Individualist vs. Collectivist Cultures: Some Illustrative Examples

One of the ideas that gets thrown around a lot when discussing Eastern and Western societies is the concept of collectivist or individualist societies. Asian societies are generally collectivist, focusing more on the group, while Western societies are more individualist, focusing more on each individual. This is what accounts for things like a strong emphasis on family1 in Asia.

To be honest, though, it’s been harder for me to actually see these differences. When people start talking about the collective, I start thinking about the Borg. On occasion, though, I do see how this breakdown works.

The other night, I went with one of my friends to what I thought was a ketoprak2 performance. It turned out to just be a rehearsal, but because a lot of our friends were there playing gamelan, we stayed for a bit.

I settled down next to one of my friends playing saron and proceeded to pull out a partially-consumed packet of ginger biscuits3 that I’d purchased earlier in the night. I ate one, my friend ate one, and then they passed down the line of musicians until all of the biscuits had been consumed. When I’d handed over the packet, I’d known this would happen. In handing over the cookies, I surrendered them to the collective.

Now, obviously, this is just the sharing that they taught us in kindergarten, but something about the way it’s practiced in Indonesia is a bit different. It’s a given, almost to the point that people don’t need to ask. At performances, bags of snacks that people have individually bought get passed around throughout the whole group4.

Another time, I was in the student union, visiting Jogja to see a performance in honor of UKJGS’s anniversary. At the door, a group of English department students stood, selling bottled water to fundraise for a gamelan concert. I bought the water. I didn’t need it and, more than that, I didn’t want it since it was overpriced for fundraising reasons. But, even though in Solo I’m a student, at UGM in front of English students I am still a lecturer and as a lecturer it is my duty to support the collective of the department, even if it meant buying expensive bottled water.

“I couldn’t stand in front of them and not buy the water,” I said, describing the event to my friend later.

“You were just acting Indonesian,” he said.

He was right, I suppose. In the US, I wouldn’t have bought the water. I guess assimilation is slowly working on me after all.

1And extended family, not just nuclear family.
2A drama form that involves a lot of talking (usually in Javanese) and a little bit of dancing. It is distinct from wayang wong, but I’m not quite sure how. (Maybe less dancing?)
3Incidentally, delicious and very much like the ginger biscuits I pilfer every time I go through the KL airport. Sorry, bulk goods store whose name I don’t know.
4Part of this probably also has to do with a strong tendency not to eat in front of people who aren’t eating.

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