Truth to Stereotypes of the East vs. West and Superstition in Asia


Growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia definitely gave me a unique perspective on East Asian culture.  Based on my frequent travel to other countries in South East Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and China, as well as having a Malaysian Singaporean mother myself, I have noticed that East Asians have an intriguing outlook on the world.  I always found that stereotypes of Asians as more open to supernatural occurrences as being normal, a haunted house is treated like an everyday emergency, similar to us in the U.S., we call 9-11 when someone is in a horrific accident. Just call the “dukun” in Indonesia, a medicine man which cleanses the house of negative spirits with traditional practices and tools.  And yet stereotypically Americans need ration and evidence to explain everything.  The idea that an evil spirit is haunting your home? We create shows on television such as “Ghost Hunters” which measures temperature and uses scientific devices which show proof of the supernatural.  Are these just stereotypes I have created based on no logical evidence? Or is there actual evidence which backs up these stereotypes as being valid. “How Culture Molds Habit of Thought” shows experiments which scientifically and not just from an anthropological point of view which proves that these stereotypes are valid.  I will follow this argument by examining how the practice of superstition is used in countries in Asia, specifically superstition in India, in a highly rational society which presents highly intelligent leaders in technology, proving superstitions based on religion is still a highly important aspect of the Indian citizen’s life.

I think this  article How Culture Molds Habit of Thought by Erica Goode, habits of thought are strategies people adopt while processing information which make sense of the world around them. These were what Western scholars assumed were the same for all people, which are exemplified by “a devotion to logical reasoning, a penchant for categorization and an urge to understand situations and events in linear terms of cause and effect” (Goode 2000).  But the University of Michigan conducted a series of studies comparing European Americans to East Asians, Dr. Richard Nibsett has found that people growing up in different culture don’t only think about different things, but they also think differently.  They argue that cognitive process are more malleable than mainstream psychology always assumed (Goode 2000).  According to the article, these cultural disparities are not surprising to Americans who lived in Asia, and having been an American who lived in Asia, I am not surprised, but when explaining this to Americans, whether Asian Americans or Caucasian, they sometimes aren’t familiar with these differences, unless they’ve been regularly and deeply exposed to attitudes of East Asian people.


Where your from in the world determines your habit of thought?

These studies were carried out in the United States, Japan, China, and Korea.  Easterners appeared to think more “holistically” paying attention to relationship and context, a reliance more on experience based known than just abstract logic, and they showed more tolerance for contradiction.  But Westerners were found to be more “analytic” in their thinking behavior, detaching objects in their context, avoiding contradictions and rely very heavily on formal logic (Goode 2000).

Dr. Nisbett and Dr. Norenzayan from the University of Illinois found indications that when logic and experiential knowledge are in conflict, Americans are more likely, in comparison to Asians, follow the rules of formal logic which keeps in tradition that Western societies began with Ancient Greeks (Goode 2000).  For many years, anthropologists have been describing the same findings for cultural studies in the way people talk and interact, but scientific researchers found it difficult to make sense of qualitative judgments which aren’t controlled in an experimental process, hence this lead them to test these predictions quantitatively. Other interesting findings show that these approaches are not written in genes, when examining Asian Americans in their modes of thought they are indistinguishable from those of European Americans.

It’s amazing to see how much of these East-West differences could result in different social and religious practices. When dealing with subject matters such as traditions, religions, and ceremonies, the Asian population tends to live according to these beliefs, but especially towards the belief of superstition.  Countries all over Asia such as China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, or even Malaysia practice and believe in superstition.  Superstition runs many of their lives, it’s the common language of the young and the old.  When reading the article from Helium’s website-  Superstitions common to India by Andrew Victor.   We are questioning superstition from a highly rational Western point of view, stereotypically Americans practice rational thinking and need evidence for everything they believe in.  This article asks if there is evidence that superstition exists in economically booming countries such as India. Superstition is defined by a belief or action which isn’t based on evidence, most of these beliefs are based on fortunes and omens, either good or bad and sometimes even in fear of the supernatural. American author, newspaper journalist/ psychoanalysis researcher Judith Viorst described superstition as “foolish, childish, primitive and irrational.  But she asks “how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”  (Victor, 2009

It’s common to come across a twenty something tech worker in India consulting with a astrologer in the right time to buy a new car and even find a partner in marriage! India has one of the largest economies in the world, however the fact still remains that superstition is one of the most important rulers in an Indian’s life. India is a largely vast country, there are as many superstitions as there are regions.  (Victor, 2009) Some silly superstitions may be on their way out in the big, metropolitan cities but the deeper ones exist in rural areas.  There is a lot of evidence that these Western deemed ‘irrational beliefs’ are running most of their lives, maybe due to a lack of education, or as Edmund Burk notes in the article “Superstition is the religion of feeble minds.” (Victor, 2009)


The Modern Worker in India

But for your everyday ‘irrational minded’ Asian, these superstitious practices/beliefs may serve a higher purpose to their lives and even if they don’t serve up scientific evidence, it doesn’t make them less valuable to one who lives a life in unity with deep traditional values.


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