Icons For Understanding Eastern and Western Cultures – PART ONE

If you liked part one of this series, feel free to take a peek at the other two.

Icons For Understanding Eastern and Western Cultures – Part Two

Icons For Understanding Eastern and Western Cultures – Part Three

NOTE: They were created by Yang Liu, who was born in China and educated in Germany. 

Please remember the commentary I provide are my own personal observations.

BLUE —— Westerner

RED —— Chinese


When Westerners are unhappy, our emotions can be easily perceived through body language, facial expression and tone.

In Asia, it’s a little more difficult to tell how someone is feeling. Think about how often you hear what you think are two people arguing when in reality, they are just chatting loudly. In Western societies, we equate loud voices with anger and confrontation.

I’m sure many of us can relate to being angry at a given situation and having a Chinese boss smile and smile and smile as you rage on like a lunatic. The benefit of dealing with situations like these is learning how to react to stressful situations with less of an emotional outburst.


Westerners tend to have very linear relationships, whereas Asians tend to have more circular relationships.


In China and Taiwan, the whiter your skin, the more beautiful you are. In North America, the darker your skin, the more beautiful you are.

Case in point.

In Asia, most beauty products contain some sort of whitening agent for the skin. Women are obsessed with covering up. They wear hats, carry umbrellas on hot days and wear long sleeves to the beach. Most of my Chinese girlfriends wouldn’t be caught dead in the blistering hot sun at the beach.

In North America, many skin products are designed to produce a beautiful, golden tan. Think self-tanning lotions, bronzers and tinted moisterizers or hours and hours of sunbathing.


The first thing that struck me as different when I moved to China were the number of seniors I’d see on the streets with young children. I thought it was really special to see Grandma and Grandpa out with the young ‘uns for the day. I still think it’s terrific.

Seniors in Eastern societies remain an integral part of the family. While sons and daughters are off making a living, Grandma and Grandpa stay at home to raise the grandchildren.

The role of a grandparent in North America is just as important, but an emphasis on independence also plays a major part in how seniors live their lives. The majority of seniors in Western societies are often on their own by their own choice. It’s uncommon to hear of parents living with their children.


Anyone who has ever been in a restaurant in Asia will surely chuckle at this one.


Westerners think in terms of me, me, me. Most Asians think of themselves as part of a larger sum.


No doubt this one frustrates all Westerners living in Asia. I’m sure we frustrate Asians to no end with our own problem solving techniques.

Westerners tend to take the most direct approach to problem solving. Problem solving in Asia is a bit more complex. Often the most direct approach is ignored. Sometimes the problem is never dealt with.


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READ:  Published Case Study: Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free of the Colonial Paradigm

Post Author: Carrie Kellenberger

I'm a chronically ill Canadian who has been living in Asia since 2003. I moved from China to Taiwan in 2006. I'm an experienced businesswoman and have worked in many leadership positions in Asia. In addition to my own work, I've been writing professionally about Asia, travel and health advocacy since 2007, providing regular content to publishing companies and travel publications in Asia and North America. I started writing about my health journey in 2009 after being diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. In 2014, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, which came with other massive health issues. These diagnoses were the start of my journey as a health advocate and patient leader. Since then, My Several Worlds has been recognized worldwide as a top site for AS, fibromyalgia, and chronic illness by WEGO Health and Healthline.

23 thoughts on “Icons For Understanding Eastern and Western Cultures – PART ONE


    (October 25, 2007 - 6:26 am)

    I laughed. So true. Only those of us here can truly understand.

    Mark Forman

    (October 25, 2007 - 7:31 am)

    Pretty cool post. I’d say pretty accurate as well.

    Thoth Harris

    (October 25, 2007 - 7:32 am)

    Carrie: “Anyone who has ever been in a restaurant in Asia will surely chuckle at this one.”

    Huh?! Carrie, you obviously have never been over here in Montréal! Once you go to one of the trendy hipster spots (or even the place for mainstreamers to go, in some ways those one are louder). If it was Toronto, you would be 100% correct!

    I should qualify that. It depends on the mood of the place. Montréal restaurant/café goers modulate their volume and speech according to what the atmosphere is like. It isn’t a perfect science. It isn’t always harmonious. But where are things harmonious, anywhere, for that matter?

    As for you other ones icons. Very precise. Except the old people one. Except you say old people are important here in the west… What??? C’mon.

    We just lock them up in old age homes, clinics. etc. That makes me tempted (for selfish reasons, mind you, not that I’ve taken care of any old people in my lifetime) to move back to Taiwan. Honestly. More than tempted; more than likely, really.

    A particularly horrifying fictionalization of life from an old person’s perspective (not less real-feeling and horrifying and so-forth, for all its fictional medium) is to be found in the novel, I will have and will, from the time I first read it for the rest of my life, called Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. It weirdly combines historical novel with thriller with science fiction and more. Somehow it feels more real than anything I’ve read. Not just the section about the old publisher, but the novel as a whole David Mitchell is a Briton living in Japan, by the way. What is it about these writers, like Pico Iyer, Mitchel, Ishiguro (who is English but came from Japan when he was five. I think the most interesting writers are often often of the exile/migrant/migrating/refugee variety. Right now, I am once again, reading more of Naipaul (The Return of Eva Peron).


    (October 25, 2007 - 1:55 pm)

    Pretty good icons! I liked them. They disclose western-eastern differences very precisely..


    (October 25, 2007 - 5:55 pm)

    Some good ones in there. Not sure about the ME thing. People in Taiwan often seem completely oblivious to others around them.

    I’ve always thought that old people get a bad deal in Taiwan. They are pretty much expected to take care of the grandkids out of financial necessity. It’s not just a spot of baby-sitting; they’re acting as full-time surrogate parents. In many cases the actual parents are off in another city slaving away on a cubicle farm. My neighbour, for instance, takes care of her granddaughter while her daughter works in Taipei Monday to Friday. She comes down for the weekend. The grandmother is really forced into it because the alternative is to spend a fortune on daycare. This kind of arrangement is very common in Taiwan. It’s not quite as rosy a situation as Westerners sometimes make out.

    Thoth Harris

    (October 26, 2007 - 12:22 pm)

    So, Naruwan, would you rather spent bleak day after bleak day staring at the walls of an old age home and being FORCED into inactivity. If that’s what you want or prefer, well, you’re free to want and volunteer for that.

    Not for me, thanks. I’d prefer to have importance. Even if it is “slaving away” as you say. Actually, it seems that the grandparents insist on taking the kids, and make a big stink if the parents want to change the parameters. In my experience, anyway. I won’t go into details, for obviously good reasons.


    (October 27, 2007 - 10:10 am)

    I love the smile = anger. I do this from time to time, and it works wonders on the other side of the conversation. The redder their face gets, the more I smile. hehe

    Great post.

    Roam 2 Rome

    (October 30, 2007 - 11:04 am)

    This was so true! Being a witness to different cultures and their different approach to every day life is my favorite part of world travels 🙂 Loved the icons!


    (November 1, 2007 - 1:23 am)

    Author’s webpage


    (November 1, 2007 - 8:39 am)


    Thank you very very much. I’ll be sure to write a follow up post to give credit. Thanks again!

    Hey that's cool !

    (November 22, 2007 - 9:50 am)

    Hi there,

    They are very good icons! Right now, I’m working as a Cultural Orientation Trainer in several refugee camp throughout Thailand. This is so great for my students to understand the culture differences between the east and the west before they resettle to the third countries.

    You said that there are 24 icons in total, but in this website, there are only 12 icons. Can you send them to me please? The refugees here need you help! My email is SweetMia07@hotmail.com



    (November 30, 2007 - 1:50 pm)

    being a Singaporean-Chinese working and living in Australia, this is so true! thank you for posting this.. it’s Fantastic!!

    absolutely hilarious!!


    (March 30, 2008 - 7:28 am)

    I find the icons really useful. Great for me to run my workshop for international students. Pictures speak so much louder than words. Well done Liu Young. Like, Mia, I would also like to receive all the 24 icons via my website: kim_hwang2301@yahoo.com.au




    (April 1, 2008 - 3:00 am)

    Hi Mia and Fee,

    There are three articles in this series. You can find them under the same title with the labels, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. You can also visit the author’s website if you’d like more information. Thanks for stopping by.

    Jyoti Sankar Sahu

    (August 1, 2008 - 3:16 pm)

    Nice one.Its a truth as well.


    (August 15, 2008 - 8:54 am)



    (August 15, 2008 - 12:16 pm)

    Could you tell me why you disagree?

    I’ve lived in China and Taiwan. That’s why I used the term Chinese instead of Asia when I made my observations. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia.


    (November 19, 2008 - 4:41 am)

    Dear Carrie,

    It’s me, Fee again. Just to let you know I am still referring to these icons and sharing them not only with the international students but also fellow colleagues.

    I am very interested and lately find myself running cultural awareness workshops. Do share with me other interesting websites and resources particularly distinguishing the differences between Western and Asian/Eastern cultures.

    One thing I must say is with regards to punctuality, being a fellow Malaysian originally, it applies very much to many in Malaysia. Till this day, I will always remember, wedding banquets are never never in time. My advice is always have something to eat prior to attending the event. Event say 7.00pm. You are lucky food is served after 7.30pm or later. Never on time. Also, due to bad traffic jam, a lot of people expect meeting not on time. I used to do meetings on the road while driving to the place and constantly telling friends, yes, I’ll be there soon.

    Best regards,



    (May 20, 2009 - 2:38 am)

    When I first saw these a while back, the one that got me was the one where they have the people waiting in line.

    I was in china at the time and one of the funniest things was that they would infuriate me at the grocery store when people would cut me. So my goal would be to cut them back. And one day, i finally cut this old woman and i was so pleased with myself. when i looked back at her, she didn’t even notice because she was so used to it.

    got me again


      (May 20, 2009 - 1:14 pm)

      Hi Marcus,

      Ha! I can totally relate to your experience. I lived in China for three years. In the end, I got used to people cutting in front of me. It used to drive me crazy.

    John Bardos - JetSetCitizen

    (September 2, 2009 - 2:03 pm)

    Hi Carrie,
    That was very interesting.

    Some other contrasts that might be interesting;
    Meal portion sizes
    Waste lines
    Personal space
    .-= John Bardos – JetSetCitizen´s last blog ..Is Work Really That Bad? =-.


      (September 4, 2009 - 1:34 am)

      Hi John,

      Good points. Stay tuned for part 2 and 3, they cover everything you mentioned.


    (September 4, 2009 - 2:56 am)

    I LOVED this! I do have to say that the ME focus of westerners can be true, but I often get the impression that Taiwanese only think of themselves…when I see them littering and throwing garbage on the ground, when I see animals thrown away or abused…etc.

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