A fair share of readers have taken international relations or global economics courses in college. And even more people reading this currently mow through a daily assortment of news and blog content. It would not be presumptive of me, then, to assume that you know the ubiquity with which the term “Westernization” is used in both academic and daily communication.
But the word “Westernization” is usually meaningless. Authors and laypeople alike need to quickly reduce the frequency with which they use this term.
(By the way, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve used the word too much in the past; just call me a Reformed Semantic.)
There are four reasons I am declaring a war on the word “Westernization”.
First, influences from the Western Hemisphere — henceforth the “West” — in non-Western places apply in selective ways rather than in a unified manner. There is not a wholesale adoption of Western culture. If culture anywhere is a set of playing cards combined to make a unique cultural “hand”, then Western influence is, at most, one culture taking a card from the West’s hand, thereby making a new cultural hand.
The common usage of “Westernization”, though, implies that the Western hand is copied card-for-card. Anyone who has lived in another country would know the error of this notion.
Take Taiwan, where I live, for example. Taiwan is often considered highly “Westernized” due to its history of influence from the U.S. and its considerable economic development. To be sure, some Western brands like BMW, 7-Eleven, or McDonald’s have become household names; English is widely taught from a young age; and Western movies and music are widespread. Yet the presence of these things isn’t enough to deem this place “Westernized” because the way in which they are adopted into the culture are unique.
The convenience store 7-Eleven is a Texas-born brand that is omnipresent in Taiwan. From some intersections, you can see four 7-Elevens within a two-minute walking distance. Each and every customer that enters the store is greeted by employees chanting “Welcome” (“欢迎光临”). And while in the store, you can pay your rent or any of your bills at the checkout, which means that people avoid a lot of online banking in this already-decidedly cash economy.
None of this sounds like an American 7-Eleven.
In Taiwan, McDonald’s is a “classy” eatery; Western music is often blasting in stores without people understanding a single word; Playboy is a popular clothing brand among moms; many people, despite English knowledge, have had too little practice in daily conversation to use it on the street.
And none of this even mentions old cultural cards that have remained in the Taiwanese hand: there are more scooters than cars on the street; the street food culture is unlike any place in America that I’ve been; and Taiwanese concepts of personal privacy are different, to say the least, than most in the U.S.
I could go on. The upshot is that even at the broad cultural level, “Westernization” misses all sorts of cultural variations in adoption.
Second, even within the West itself, a meaningful concept of the “West” rapidly falls apart. Indeed, you could hardly even clarify a single “America” definition. Life in New York City and rural suburban Ohio — my stomping ground — is separated by a chasm. In the latter, you must drive long distances to do any daily task, most people live in spaces that would only be afforded by the elite in NYC, and people have a much lower threshold for the volume of ambient noise.
Third, “Westernization” has this implicit assumption that cultural adoption only goes one way. But while Chinese are wearing Nike and listening to Linkin Park, Americans are sporting Chinese character tattoos and eating Sushi before they go to yoga in their Honda Prius. Moreover, while cultural cards are swapped from the West, they are also swapped from other places. In Taiwan, Japanese products hold as much influence as American products.
Fourth, at worst, “Westernization” has an air of cultural superiority. Sometimes implicit in the usage of this term is the idea that to be like the West is progress, toward a more civilized and ideal world. But one needn’t look too far to point out problems in the West that are hardly desirable — e.g., greed in corporate culture or hyper-consumerism.
So when someone says or writes that a place is “Westernized”, what do they really mean? Usually they should be saying “developed”, “capitalist”, “democratic”, or “consumerist”. These words carry much more specific meaning than “Westernized”; furthermore, they don’t assume that the West somehow has ownership of these concepts.
No place fully adopts a Western culture, and the continued use of “Westernization” will just remain a symbol of ignorance or arrogance.