"We Asians Aren't Taught to Think for Ourselves"
So said my Thai doctor. But is it true?
During our recent stay in Bangkok, Thailand, I went in for a skin cancer screening.
My doctor was a Thai woman in her early thirties, and she was quite talkative, which was fine by me. I love chatting with locals in other countries.
Once she learned I was a nomad, she peppered me with questions about the lifestyle. In response, I asked her, “When did you decide you wanted to become a doctor?”
After a long pause, she said, “I never decided that.”
This confused me. I couldn’t help but think: Did the sorting hat from Harry Potter decide for you?
Finally, I said, “What do you mean?”
“We Thai people are not taught to think for ourselves like you Americans. Most Asian people aren’t. Instead, our parents decide what it is we will do. What is best for us.”
I had to think about how to respond. I definitely didn’t want to say anything offensive.
“That’s very interesting,” I said. “Both ways of doing things must have their pros and cons. Sometimes I think we Americans think too much for ourselves.”
Then another question popped into my head. “Have you thought about what else you might have done had your parents not decided for you?”
“No, never,” she said. “As I said, we Thai people just don’t think for ourselves.”
Am I reinforcing Asian stereotypes even quoting her like this?
After living in more than twenty countries over six years, I’ve seen enough to know that stereotypes are usually laughably inaccurate and always very incomplete. Individuals are always far more than their race or culture.
So I want to be careful here.
But Brent and I have lived in plenty of Asian countries now too, and this wasn’t the first time I’d had a local tell me some variation of this.
And after living in so many different cultures, Asian and not, I’ve long since started seeing my home country of America with different eyes. I now understand that, culturally speaking, it’s America that’s the outlier compared to the rest of the world.
In America, people tend to think, first and foremost, “What do I want? What are my needs?” We see ourselves very much as individuals.
In much of the rest of the world, people tend to put a much higher emphasis on the needs and wants of one’s family and the perceived needs of the greater society.
And, yes, this seems to be especially true in the Asian countries where we’ve lived.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Brent and Michael Are Going Places to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.