March 17, 2010

Understanding Other Cultures

Individuals generally categorize their beliefs into one of two groups: opinion or fact. A fact is a piece of information that is accepted as definitively true. An opinion is a belief that leaves room for contemplation.

When individuals grow up they are taught which pieces of information are facts and which ones are opinions. They think about these opinions, trying to find their own belief within them, but it never occurs to them to go through this same explorative process with “the facts,” they’ve been taught to accept. They are what they are, end of story. As a result, what many do not realize is there are very few actual facts. This can be seen by venturing into other countries and observing that the “facts” upon which other cultures live their lives are completely different from their own. This concept is one that is discussed in a variety of disciplines including: anthropology, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and literature, but it cannot be fully grasped until delving into another culture.

Even in America, where all the major cities have miniature versions of countries, multicultural diversity is embraced at universities, and citizens are taught from birth that “we are all created equal,” there are ways of living we have failed to consider. For example, in America bestiality is culturally and socially beyond consideration. In rural parts of Northern Colombia, men are taught to engage in intercourse with donkeys starting from the time they become pubescent and extending into old age.

Many people believe that by traveling to another country: interacting with its people and learning about its history that they can come to understand its culture. But culture is not defined by characteristics, but is as deep-rooted as perception. What certain cultures accept as fact, what they accept as opinion and why. Without realizing it, much of the way Americans perceive is attributed to the protestant foundation of the country. What shapes the way a culture perceives the world cannot be attributed to one tangible factor, it is attributed to countless influences that are often so diffused into the mentality of its people they are not even acknowledged. It is an overall environment, approach, and way of thinking that becomes engrained in the people emotionally and logically.

In China, when explaining certain American cultural customs or mentalities to the Chinese they never fully understood. It was not because linguistically, I was unable to translate. It was because to understand these concepts, they needed to re-define pieces of information they had always accepted as fact as opinion. The potential of needing to redefine truths upon which they’d lived their lives bred so much discomfort that they did not allow themselves to even consider the possibility. This resistance arouse in the presentation of “facts” from as arbitrary as how often utensils should be washed to when it is and is not appropriate to express emotions. Once when I was living with a host family in China, I told my host mom that the Spanish eat lunch at three p.m. She screamed back at me “three!” then said “NOOOOO.” I said in a calm voice, “yes, three.” She held up three fingers in my face and repeated “threee!!!.” I said “the Spanish live very differently than the Chinese.” She rolled her eyes and with doubt still lingering, I dropped the subject. The Chinese do not understand the concept of subtlety. In America, if someone looks weird you quietly whisper or motion to a friend and then your friend discretely looks as though he's interested in something near by. In China, they point usually screaming meiguoren (american) to all the people they're with. Then, they stare ...for as long as they want. Sometimes they even take pictures, without asking. Americans might think its rude to point, but the Chinese don’t understand why you would subtly reference.

The inability to fully understand the way other cultures perceive creates misunderstanding and misinterpretation. But, do not fear! There are ways to achieve a more sincere and deeper understanding of different cultures. The first is to realize the depth to which people vary culture to culture. The second is to learn the language. While many of the Chinese I encountered resisted to the consideration of American mentalities, with an understanding of why they were resisting (a feeling of discomfort) and my gaining a knowledge of Chinese traditions, I was able to guide my Chinese friends to consider not necessarily a “right way,” but just a “different way.” This would not have been possible without a respect for the deep-rooted differences in perception that define our cultures or an ability to communicate with them in Chinese.

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