Scientific research about cultural differences often tells the story that Western people are individualistic and value independence whereas people in the East are collectivist and value interdependence. On balance, when looking at a statistical mean, this may be correct. However, we have discovered something important is lost when science simply reduces human beings and entire cultures to neat categories and ignores variation within groups. Consider the following stories from Malaysia and Singapore, which we believe illustrate the growing complexity of our global environment and suggest broad cultural labels for East and West are incomplete and perhaps misleading.
The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur sparkle like Swarovski crystals in the night. They are the world’s largest twin buildings in a city that looks more modern than it is developing. It was here that we had our first Malaysian interview with a 30 year old, married Malay-Muslim man born in a small, rural island village. He says his great love is Malaysia, his passion is diving and his peak experience is landing a job as a tour guide for Arabic speakers visiting Kuala Lumpur. His answers demonstrate how collective and individualistic values are divulged in the best moments of his life.
We met a 22-year-old Malay-Muslim teacher from Singapore at an upscale café started by the former Malaysian Prime Minister in Bukit Bintang, a world-class shopping district with 7 floors of shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment. Our interviewee met us from the airport with her backpack in tow, returning from a week of solo traveling. Traveling alone and wearing a hajib is not uncommon for her. She revealed that her peak experience came on the heels of a heart wrenching break up that inspired her to travel for two weeks alone in Spain. Visiting a culturally foreign country was admittedly scary for her, but through the successful trip she learned how strong, courageous and autonomous she is. Now she is determined to live authentically and never compromise herself for the sake of a relationship.
Finally, we met a stunningly gorgeous woman in Singapore at a quiet hostel in Chinatown. She is a 26-year-old Filipina, born and raised in a small town in a predominantly Catholic nation. Her story was amazing. She told us that as soon as she was an adult, she left her family and transitioned from a man to a woman. Unfortunately many transgender male to female people are discriminated against and believe their only hope of acceptance is to participate in the sex industries. She said thus far people and employers in the Phillipines have been supportive and accepting of her, which gives her hope that other transgenders in Southeast Asia will find similar pathways to live wholeheartedly. She is dedicated to her passion of helping people feel beautiful and free to be who they are.
We believe these stories illustrate how the oft used paradigm of the independent/Individualistic West and the interdependent/Collectivist East fails to capture the nuance and lived experience of people from around the world, and demonstrates once again the value of in context qualitative research to scientific investigation.