aLike many words at EMU—think sustainability—westernization has become a buzz word. As used on our campus it means something about the systematic destruction of other cul- tures which are then replaced by suburbs, McDonalds, and Barbie Dolls.
During my time on cross-cultural it was simply reduced to meaning anything that was wrong in the world. Racism was blamed on westernization, fried chicken was blamed on westernization, and poverty, well that must be westernization. It got to the point where I felt that serious questions about Guatemalan history and culture were not asked because the discussion began and ended when somebody said the word westernization.
If this was simply the way that one cross-cultural viewed the world, I could get over it, but in some of the recent cross-cultural updates printed in the Weather Vane, the same nebulous word has reappeared.
Thus, I believe that the use of this word has somehow become part of EMU’s unofficial cross-cultural curriculum. I have a few problems with this.
First, the use of the term westernization is another form of American hu- bris. We assume that our culture is so dominant that it is able to steam roll cultures which have existed for hundreds of years. In a recent cross-cultural update, a member of the China cross-cultural wrote that Chinese women carry parasols because of the influence of American conceptions of beauty. In reality the parasol was invented in China and has been a symbol of wealth there since the 11 century BC. This type of thinking is all too common among EMU students. We are so obsessed with westernization that instead of learning about other cultures, we simply look at them like a mirror, hoping to see ourselves or our government reflected back at us.
The second problem that I have with the term westernization is its implied paternalism. In my cross-cultural group, students would speak about American fast food restaurants as if they were a sad and unwanted blight forced upon the Guatemalans. When seeing the lines outside of KFC, people would make a comment to the effect that it was sad that the Guatemalans did not know better. What my group ignored was the fact that many of the people eating in KFC were middle class, college-educated people with families. When we denied that these people were able to make an informed choice about what they were eating, we disqualified all of their education and life experience, and reduced them to the politically correct version of ignorant natives.
My final problem with the concept of westernization is that it is one sided. When a sushi restaurant opens in New York City, it is not a sign of us being easternized. When we see Mexican groceries in Harrisonburg, we are not being southernized; instead, we are incorporating diverse perspectives and choices into our pluralistic society. However, we seem to feel that this same right should be denied to the rest of the world. When my cross-cultural group saw advertisements for English lessons in Guatemala nobody talked about the incorporation of a new perspective in Guatemalan culture, everybody talked about how sad westernization was. The message seemed clear. While we want American culture to change and grow, we want the cultures of other societies to remain unchanged so that we can visit them like an exhibit in a museum.
We too often use words to cover our ignorance and lack of thought. In this vein, westernization has become the ultimate bandage. Instead of learning about the history and culture of other countries, we feel that we are so important that the only culture changing the world is our own.
If we really want to learn something about the world, EMU should drop the word westernization. There are legitimate and interesting discussions to be had about a rapidly changing world, but they cannot happen when somebody reduces a complex historical and cultural situation to one catch-all word.
-David Yoder, Co-Editor In Chief
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