries based on colonial divisions and with no regard for existing ethnic or national groups. This fact has played a huge role in ethnic violence and genocide in Africa since independence and has made many people and leaders hesitant to trust European powers. Even when Western countries think they're being nice by trying to send aid or resources, any kind of intervention can carry the hints of imperialism for formerly colonized people.

There's often a belief that Western countries control the world economy and monopolize it for their own benefit. It's worth noting that people from some of the largest economies in the world, both China and India, feel that their countries don't get enough respect on the world stage in comparison to Western countries, even though China is on track to outpace the United States in terms of overall gross domestic product in the very near future.

Of course, this isn't to say that this is always the case. The Pew Research Center, for example, found that people in sub-Saharan African countries overall have a very positive image of the United States. Their research found that U.S. economic development in Africa and attempts to foster democracy are largely seen as actually being helpful and productive by people who live there. Still, it took decades to build up this goodwill and it's not universal.

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