Can I Rehabilitate the Trope of East Meets West?

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One of the lasting tropes from 20th-century pulp fiction is of the city where “East meets West,” places like Shanghai and Hong Kong. There’s a romanticism to that idea of a wealthy, cosmopolitan, dangerous city where the rules aren’t quite what you’d expect—but obviously all of it is rooted in extremely racist colonial and orientalist treatments of Asians as uncivilized Others and their land as a place to impose Western culture by force.

My question is: is there a way to use some of these tropes, to capture the romance and mystery of those old settings, without replaying and reinforcing the hateful dynamics they were originally founded on? Or is the whole concept best just tossed out as a whitewash of colonialism?



Hey N, thanks for writing in!

You’re absolutely right that most of these classic “East Meets West” stories are at best full of orientalist exotification, and while I’m by no means an expert, I suspect rehabilitating them would be an extremely tall order.

The core problem is that these stories rely on a non-white culture to provide novelty, and doing that is always going to be problematic, even if you lean away from the idea of Asian culture being inherently dangerous and unlawful. It’s certainly possible to write a story about a city where two cultures meet, but using the less powerful culture for novelty is probably never going to work.

I think the closest we could get is to flip the script and have someone from the less powerful culture venture into the lands of a more powerful culture. This character could certainly see things that would appear exotic to them, since the more powerful culture is wealthier and can use that wealth to build cool stuff. At the same time, there’s an inherent element of danger, since not only does your protagonist not know the rules of this exotic land, but they’re probably under heavier scrutiny on account of being a foreigner.

Of course, flipping the script like this doesn’t erase the difficulties of portraying another culture respectfully, which we have an entire blog series on. If you want to do this, my recommendation is to use a parallel, just to be on the safe side. Maybe your protagonist is a human visiting an elven city for the first time? The great crystal nodes are like nothing they’ve ever seen, but they have difficulty navigating the elves’ arcane laws about magic.

You’d still need to make sure the elves aren’t an obvious stand in for some real-world group, but that’s usually easier than trying to portray a culture you aren’t part of.

Hope that helps, and good luck with your writing!

– Oren

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  1. E. H.

    I think there’s a difference between “character goes to an unfamiliar place and certain things about it seem weird to them” and “normal person goes to weird place.”

    Be clear that the unfamiliar place is some people’s home and very familiar to them. Customs make sense if you understand the purpose and history.

  2. Sam Victors

    What exactly is the East meets West trope? I couldn’t find it on tv tropes

  3. Jenn H

    “There’s a romanticism to that idea of a wealthy, cosmopolitan, dangerous city where the rules aren’t quite what you’d expect”

    I would say that pretty much describes every city worldwide with a population over a couple of million.

    A story about someone adjusting to a foreign culture can be done well, especially if you are familiar with both cultures involved. But I would avoid playing up the differences too much, instead focus on a few things that are actually unique about that city.

    In many ways big cities everywhere are quite similar. Most cultural exchange happens through big cities. Governments rule from big cities, including the old colonial powers, bringing the same cultural influence to them all. Cities tend to be where migrants settle and tourists visit. New technology is adopted in cities first, then spreads to the rest of the country. There are super rich and desperately poor people in every city. Organised crime gangs tend to have branches in multiple major cities.

    Small towns though, those tend to be special. You might get more of a culture shock going from a big city to a tiny town than you would going to a city in a foreign country.

    • Cay Reet

      Today, big cities are all pretty multicultural, but the trope came about long before trips per plane became the norm and people regularly travelled around the globe for work or vacation time. At that time, there was a severe difference between life in London and life in Tokyo (to choose a place with no influence from Britain) and, thus, setting a story in Tokyo was creating instant exotic flavours. The problem was that the authors rarely researched the culture they portrayed, they just wrote what they thought life in other places was like – and a lot of them added a strong dose of arrogance about how their own western culture was better than that of the people in whatever place they showed.

      You can use a city from somewhere completely different, no question about that, but there are a few types of stories which you should think twice about telling there – such as stories where the western main character brings ‘civilisation’ to another culture (less likely with Asian settings today, but still likely with African settings) or where traditions are just used to spice things up without keeping to what they are really about for the culture in question. In short, avoid stories which put the local culture on a lower level than the culture you’re from yourself (especially if you happen to be from Europe or North America).

      • Jenn H

        Even back before air travel through, cities were often quite multicultural. Some places could be quite isolationist at times (such as Japan), but trade and exchange of ideas as occured between the East and West for two thousand years.

        The cultural differences are still significant. But I think authors tend to exaggerate said differences to make the setting more exotic. They also might idealise their own culture in comparison as well.

    • Michael Campbell

      The film; In The Heat Of The Night does a great job of showing small town rules:- being different.

      A homicide cop from Philadelphia should know all the rules.
      And he does…for Philadelphia.
      But Sparta ain’t Philadelphia.

  4. Paul C.

    I’d be interested in people’s reflections on “Shogun” (1975 novel). That is definitely a West meets East story, but with the East as the dominant power and as the exotic milieu of the story.
    I read it when it came out (sigh) and still recall it as a fascinating introduction to a culture about which I had no idea at the time except through bad WWII movies. I remember thinking that Blackthorne (the English protagonist) imagined he would be more important than he was — whereas the real hero was Toranaga (loosely based on Tokugawa). A wave of “Hey, the Japanese are pretty interesting and cool” swept the country (I exaggerate, but lots of people talked about it and became a mite more positively interested in foreign cultures — remember, only 30 years after WWII, two years after U.S. troops withdrawn from Vietnam, and no internet).
    Also, Jenn H. has a great point — moving to a small town from a big city can definitely bee a culture shock. And is a good start to more than a few horror stories.

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