When graphic designer Yang Liu moved from Beijing to Berlin at age 13, she found herself in culture shock. “I discovered — almost on a daily basis — that things were quite the contrary of what I was used to, starting with social customs and extending all the way to fundamental ways of thinking,” Liu writes in East Meets West, her newest book, published by Taschen. In it, she visualizes the cultural differences she noticed over the years in contrasting pairs of pictograms.
With red symbolizing China and blue representing the West, Liu uses her knack for witty visual metaphor to illustrate everything from understandings of the self to uses of umbrellas and attitudes towards karaoke. When talking about cultural differences, there’s often a fear of saying the wrong thing or perpetuating stereotypes, and Liu’s graphics lighten up the discussion. What began as a visual diary is now meant as a playful guide for people who find themselves lost in translation.
After all, the kind of culture shock Liu illustrates can be hard to navigate and articulate. “There were countless times when I was variously confused, surprised, annoyed, and shocked — or when I simply had to laugh,” Liu writes in the book’s introduction. “Only years later was I able to see and understand many of these situations from both sides.”
Since it’s comprised of minimalist pictograms, the book can’t help but oversimplify complex phenomena; researchers have conducted countless studies about the differences in self-concept in Asian versus American cultures, for instance, and about societal attitudes towards the elderly, about social customs regarding expressing emotions, and other topics illustrated in Liu’s book. But here, 4×6 graphics sum up in single images what such studies spend thousands of words picking apart. “I hope to help other people avoid some of the stumbling blocks to communication between cultures and make it easier for them to arrive at the essence of communication — the exchange between individuals — as far as possible without misunderstandings,” Liu writes.