Accessibility links

Breaking News

Yin and Yang of American Culture - 2002-11-07

English Feature #7-35139 Broadcast August 13, 2001

As the United States increasingly becomes aware of itself as a multicultural nation, some experts are sharpening their focus on the host American culture. Dr. Eun Kim, drawing on her Asian background, approaches the study of American culture from the perspective of the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, or complementary opposites. Here's more in this edition of New American Voices.

"The Yin-yang concept is very different from Western dualism. U.S. dualism or Western dualism can be good or bad. Yin and Yang is like good AND bad, it's not either-or, it's just BOTH-AND. According to the Chinese principle, everything in life has yin, the negative side, and yang, a positive side. And also the negative can be seen as positive from one light, and the positive can be seen as negative in another light."

Eun Kim was born and raised in South Korea, and immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s. She holds a doctorate in education and human resources from the University of Texas. Recently she published a book, entitled "The Yin and Yang of American Culture: A Paradox". In it, she outlines a list of American virtues - which, according to her yin-yang theory, can become negative if overdone, and American vices – which under some circumstances can be seen as positive characteristics. Dr. Kim says a primary American virtue is dreaming the impossible.

"In this country people say all you need is a dream and a dollar. And I think in this country, regardless of who you are people can dream it and accomplish it."

She says the bad side is this virtue has the potential to cause individuals unhappiness.

"This is kind of stressful, to live in such a country. Because in my own country, for example, we believe in a certain amount of fatalism. So if life doesn't go as well as we intended, we can blame our fate. We just were born on the wrong date, wrong hour, wrong year, whatever. In the U.S. you cannot blame anybody but yourself, because if you try really hard this country gives you the opportunity."

Other virtues, according to Dr. Kim, have to do with American attitudes toward other people.

"Another good thing about American culture is seeing everybody as equal. And daring to be oneself, everybody can be themselves without worrying what others think of me. And this country had tremendous power to release human potential in terms of utilizing human dignity regardless of their disabilities or different abilities. Another thing I admire is American openness and friendliness, and probably that's why this country is a nation of immigrants. People feel welcomed. Even if they encounter some negative experiences, still, this is one of the great places for immigrants to fulfill their dreams."

Among the vices, or the negative aspects of American life, Dr. Kim counts Americans' insistence on rights.

"In Asian cultures, and I think in many other cultures, there is a tremendous emphasis on duties and responsibilities. And it's good to give individual rights, but I think people should be reminded of corresponding duties. Many immigrants say, what their impression of America is - there's too much freedom. I think there's too much emphasis on individual rights, and my rights at the cost of group rights, even one individual family member's rights at the cost of the whole family's rights. And that leads to suing everybody, that leads to family breakdown, that leads to community breakdown."

In line with the yin-yang concept, says Dr. Kim, this negative value has a positive side: the rugged individualism on which American pride themselves. Among the other vices Dr. Kim ascribes to Americans is expecting an easy life, and therefore finding it difficult to deal with the challenges and obstacles that life invariably presents. Yet another is Americans' obsession with big -- big houses, big cars, big meal portions, all of which, to her mind, leads to tremendous waste. Nevertheless, Dr. Kim believes that the United States works as a multicultural country because of certain characteristics of American society.

"I think it's American openness, idealism and the merit-based society. Americans are generally open to other cultures, based on their history of immigrants. People are willing to welcome anyone, no matter who they are, as long as they can contribute to this country."

Next week in this program you'll meet another Asian-American--Lisa Fan, a young Chinese woman who leads a group of Falun Gong practitioners who meditate and exercise during their lunch hour in a Washington office building.