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The Girl at the Baggage Claim by Gish Jen: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

''The Girl at the Baggage Claim'' by Gish Jen is a great introduction to the concept of culture gaps and their implications in the real world. Written in a narrative and engaging style, it's a read that can help anyone expand their worldview.

The Girl at the Baggage Claim

Have you ever noticed that people tend to categorize world cultures by the terms ''East'' and ''West''? We talk about Eastern Art, Western music, Eastern literature, Western philosophy. Why? Is this simply the prejudiced belief that those who look different must be different?

Not necessarily. If we strip away all the rhetoric and categorization, then we are left with a simple observation: cultures from Western Europe and cultures from East Asia do approach some things in different ways. What's more, there are real consequences to this.

That's the basic idea behind Gish Jen's 2017 nonfiction book The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap. Jen, an American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, argues that many misconceptions between the East and West come down to very different ways that these cultural systems approach the concept of the self.

The Self

To begin her exploration of cultural definitions of the self, Gish Jen starts with a simple story. An Asian girl applies to the prestigious Milton Academy in New England. She has great test scores and does an excellent job on her Skype interview, so she's accepted. The school sends someone to pick her up at the airport, and quickly discovers that her English isn't as good as it was during the interview. As it turns out, this wasn't the girl they had talked to. Her sister, who is better at English, was the one to actually appear on Skype.

Now, how did you react to that story? What was your initial emotional response? If you're from a Western culture, there's a good chance that you were appalled at this blatant cheating of the system. If you're from an Eastern culture, however, you may not have seen it that way. To you, this may be an obvious example of the entire family working together to get the sister admitted, because her admission impacts and reflects on the entire family.

So, why did Gish Jen open her entire book on this anecdote, and why are we spending so much time with it here? This story is fundamental to Jen's cultural analysis. Western cultures tend to value independence, while Eastern cultures tend to value interdependence. In the United States, college admission is seen as a reflection of a student's individual aptitude and abilities. In China, it's often a reflection of a student's ability to internalize the teachings of their family, mentors, and nation. Admission is a team effort, not simply an individual achievement.

Gish Jen's central argument in The Girl at the Baggage Claim is that the cultural gap between the East and West is largely a result of different conceptions of the self. Eastern and Western people tend to view their own personhood, purpose, and achievements in different ways, and this permeates each culture's arts, institutions, education, religions, prison systems, and choices. So, what does each sense of self look like?

The Big Pit Self

To describe the West, Gish Jen employs a metaphor that many people in the United States are likely familiar with: the avocado. An avocado is a fruit with a massive pit. According to Jen, that pit is the Western sense of self. It's self-contained and it's hyperinflated. Western cultures foster a sense of self that prioritizes the individual. The individual's life is spent on ensuring that the big-avocado-pit-sense-of-self thrives, often without considering the rest of the avocado tree. As a result, Jen terms this the big pit self.

The Flexi-Self

The contrast to the big pit self of Western cultures is the flexi-self of Eastern cultures. The flexi-self is described by Jen as expansive, being tied to family and society. Personal aspirations come second. The sense of self has to be flexible enough to allow for external factors to influence it, since the individual does not really understand themselves in individualist terms. They see the tree (and in fact the entire orchard), not the avocado.

Comparing East and West

Once Gish Jen establishes the concepts of big pit self/independence versus flexi-self/interdependence, she is able to devote much of her book to examining the ramifications of the gap between these cultural perspectives.

Let's start with art. Western art prizes the individual artistic genius, the person who pushes boundaries of art. Jen compares this to Dafen Village in China, where artists cranked out meticulous copies of Western art. This draws on an ancient tradition in China, in which copying existing work was a high art unto itself. In the West, this is seen as plagiarism. In the East, it is mastery.

Just as with the girl whose sister conducted the Skype interview for her, how we perceive this reflects our sense of self. To the big pit self, achievement is a reflection of the individual. This culture values innovation, invention, standing out from the crowd, and pushing the boundaries. Imagination, experimentation, and even failure are highly valued.

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