What I Wonder When I Wander: What exactly is the ‘West’?

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There is an update to the bottom of this post thanks to some amazing insight I discovered a few months after first writing this post. 

A post I read recently mentioned a blogger’s happiness at returning to the ‘Western’ world after spending time in Latin America. I read it, and re-read it, and even though that was just one sentence in a long post, it was the only thing I took away from it.

For the first time last year, Dani and I traveled to South East Asia. I remember being so nervous before we went. This was so different, it was the entire other side of the planet. We were going east. A few months later, my takeaway was that while the countries and cultures were definitely very different, life in South East Asia was so much more similar to the ‘West’ than I had previously thought. The distinction between Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore or Laos from Germany or the U.S., however, was clear. I easily identified as a ‘Westerner’.

Mexican CowboysWhat I can’t fathom is how Mexico, where we have just finished living for two months, could be lumped in with South East Asia in the idea of ‘East vs. West’. I have spent years of my life living in places like Costa Rica and Guatemala, and we traveled through all of Mexico and Central America back in 2010-2011. Visiting gorgeous Catholic churches, speaking Spanish, we certainly had no sensation of ever having left what we consider to be the ‘West’.

This blog wasn’t the first place I had read mentions of ‘Western’ and Latin America as mutually exclusive. I’ve seen this in other travel blogs, well-known travel guides, even the Economist, my most beloved magazine and travel companion. Take this article, Africa rising, for example, in which the journalist explains that, “China’s arrival has improved Africa’s infrastructure and boosted its manufacturing sector. Other non-Western countries, from Brazil and Turkey to Malaysia and India, are following its lead.”

melaka street artBrazil is not a Western country? On what grounds is Latin America not considered Western? 20 countries whose languages are Spanish, Portuguese and French, colonized by three of the core countries that make up the ‘West’ by any definition?

Let’s overlook for a minute the fact that the current population is primarily Mestizo (mixed indigenous and Caucasian) and Caucasian. Doesn’t it seem odd to group the historical indigenous Mayan, Aztec or Inca groups in with people whose ancestry is rooted deeply in, say, the great Ming dynasty of China? Plus, if you focus on the fact that what separates these countries from ‘Western’ countries is their large indigenous populations, then you would have to entirely ignore the equally relevant and powerful cultures of the North American indigenous groups – the Native American Indians (U.S.) and the First Nations (Canada).

Indigenous Women Mexico

So just what is it that makes a country ‘Western’? On the surface it would be easy to look at countries that have undergone a process of ‘Americanization’, or the draw to a more ‘American’ way of life through pop culture, business practices and, unfortunately, fast food. In this way, Brazil might easily be considered Western, considering that, like the U.S., over 50% of its population is now suffering from obesity. The world’s richest country per capita, Qatar, suffers from similar obesity statistics resulting from a fast-paced, fast food lifestyle and yet it is considered rooted in the heart of the Middle East.

While we’re on the subject of the Middle East, why is it that, while ‘The West’ is a solid, if intangible, block, we break down what is its binary opposite, ‘the East’ into such specific parts: the Middle East, South East Asia, Central Asia, the Far East.

masjid malabar

Sometimes I wonder if this is because in addition to history, these sub-regions are broken down because of their religion, and it is religion that then defines what is East and what is West? Asia is home to hundreds of millions of Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists, while Europe and North America are primarily Christian countries, with Latin America collectively serving as the strongest representation of Catholics in the world.

But then again, Buddhism is quietly growing in the West as well, with 24 million residing in Europe, seven million in the Americas. Hell – even U.S. President Bill Clinton is a Buddhist now.

Going back to what that blogger wrote, though, I assume what was meant was a backhanded remark about being back in a developed country. From this person’s point of view, and shared by The Economist, ‘Western’ has come to mean economically affluent. Developed countries are considered Western (by people from the ‘West’ of course), and developing or underdeveloped nations are not. So what are they considered? Certainly they are not considered ‘Eastern’? While I have been looking at this in relation to Latin America because that is where we happen to be located at the moment, there is a giant, gaping hole in this discussion: Africa. The entire continent of Africa is entirely left out of what is essentially a binary discussion of east and west, even though many countries have undergone the same level of colonization by the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese.

I would say that Africa, Latin America, South East Asia fit into a more appropriate group than East or West. Aren’t they all the South? The real dichotomy, at least economically and developmentally, can be split more sensibly along Northern vs. Southern lines, can’t it? Europe, North America, Japan, Russia…doesn’t it make more sense to group those together geopolitically, too?

Buddhist monks in South East AsiaOf course, then New Zealand and Australia don’t fit, and if the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) all continue to grow how do we divide things then?

If you have made it all the way through my self-indulgent ponderings, I’d love to know your thoughts on all this. Do you consider Latin America part of the Western world? What do you think makes something a Western country? Is the binary system really still east vs. west or is it developed vs. developing? Are we better to divide the world by north vs. south? Is there any point any more in dividing the world at all?

UPDATE: I caught this Ted Talk from 2009 and it turns out that Hans Rosling’s Let Your Dataset Change My Mindset pretty much addresses and answers all those questions I asked above, so definitely head over and watch the really entertaining 20-minute talk.

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Tags : What I Wonder When I Wander


  1. What a thought provoking post! As an American living in Korea for the past 18 months, I’ve gotten into the habit of calling things ‘western’ without really thinking too much about what is implied. At first, I just referred to anything non-Asian as western, but when I think more about it, it seems that the times I’m talking about the west (usually in the context of food, to be honest) I’m referring more to the US/Canada/Europe.

    I think that grouping countries or areas into the global north and the global south can work in a lot of cases. Richer countries usually have a lot more in common due to access of goods, but there are still some deeply rooted ‘Eastern’ traditions in these countries.

    After typing out this long (mostly nonsensical, probably) comment, I’ve realized that it’s probably just too hard to lump countries and regions into huge groups like this 🙂
    Amanda @ Farsickness recently posted..Snapshot Sunday: Monkeys in Ubud

    1. Amanda, thanks for commenting! I definitely think that when you are in Asia, what’s Western seems more obvious than when we are here and people are grouping Latin America somehow into a non-Western category. But you’re right that there is an Eastern tradition that is deeply rooted and hugely different to the West. My realization is that I have no idea what a set of deeply rooted ‘southern’ traditions are because not only have I / we never been to Africa, we also don’t hear about that entire continent as much as elsewhere in the world…

        1. Awesome! When I started looking into it for this post I was captivated. There is so much out there, really academic in nature but truly fascinating! We often focus on specific destinations, but it has been really interesting to focus on overarching global themes like this as well. 🙂

  2. Eastern and Western are ancient and outdated terms. Ancient European historians referred to their land as the West and Asia Minor, or what is now the Middle East, as the Eastern lands.

    I guess over time the terms have evolved and Western now generally refers to First World European/ English speaking countries of predominantly caucasian citizens. Its not geographical anymore because so many other countries have been discovered.

  3. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” (St. Augustine)
    As one who has read “the book”, I personally think there are still too many one page readers that want to separate themselves from the rest of the world to make themselves think they are better. It’s time to move on and consider ourselves citizens of the world. Do away with East vs West.

    I love that you have brought up this topic for discussion. It’s the type of topic that a “book reader” would contemplate.

    Trying to fit each of these many cultures into nice little packages doesn’t work. Too many variables: Religion, Economics, Politics, skin color, language, ………..

    I’m in the same camp with Amanda’s conclusion above, including the nonsensical part.

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Steve. The more we travel the more we really see the overarching similarities in people. It sounds so cliche, but fitting anyone into ready-made packages or tribes anymore really doesn’t work at all! I think today we choose our own tribes more than anything.

  4. Labels. We seem to like to label things. And tribalise ourselves. I guess it’s a throwback to an older time when tribes were important to our survival, and we can’t seem to shake them off. I think we’d be better off just dumping the whole concept, and just getting on with being humans on planet earth. Who needs definitions, or country lines, or all this gunk, other than people who want to control and delineate? It’s not going to catch on, but I like the idea anyway.
    Laurence recently posted..That time I nearly died in the Outback

    1. True Laurence, though I would say that there are definitely still cultural/social things that make groups of people more similar to each other and different to others. What I find fascinating is that the tribalising that you mention is done today by economic terms – the west and the rest, non-western vs western – almost ore than by cultural ones…

  5. I’ve had problems using “Western” in a couple of posts recently and was wondering about it as well. I guess I use “Western” as equivalent to “developed,” but that doesn’t seem so accurate either. What about Japan and Korea? Surely, they are developed countries.

    Where does “Western” stop in Europe? Germany? I also agree that it is strange to think of Australia and New Zealand as Western, or is it?

    Interesting post.
    John Bardos – JetSetCitizen recently posted..What is an Excellent Life?

    1. Hey John, thanks. I don’t really think there is an answer, like you say it’s too confusing / strange to put certain countries in categories. It’s just the way we use it so casually that really got me thinking about it.

  6. Glad you raised the point about fast food as one of the deciding factors! Although it seems to be that nearly every country has a Macca’s now so that doesn’t really count.

    “West vs East” is just an older term from 50+ years ago I think. We just all still them more for geographical reasons maybe? Well my 2 cents anyway.

    By the way, I LOVE these series. Keep them coming 🙂
    Cole @ recently posted..Exploring Tuscany by Scooter

    1. Hey Cole, thanks. That’s the thing about fast food and Americanization. I don’t think that means anything anymore in terms of progress, development or ‘East vs West’. It’s not even just Mickey D’s everywhere, it’s Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s and Subway…oh my! 🙂 Point is, East v West does seem old-fashioned, and I feel like the only thing that is clear, at least when Westerners use the word West, is the concept of the ‘West’ but what exactly is East, or non-west remains unclear. Doesn’t it seem odd that one of the main ways we choose to theoretically divvy up the world can even be defined?

  7. Interesting thoughts, guys. I majored in politics in university and it distinguished in my classes that West vs non-Western countries (it’s wasn’t really West vs East so much as those that are Western vs not Western) weren’t really to do with geography so much as standard of living, political regime, etc. The West represents the first-world and the non-West represents second-, third-world, developing countries. I remember one prof giving the example of contrasts in standard of living in West Germany vs East Germany before the fall of Communism — both were geographically in the same spot, but had very different politics and economics and standard of living for its people. So while no, Africa is not geographically in the east, I understand placing it in the non-West column of countries. (I would also like to kindly point out that Singapore is not a BRIC country, as it has a first-world economy :))
    Edna recently posted..Bastille Day: My strangest day in Paris

    1. (Oh and to answer the questions in your post — Japan, New Zealand, and Australia would all be considered “West” due to their first-world economics, political system, standard of living, etc.)

    2. Edna, great reply to this. So, academically the conversation is entirely Western v non-Western, and in everyday speak people still refer to East v West, right? So really the terminology is extremely archaic at this point considering that Japan is not Western but totally developed? Also, Edna, I totally completely meant South Africa on the BRICS but wrote Singapore as I used to think the ‘S’ was Singapore until recently. Thanks for calling me out on it, I’ve changed it in the post now!

  8. Hello Jess and Dani,
    The distinction between ‘west’ and the ‘east’ has it’s roots back in history, during the time when Alexander (the great), on his quest to conquer the world, reached the western edge of India. There, he was confronted with ideas and philosophy that was completely opposite to what the Greeks believed in. The clash of civilizations is said to occurred at that point.

    I don’t think that the definition of West and East has anything to do with geographical location, ethnicity or GDP. It depends on how a society works. Individualist v/s collectivist is one way. Absolutist (there is a right answer, there is one god, truth is tangible, we only have one life etc.) v/s relativist (everything is fuzzy) is another way. Process oriented v/s outcome oriented, need for precise definitions v/s need for harmony, and so on. These are well established societal norms.

    As for this exercise of determining which countries fit where, again (sorry!) is a western way of categorizing at things and one will never find a right answer. But I admit, this question has bothered me too. When I was small I used to think that all countries that exclusively use cutlery to eat were western… lol!

    Thanks for the discussion!
    Priyank recently posted..Why the Brooklyn Bridge is my favourite attraction in NYC

    1. Love this answer Priyank! And yes, I totally get that what I am doing is a western thing, a western way of categorizing things. Because even though I am critically looking at this idea, I can not help but come at it from a Western way of thinking. Even though I can’t define exactly what Western is, there is no doubt that Dani and I fall cleanly into that category. I suppose that there is no answer because trying to categorize the world into a binary system is ridiculous. But I do think it is important to point out how silly it is to do so, because some linguistic relativy theorists would say that the vocabulary you use to express your world view affects the way you conceptualize the world. So to think of the world as binary, to discount the many different slices of the global pie, might just be one of the reasons why entire continents like Africa, or even Latin America in a different way, are left out of the conversation? Just a thought.

  9. I’m also guilty of lumping Europe/the USA/Canada together as ‘the West’, and I guess this comes from the fact that I often look at things from a Japanese angle (similar to the Amanda with her Korean POV). There’s nothing western about Japan or Korea, although they might look like it at first because they are developed to a ‘western standard’.

    Yet, when I say ‘West’, I don’t only mean ‘developed’, but ‘rich countries with Western cultural background’.

    It’s a bit like British/Irish people saying ‘Europe’ as if they’re not part of it – it’s more of a cultural/economical/historical mix-concept than something that’s geographically accurate.

    I’ve also found that lots of people react strangely to some other words that would be more direct – ‘developing country’ vs. ‘the West’ for example is an expression that sets off a lot of people in Europe (mostly upper middle class Brits, French and German people who forcefully try to ignore that this kind of thing exists).

    Equally, saying ‘Asia’ means the Indian subcontinent only (so India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) to many British people, who also love to throw in the Balkans and Turkey as part of the Middle East.
    Stephanie recently posted..Glenveagh National Park: Where even the sheep speak Irish

    1. You’re really right about all of this – how you name a place has a lot more to do with where you are sitting, your own angle. What i thought was truly spot on is when you say how the upper middle class are the ones who try to ignore the differences of class/privilege, I feel like that’s the same in the U.S., too, that upper middle class white people act like there are no different levels of society, whereas lower middle class and especially poorer people easily, openly and honest speak of the differences. Why do they pretend as though the differences don’t exist? Is it guilt? Or the idea that everyone could be like them if given the same opportunities in life?

  10. My understanding was that the terms “East” and “West” originated in Britain back when it was an empire that covered the globe. Everything east of England, excluding Europe, was the East (near East, far East etc.) Everything west of England was the West. Since England is no longer the Empire it was the terms are definitely outdated. In recent years the meaning seems to have drifted to something more like USA, Canada, UK, & Europe or maybe first world.

    Back home when I say “the west” I mean states in the USA with a cowboy/western culture like Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas. Here in Thailand it I think I mean all countries or cultures not asian like their term farang. I’ll have to reflect on that.

    A very thought provoking article – Thank you!

    1. Hi Pat, glad we could provoke some good thinking, challenging some outdated vocabulary. I thought of doing an analysis actually of the word ‘Farang’ vs the word ‘Gringo’ – how they both describe an ‘other’, usually white expats, but the differences in perspective that they involve as well. But that was waaaaaay too academic, so I stopped 🙂

  11. Really interesting way and a unique perspective, I never thought it that way. Seems as if the west is limited to those nations that have made it to the elite world of economic prosperity. But things are changing, with China and India now emerging as good economies, things will turn so fast, most nations will not even know it.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Journey along the Ganges

    1. Thanks Shalu, and what I wonder is that when China, India, Brazil jump in to being on par with other developed nations, what vocabulary will we use then? We can’t possible say Western then…

  12. Ooh now this is a tricky one…like Amanda comments, I generally refer to “western” as meaning “non-Asian” – and that’s about it. I’ve never really thought about what to call everything south of Arizona, let alone Africa.

    You do make sense with dividing things between north and south, but then again that would confuse me as a Brit, because when I talk about “northern” and “southern”, I’m talking about the invisible line in my own country!

    As for the BRICS countries…I don’t even know where you’d start with them. Pesky South Africa and Brazil.
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted..Gaziantep, I’m Sorry But I Despise You

    1. Hi Tom, I’m seeing from a lot of the comments, like yours, that using these geographical terms is actually totally relative to where you are looking at it from. For me, comparing north vs south is still leftover from the civil war in the United States…

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Karen 🙂 I definitely find thoughts like this coming up all the time – one of the reasons why travel is so important, if just to spark conversation between likeminded individuals and seeing how that ripples out from there.

  13. Very interesting topic as always. I’m going to have to pretend this series doesn’t exist or else it’s going to end up in every one of my ‘favourite posts’ round-ups!

    The topic of terminology when it comes to countries around the world is so tricky. It was something I thought about a lot when working as a writer at the Red Cross. The terms ‘third world’ and ‘developing countries’ are also problematic.

    When it comes to ‘East’ and ‘West;, I think it’s outdated and was also reductionist in the first place. We as humans are often so desperate to understand the world – and ourselves – that we end up labeling things. Then we’re lazy and continue to use the labels far past when they ever made sense. We do it on an individual level – holding onto preconceived notions of other people – so I guess it makes sense we do it on a grand scale too.

    For me, individuals and the world are far too complicated and changeable to ever be satisfactorily labelled.
    Victoria recently posted..Living the life you want to, not the life you think you should: inspiration from TBU

    1. Yay! You like us, you really really like us 🙂 I like your point about relying on our preconceived notions so it makes labeling easier…which, as you say, is totally lazy! The world is way too big to label, but labels are the way we talk about the world… conundrum!

  14. I guess it all depends on where you’re viewing the world from yourself. I think the term ‘western’ was originally used in a European context to differentiate itself from the Asian trading partners. It’s interesting that you see it through the eyes of America. As an Australian I consider my country to be ‘western’ because of our English heritage.
    Turtle recently posted..A close shave

    1. Exactly! I totally agree that a lot of this is perspective based…the problem is that we don’t often hear the perspective of people from Latin America and Africa, for example, so when they play a bigger role in the global conversation in terms of media exposure, then I think it’s inevitable that terms will start to really change…

  15. Coming back to it, I think the word was first invented to indicate countries consisting of Caucasian population but given the fact that migration has changed all that, its no longer valid. We often hear about “westernisation” which means modernisation or industrialisation. The word is no longer valid given the economic situation in the western world and rising economics in the Eastern.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..Top winter destinations of India

  16. I can’t find it online but I recently saw a program on this topic “What is the West” on russia today. Really interesting to see a panel discussion of this from a non traditional (for me) new source. I’ll send you a link if I can find it.
    David recently posted..Campervan Trip to Yamba

  17. Absolutely great topic. This little word things are the bane of my existence, lol. I agree and think you are right on when you say that, to most, it is just a backhanded way to say “better, richer, more civilized”. Funny how “western food” though only refers to basically American fast food?
    Scott recently posted..Should I Stay Or Should I Go

  18. // On what grounds is Latin America not considered Western? Let’s overlook for a minute the fact that the current population is primarily Mestizo (mixed indigenous and Caucasian) and Caucasian. //

    That’s just the thing. “Latin America” doesn’t exist as a meaningful concept. Uruguay is 90% European ancestry (more than the USA or Canada), whereas Honduras is only 2%. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Cuba are quite obviously Western (from the perspective of a Judeo-Christian, Roman cultural heritage). Countries like Guatemala aren’t so Western. Even within Mexico: Jalisco is Western; Chiapas is not.

    The problem is the word “Latin America” seems to imply all Latin countries are the same, when really the term has no meaning beyond a linguistic one. Jamaica and Canada both belong to Anglo-America, but no one then casually assumes they are even remotely the same.

  19. We must really stop using geographic terms to identify certain societies. Even in Europe(another one of those meaningless words) there are differences between Southern Europeans, Western Europeans, Northern Europeans, and Eastern Europeans. Who or What is a Westerner/European? A white person, Afghans and Russians can be considered white but I’m not sure we could identify them as European/Western. The Byzantine Empire was situated in Europe and yet we don’t call it Western. So neither Race or Geography determine whether one is Western or not. European and Western just means someone that holds to a certain set of cultural values, not because that is the inherent definition of them but because people changed the meaning.

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