ASIAN YOUTH: CAUGHT BETWEEN CHANGE AND TRADITION

The letter to "The Reader's Forum" of Singapore's Female magazine in some ways illustrates the continuing hold of tradition on an otherwise "liberated" young Asian woman.

The writer has her own car and business. Yet she does not feel able to reject her husband's adherence to the "old way" of placing loyalty to his parents above loyalty to his wife.

"Confused Wife" is caught in the struggel between change and tradition that has swept across much of Asia. She does not know which way to turn.

Other evidence of how Asian young people blend change and tradition comes in a recently released survey by the advertising agency McCann-Erickson.

The study is based on extensive interview with samples of urban young people, ranging in age from 15 to 25, in Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Results are compared with similar studies done earlier in Japan, Australia, and Western Europe.

The study, outlined recently in Singapore, found remarkable similarity of response in all seven states, constrasting significantly with both Europe and Australia -- and often with Japan.

It showed that Asian youths are on the whole more conservative and tradition bound, despite drugs and an influx of cassette tapes, disco music, Western movies, and fashionable clothes. The study measured only city attitudes and statements, not actions. Still, its organizers think the intensive interviewing was adequate to conclude that many stereotypes concerning Asian youths are wrong.

In Hong Kong the streets teem with young people wearing stylish jeans. At night many of them wriggle and sway to the beat of discos.

In Singapore newspapers are full of attacks on the selfish behavior of young workers who discontently "job hop" from employer to employer. One stereotype of Thai youths paints a picture of hedonistic young men roaming from one message parlor to another.

In Indonesia the stylishly manicured sons of the wealthy are often seen entertaining their girlfriends at expensive coffee shops.

Bottles and cans litter streets and trash bins all over the region.

In short, it appears the youths of Asia have kicked over the traces of tradition and wholeheartedly endorsed what their elders might see as the decadent, hedonistic, materialistic ways of the West.

But like the letter to Female magazine, the McCann-Erickson study suggests that Asian youths hold on to their traditions, even as their living conditions change.

The study concludes that Asian youths show high moral sense, little taste for the radical, diligene as workers, concern for others, a strong sense of national pride, and a greater respect for their heritage than are often reflected by other youths. They also have a tendency to think of the group before themselves.

On the other hand they are fun-loving, acquisitive, lovers of travel, receptive to advertising, style-conscious, and drawn to television, movies, and radio. They also like to spend money on simple pleasures.

In sum, they adopt many Western customs, sytels, and possessions while retaining traditional Asian attitudes. Youth across the region these days frequently date and stay out late at discos and coffee shops. Young women wear provocative clothes that would have made their mothers blush.

One deeply ingrained stereotype of Asian youths is that they work hard, whether in the rice field, factory, or office. But some older hands don't necessarily agree.They have taken to complaining that younger workers too often shirk their duties, lack initiative, or can't hold responsibility.

The McCann-Erickson study provides no conclusive answer on this question. But of the Asian youths surveyed, an average of 96 percent thought it wrong to stay away from work or school other than for health reasons. Twenty-eight percent said they might do it.

Materially, the youths of the seven Asian states lag far behind their counterparts in Japan, Australia, and Western Europe.

Some 5 percent of the respondents own a TV (Japan 40 percent, Australia 21 percent, and Western Europe 22 percent). Only 7 percent own a hi-fi (Japan 42 percent, Australia 29 percent, Europe 31 percent). The number who own watches is pegged at 67 percent and cassette recorders 20 percent. Five percent said they owned cameras. Another 2 percent own motorcycles and 2 percent own cars.

But hanging over all this is the revolutionary shadow of the jet plane.

"We've just come back from Thailand. Before that we went to Taiwan and Malaysia," explained a young secretary for a Hong Kong company. "My husband works in a factory, and we save our money."

The woman lived modestly in a low-rent "squatters hut." It had no running water, a communal toilet, and little that could be called modern. "It is very important to travel before we have our first child," she said.

But the new practice can also split families. "My mother wants me to settle down, and save my money to buy a house for our first child," one Malaysian reader complained to Female magazine. "But I don't want to be bound by the old way. I want to travel now. It is my only chance."

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