Reading Joe Henrich’s newest book I realized some things about my own life, which led me to a weird hypothesis: the WEIRDest people in the USA could very well be the children of Asian immigrant professionals in the 1970s and 1980s.
As I was growing up there was always a large cultural chasm between my parents and myself. I always attributed this to my personality, a natural individualist and liberal orientation in the broad sense. There were other children of these immigrants who were more traditionalist, after all. So there were natural dispositions that varied. At least that was my thought.
Without getting into personal details though, recently I found out that many of the young women I grew up within our family’s small Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani, social circle are not married. Most are successful professionals. In many ways far more successful than me! (e.g., I’m thinking of a girl who graduated from Yale Law, for example). There were way too many professional unmarried women to think of this cohort as “traditionalist.”
Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous observes that the vast majority of societies are much more familialist than those in the West. Westerners rely on impersonal institutions and rules and tend not to favor their families. They’re not as embedded in extended family networks and tend to focus on guilt rather than shame.
My parents have plenty of non-Western values and preferences. But when they arrived in the United States in the early 1980s they were the only members of their whole families who lived in North America. I did not grow up with a rich and nourishing extended family network, because I had no one in my family outside of the nuclear family. To be frank I grew up a bit jealous of my friends who would visit their cousins since my cousins were simply vague names and faint memories. Growing up in a small town in eastern Oregon there was no one of my notional religion and hardly anyone of my race. There were families who were well known around town, and with hindsight, I assume that they would help their nieces and nephews with summer jobs and other such things. I could not, and never did, rely on such informal networks. I lacked such networks. All I could rely on were explicit and formally objective institutions and systems.
Finally, this individuality did not just apply to me. My parents moved themselves to a foreign country without any social or familial network. In various ways, over time they rebuilt something of a non-kin community, but it took literally decades. They didn’t just have shallow roots, they had no roots. Like me, they relied on explicit formal institutions and systems. That was all they had.
Obviously it is somewhat different for later generations. The immigrants of the 1970s and 1980s sponsored their relatives. And in the 1990s a massive wave of Asians into places like Silicon Valley allowed for the emergence of genuine enclaves in a fashion that wouldn’t be imaginable in previous generations. In many ways, the Indian American Zoomers are probably more Indian than the Indian American Gen-Xers.
In any case, it’s a hypothesis to test.