We and They by Rudyard Kipling Father and Mother, and Me, Sister and Auntie say All the people like us are We, And every one else is They. And They live over the sea, While We live over the way, But-would you believe it? --They look upon We As only a sort of They! We eat pork and beef With cow-horn-handled knives. They who gobble Their rice off a leaf, Are horrified out of Their lives; While they who live up a tree, And feast on grubs and clay, (Isn't it scandalous? ) look upon We As a simply disgusting They! We shoot birds with a gun. They stick lions with spears. Their full-dress is un-. We dress up to Our ears. They like Their friends for tea. We like Our friends to stay; And, after all that, They look upon We As an utterly ignorant They! We eat kitcheny food. We have doors that latch. They drink milk or blood, Under an open thatch. We have Doctors to fee. They have Wizards to pay. And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We As a quite impossible They! All good people agree, And all good people say, All nice people, like Us, are We And every one else is They: But if you cross over the sea, Instead of over the way, You may end by (think of it!) looking on We As only a sort of They!
For the past week (and the next six days as well), I’ve been deeply entrenched in Pre-Field Orientation, meeting with and learning with other teachers bound for such far-flung places as China (like me!), the Philippines, Kenya, Ecuador, Nigeria, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Bolivia, and Malaysia, among other places. Together, we’ve been in daily seminars learning about teaching and living cross-culturally. The topics we’ve been discussing have included the interesting phenomena of how one culture can inadvertently give offense to another, while deliberately meaning to do exactly the opposite: in other words, culture clash.
I’ll give you a couple of examples from my own cross-cultural experiences:
1. In Korea, I once finished my meal and, not having the appetite to finish my rice, stuck my chopsticks straight down into what remained of it, figuring I was making it easier for the waiter to clear the table. The Koreans around me were horrified. As a Korean friend at the table explained to me, arranging your chopsticks like that is an action that symbolizes death. The action is considered both unlucky and even offensive.
2. When grading tests for the first time as a teacher in Korea, I pulled out my trusty red pen to mark the mistakes, just as I would have in the states. One student had forgotten to put his name on the paper, so once I figured out whose test it was, I wrote his name in, also in my red ink. When I handed back the tests, the students were extremely upset, and the boy whose name I had written actually cried. I was flabbergasted! As I later found out, red ink is very unlucky, representing death, and by writing that student’s name in it, I had inadvertently cursed him.
It occurred to me today that this phenomena of accidental insult through misunderstanding culture is a fantastic situation to consider using in one’s writing. After all, if you’re creating a world, you’re going to hopefully have more than one culture in it. And as human beings give daily evidence of, where there are two or more cultures, there is plenty of room for humor, mistakes, insults, disaster . . . you could write the plot of an entire book around cultural misunderstandings alone! Our United States presidents and their families can give plenty of fodder for ideas: remember when JFK called himself a donut in Germany, and when Michelle Obama touched the queen of England?
To use culture well in your stories, you need to understand the nature of culture. It goes much deeper than skin and surface, or anything that can be read in a book. Some parts of culture can be learned about through books, some can be observed in person, and some will never be grasped by an outsider, even if you spend a lifetime with a particular group of people.
Basically, culture is like an iceberg, with only 10% of it visible at any given time:
Any time that you are creating a culture, you need to think about what elements of that culture will be readily observable to outsiders, and which ones will not. For example, in my upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes, my main characters are Glemarians. A short-term visitor to their country would quickly note that Glemarians are respectful of the elderly, that they have very fine schools, and that they have certain expected behaviors around those in power or those with prestige. After a longer visit, a guest in Glemaria might be able to see a little bit beneath the surface, and would discover that Glemarians have an unswerving and unquestioning loyalty to their monarch, and that the visible gesture of the Glemarian Acknowledgement (a type of bow that commoners do in the presence of royalty) is actually done as evidence that they are not planning treason. This same visitor might also learn the historical reason for why the nobility do not have to make the Acknowledgement. However, you would have to stay in the country for years before you would ever understand just how deep the loyalty to the monarch goes, and the massive amount of history behind this loyalty. Even then, when faced with a despot like King Haden, you may never truly understand why the Glemarians don’t just assassinate him. Deep culture can never be fully explained to outsiders.
So, when you write a story involving culture, there are things to keep in mind. If you are creating a new culture, you’ll have to decide which elements will be most visible, and which will be hardest to discern. Determine how history plays in, and how culture effects behavior. If you get stuck, reflect on your own culture (yes, even we melting-pot Americans have unique culture). How do you greet people? What topics do you consider acceptable for discussion with casual acquaintances? How do you behave when you are eating? Do you consider it rude to talk with your mouth full (some cultures don’t)? I performed an interesting experiment last week by looking at how different people respond when asked to pass the salt. I discovered that Americans over the age of 30 were more likely to pass both the salt and pepper together, whereas people under 30 generally passed just the salt. Culture can change with generations! If you are writing a story taking place in this world, you’ll probably need to do considerable research in order to write accurately about a culture other than your own.
There are tons of elements of culture, which can be summarized by these eight categories, ranked in order of visibility:
- Thought Processes
- South Pacific
- An American Rhapsody
- My Big Fat Greek Wedding
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Zorba the Greek
- Lost in Translation
- The Gods Must Be Crazy
- A Passage to India
- Crocodile Dundee
- George of the Jungle
- Wagon’s East
- Babe: Pig in the City
- Bride and Prejudice
- The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
- City of Joy