An study at the University of Michigan by psychologist Richard Nisbett tracked how American and Chinese students look at pictures.
The Americans paid more attention to the foreground object, while the Chinese looked more at the background. From the report in New Scientist:
“There is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that Western and East Asian people have contrasting world-views,” explains Richard Nisbett, who carried out the study. “Americans break things down analytically, focusing on putting objects into categories and working out what rules they should obey,” he says.
By contrast, East Asians have a more holistic philosophy, looking at objects in relation to the whole. “Figuratively, Americans see things in black and white, while East Asians see more shades of grey,” says Nisbett. “We wanted to devise an experiment to see if that translated to a literal difference in what they actually see.”
Nisbett describes the focus of the two cultures as “harmony versus goals”. He also points out earlier studies showing that Chinese and Korean babies learning to talk pick up verbs more easily, while American children learn nouns first.
In the image (from the Scientific American report of the same study) American eye patterns are shown above, Chinese below.