Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why I don't like the terms "West" and "East"

I'll never forget my first CORE Culture class, where my Professor stood and wrote the words WEST and EAST on the blackboard in big chalk letters. She then asked our class, entirely made up of freshmen, to shout out words we associated with the words "West" and "East." Slowly, but surely, each of my peers raised their hands and gave some synonyms for these terms.

I know its knit-picky to worry about words, but I think words have the power to either inform or confuse. Words have linguistic meanings, and in the most basic of ways "East" and "West" are just directions. But, words also have cultural meanings. Ever since my first CORE Class I've thought better of using these words because they have so many connotations attached to them. As a South Asian Studies major I've been working to understand what people commonly refer to as the "Eastern World" for years now. "Eastern" according to?

Geographically, "East" and "West" become muddied when you are standing in a different place. To many people the Middle East is actually considered West Asia, and if I'm standing in California, Asia is actually more to the West than the rest of America. But, the connotations of "East" and "West" often make "East" the pejorative, despite the vast amount of contributions that countries typically labeled as "Eastern" have made to philosophy, science, technology, world religion, etc. "West" by contrast, is too often made into the more progressive set of countries.

"East" and "West" are blanket terms. Is it really possible to make statements about the "Eastern" world that apply to countries as vastly different as China and India, or the "Western" world that apply to countries with different cultural norms like Germany and the United States?

I think that the words "East" and "West" go back to the points that Said lays out in his book Orientalism- they are subtle ways of generalizing about an "other," which are built into the fibres of common speech.
But the well informed individual will be more clear in juxtaposing different cultures, because the constructs of the "Eastern" and "Western" worlds don't allow us to see the commonalities between separate cultures.

What do you think of the words "East" and "West?"

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