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A Ticket to the Grand Show
By Neil McKinnon
When I was young my mother encouraged me to, “Eat up your dinner because millions of people are starving in Asia.” I never questioned the underlying premise and just accepted that stuffing the last morsel of stewed kidney down my throat helped alleviate suffering around the world.
Some 60 years later I still obsessively clean my plate ... and I confess to occasionally feeling a bit smug as I imagine the warmth and good-will emanating from the many contented and well fed people on the Asian continent that I alone saved from hunger.
At least I used to. I found something amiss while working in China. I met people who thought North American mothers urged their children to clean their plates so there would be less food in the world for Chinese children. One elderly gentleman even implied that I might be personally responsible for much of the suffering he’d endured as a youngster.
I felt terrible. This was like telling Mother Theresa she’d caused the Holocaust. How could we be so dreadfully at odds? Why were these Chinese people so wrong? Or, the unthinkable—could my own beliefs be suspect? What is it that causes misunderstanding when people from different cultures come into contact?
During a late-night bar conversation one of my friends referred to the movie U-571 as “Just more Yankee crap.” No one questioned him. We knew what he was talking about. It’s a stereotypical Hollywood movie, which we all agreed had been made to glorify Americans. We understood why Canadian reviews had portrayed the movie as bad history.
It never occurred to us that our reaction was also stereotypical. Americans who didn’t like the movie didn’t think of it as Yankee crap. Reviewers who panned it in the U.S. did so for a variety of reasons including badly sketched characters and techno-babble dialogue. Why were we so quick to agree on American motives and so blind to our own patterned reactions? Could our common culture have caused us to think as one?
My wife Judy is a sansei or third generation Japanese-Canadian. Some years ago her grandfather died and I was asked to speak at the funeral in the Buddhist Church. I deemed it an honor and accepted. Judy’s mother spent a lot of time tutoring me on the pronunciation of Japanese words to be included in the formularized speech. I practised diligently and performed well, in my mind justifying their confidence in me.
It wasn’t until a few years later that Judy levelled with me. It seems the speech was to have been given by her uncle, the eldest male in the family. However, he was terrified of making a mistake and losing face. This would have embarrassed everyone. A secret meeting was called and it was decided I should be the stand-in, not because of anyone’s confidence in my ability but the opposite. I, as a hakujin or “white person,” was expected to make mistakes and so could not lose face and embarrass the family.
So misunderstandings not only occur in distant lands. They happen in our own households, or on the street or at the corner store—wherever and whenever people of differing cultural backgrounds meet and interact. They can arise during fleeting encounters with strangers or appear in our most intimate relationships.
Many are minor and cause amusement for both parties. They may even draw people closer together. Others unfortunately are a plague. They inhibit communication between people of good-will, they deny solutions when enemies negotiate and they cause pain in our personal lives.
Today the world is small and interconnected. Differences are impossible to avoid. The future depends on people who are not only able to move beyond their country’s borders but who can exceed the boundaries of their own culture.
This raises questions. What is culture? Why does our own sometimes imprison us and why is that of others so hard to understand? How do we acquire a ticket to the grand show of intercultural experience? Will doing so eliminate misunderstanding? Is the result worth the effort? Will I gain or lose in the attempt?
Culture means many things: to some it’s behaviour or the way people act, to others it’s values or what people believe in and to many it’s buildings and monuments. Still others say its religion, customs, rituals and language. We are safe in saying it’s all these things including the way they are tied together. That’s why cultures are complex. Understanding them is like looking at an iceberg. Only a small part can be seen. The remainder is locked away beneath the surface.
All this is fine so long as no conflict arises. When it does—as soon as I feel tension, or am hurt, angry or uneasy when encountering someone from another culture—then, as it is the nature of a given not to be challenged, the problem becomes the other’s fault. I simply reach out and grab the handiest stereotype I can find—hackneyed old saws such as:
1. Japanese people are two-faced,
2. American children are spoiled, or
3. Mexicans are lazy.
The stereotype comes into play not because it necessarily contains truth but because it mirrors what I know—my own culture. So in the foregoing examples I am really reflecting:
1. The lack of importance that most Canadians place on harmony,
2. My (and other Canadians) concept of child raising, and
3. The rules of labor and work ethic I learned growing up in Canada.
Lack of understanding is a wind that blows in two directions. The problem is it’s difficult to agree on just what the differences are let alone reconcile them. It all depends on who is stereotyping who. Using my examples:
A Japanese might say Canadians are too adversarial and aggressive, an American might say Canadians stifle their children’s self-expression and creativity, and a Mexican might say that Canadians spend too much time running around in circles trying to get everything done by yesterday.
Yes, we are different and yet we’re all human—a contradiction that our value system sometimes has trouble with. Thus, in order to tackle cultural misunderstandings we should try and suspend value judgements as much as possible. I must also accept that my givens are not absolute.
For a truly enlightening experience I must be prepared to examine my premises whenever they collide with those of a foreigner. I must become aware of the discordant nature of our verities and make myself enter the other’s world. I need to try to understand other people’s givens. The variety in the world is itself exciting, and each culture has its own truths which may not necessarily jibe with mine.
I once encountered an illustration of how difficult this can be. In her wonderful book, A Daughter of the Samurai, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto recounts an ancient Japanese myth. It concerns a lady who lives in a castle and nightly entertains a secret lover. Every evening she lowers the drawbridge so her lover can visit. Eventually she decides she’d be better off finding a paramour within the ranks of court nobility and devises a plan to end the current relationship. She waits for a snow storm and deliberately neglects to lower the drawbridge so when her lover comes he falls to his death.
The upshot of the myth is that the lady was fickle but not wicked. After all her lover’s death is really due to nature—had it not been storming he would have seen the danger. Therefore she bears little responsibility as it really was the fault of the weather. Sugimoto, writing in 1925, states, “It was the storm that caused his death.”
The story jumped from the ranks of quaint myth when I happened across an article in The Japan Times. It reported on the trial of a Hiroshima man who had been charged in the death of his four year-old son. The boy had been acting up at the dinner table and the father punished him by pouring water over him and locking him naked on the veranda in freezing weather. The boy died of exposure. The court found the father not guilty of manslaughter and stated there was no clear connection between the father’s acts and his son’s death.
As a Westerner I have difficulty with this. Steeped in our own justice and accountability traditions I don’t think I will ever really understand. It’s difficult not to lapse into stereotypes. To my way of thinking the court was exhibiting cultural behaviour that hadn’t changed substantively in hundreds of years. You can begin to grasp the difficulty involved in any attempt to get a handle on someone else’s givens.
The excursion to a foreign land is occasionally daunting. It requires travel on planes, boats, trains, buses or automobiles. But there is a trip I can take without leaving home, the trek to identify my givens. The latter journey is sometimes painful and will never be complete. I’ll often backslide into stereotypes.
Though the geography of culture is complex each of us carries a map. It shows the way to one of the great wonders of the world—the theatre of life’s experience—and playing there every day is the grand show of human diversity. My ticket includes transportation. The vehicles that will take me are patience, wonder and a sense of humor.