A Collectivist’s Discomfort in an Individualistic Culture

A few days ago, I noticed that the disorder in the shared space in my apartment is getting on my nerves. I saw cookies crumbles and cheese bits lying around on the kitchen counter, used pots not washed overnight, and weekly chores still not done after 3 days. I am a neat person and have a higher need for tidiness compared to my guy housemates, who are also my close friends. I didn’t think my standard was unreasonable. If you see the disastrous kitchen after one of my housemates cooks, you’d sympathize with me. Though anger is an emotion I rarely feel, I was full-on in rage. How could you destroy the kitchen that was just cleaned like this? Why did I decide to live with two guys?

credit to my beautiful housemate

I finally decided to call a house meeting to align our expectations. I raised my needs and how the current state of the house is making me feel. They also shared their expectation for cleanness and aired concerns on the workload and the potential change of habits for them if we were to change the status quo.

One of them said, “when we have varying degrees of needs for cleanness, the one who has the highest need is burdening the rest with a request. I would be happy to fulfill it since it’s reasonable, as long as you recognize that you are demanding something that’s a cost to me.”

I was caught off guard by the direct and impersonal air of the speech. I immediately stopped talking and went into my body. I hugged the laptop I was holding in a fetus position and closed my eyes. I could feel the intensity of my body reacting to the comment.

“Are you okay?” the other housemate gently touched my arm. I opened my eyes with great difficulty to return to a bitter reality. I wasn’t sure what felt so wrong but I was surely almost tearing up. Something in me felt violated but I couldn’t name it. I decided to just keep my composure, loosened my locked eyebrows, and made it through the meeting with a few agreements I could live with.

When both of them left, I sank into the sofa and couldn’t move for 30 minutes. I was indignant and was rebelling. I refused to be called “burdensome” and I didn’t understand why asking for something “normal” was made into such a big deal. It was as if a deep cut was torn open again and I was reminded of 8 years of feeling like a burden to others and being “useless” in America.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

This feeling of being “wronged” came from a clash in our collective vs individualistic cultural backgrounds. As I assimilated into the American culture, I did not realize how much impact my Chinese background is still shaping how I operate in relationships. In moments when collective actions are required, such as keeping a house clean, I first think of how my actions make others feel. I always have “our relationship” at the center of my attention. Because I care about my friends, I am willing to sacrifice myself to make them comfortable. It’s my duty as a good friend to meet their needs, as long as they are still within reasonable limits. It’s honorable for me to put others’ needs first. Setting boundaries is not important to me and most of the time the lack of boundaries is what makes me feel close to others. I see it as a sign of dedication.

My housemates, being Asian Americans, are more individualistic. At the center of their attention is “I” and they think of collective actions as “request and fulfillment” between two individuals. Since no two people are the same, anything person A wants would incur some cost to person B. A can put in a request to B and B can decide whether to sacrifice for the sake of A, since B doesn’t have much to be gained in that situation. B is generally happy to fulfill A’s request if they are close friends, but it’s important that A recognize that she is demanding something of B and should be grateful that the request is being fulfilled. In this model, there is a very weak sense of duty, instead, B assesses what makes sense to him as each case comes up. As A and B get closer, B would think it’s important to set boundaries so he doesn’t need to sacrifice too much freedom for A.

I am clearly the A in this situation and B is my housemate, also one of my closest friends. As we got closer, I started to think it’s okay to “burden” him with life’s mundane tasks because we are family-like. In return, I am ready at any moment to be there for him. He, being extremely independent, however, has almost nothing to ask of me. Not after long, B determined that he needed to set boundaries with me so I don’t request too much of him. That’s the backdrop triggering the speech above that I was only recently aware of.

I felt abandoned in that situation because being family-like to him, I was expecting him to act out of consideration to me. He, unaware of the way I operate, simply acted however makes sense to him. I interpreted his act as that he did not care for me to honor my preference. Aware now of how he operates, I can understand why he acted the way he did but I am not sure if I would be open to requesting anything of him freely in the future. As a result, our almost sibling-like relationship crumbled in front of my eyes.

As sad as it sounds, I am grateful that I finally had a significant relationship with an American that involved some struggles. It took me a whole 8 years to encounter the classic individualistic vs collectivist clash that’s usually written on page 1 of a cultural psychology textbook. Both of our views on relationships have their own advantages and clear drawbacks. I would laugh at myself if I were to try to convert him to view the world in my way.

I am not sure what to do yet but I know I would be happy to meet him halfway. I want to continue to care for him like a sister but not expect him to carry the weight of my life with me. I will be fine on my own, especially when I am blessed with quite a few helpful friends, most of whom from collectivist cultures like my own. I will continue to cherish all the connections I have been able to make in the US and hope that our commonalities would trump our differences in the end.

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PM in the day, Philosophy at night. Wish to open, awaken, and strengthen minds.