We and They

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!

International flags

flags of the worldFor 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.

Korean student

One of the thirteen innocent victims of the "Red Pen Incident". Fortunately, she was as forgiving as she was cute.

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:

Culture

Image courtesy of The Cross-Cultural Connector: http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://thecrossculturalconnector.com.

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:

Korean clothing

And some people just seem to defy culture!

  1. Behaviors
  2. Words
  3. Customs
  4. Traditions
  5. Beliefs
  6. Values
  7. Assumptions
  8. Thought Processes
So, on that iceberg that I showed you, numbers one through four would be above the water, beliefs would fall right at the water’s surface (with a bit above and a bit below), and six through eight would be well beneath the water’s surface.  Some of the specific things that you would see at the top of the cultural iceberg are things like literature, games, traditional recipes, clothing styles, hairstyles, and dances.  Below the water would be specifics like ideas of modesty, attitudes toward different classes (although these may also manifest themselves above the surface), feelings toward personal space, roles in society, personal definitions of different ideas, and courtship practices (again, some of this is visible, but the reasons behind the practices often are not).  Be careful not to let your own culture get in the way of your creativity and/or objectivity.
To help wrap your mind around the possibilities of using culture and/or culture clash in your writing, you might gain some inspiration from one or more of these films (listed in no particular order):
  1. South Pacific
  2. An American Rhapsody
  3. My Big Fat Greek Wedding
  4. Lawrence of Arabia
  5. Zorba the Greek
  6. Lost in Translation
  7. The Gods Must Be Crazy
  8. A Passage to India
  9. Crocodile Dundee
  10. George of the Jungle
  11. Wagon’s East
  12. Babe: Pig in the City
  13. Bride and Prejudice
  14. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
  15. City of Joy
There are many more, of course, but these are just a few to get you started.  Do you know of another film that I should have mentioned?  Add it in the comments!
culture cartoon* Yes, I promised to return to Dumb Dora this week.  No, it didn’t happen.  It may never happen.  Think of it as one of life’s disappointments or, if you are an optimist, as a charming inside joke you can occasionally taunt me with in the comments:  “Hey Stephanie, how’s that post on Dumb Dora coming?”
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About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on July 3, 2011, in Authors, Poetry, Stephanie Thompson, Teaching, World Creation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Wow,.. I was trying to find some details on-line to post for the test project I am working on for issues with culture and HRD. I loved the poetry and experiencing cultural differences. Thanks for the post.
    Kiran

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