North America from the outside in and the inside out

by on Aug.30, 2010 , under localization, random

This arti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished in slightly-edited form by Mul­ti­lin­gual mag­a­zine, Sep­tem­ber 2010 and is reprinted here with per­mis­sion. Erin Vang would like to thank Mul­ti­lin­gual for gra­ciously con­sent­ing to repub­li­ca­tion of this arti­cle in the Glob­al­Prag­mat­ica blog.

In 1998 I planned a trip to Nor­way and set about edu­cat­ing myself. In addi­tion to the usual stack of guide­books, lan­guage books, and cas­settes, I picked up a copy of Nor­way: Cul­ture Shock! A sur­vival guide to cus­toms and eti­quette. I hate being the Ugly Amer­i­can when I travel, so I wanted to learn some of the lit­tle niceties that would help me blend in.

I enjoyed the book, but it felt inside-out and back­wards to me somehow—all kinds of behav­iors and cul­tural details that I con­sid­ered nor­mal were explained as if they were com­pletely bizarre. It was aston­ish­ing to me that, for exam­ple, the book went to the trou­ble of explain­ing that you shouldn’t ask Nor­we­gians how much money they make. You shouldn’t expect Nor­we­gians to divulge much about them­selves to strangers, or even for that mat­ter to friends. When vis­it­ing a Nor­we­gian fam­ily in their home, you should decline offers of food and drink at first and only relent after repeated offers are made. Fur­ther, an offer of “cof­fee” doesn’t mean a hot bev­er­age. “Cof­fee” means a full lunch spread, with open-faced sand­wiches, a vari­ety of side dishes, per­haps some fruit soup, and at least an assort­ment of cook­ies if not cake for dessert. If you’re lucky, there will be left­over dumplings and ham, sliced and fried up together.

Well, duh! That’s nor­mal, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

I should prob­a­bly men­tion that I grew up in the snow belt of North Amer­ica in a series of small towns set­tled in large part by Nor­we­gian and Ger­man immi­grants and still pop­u­lated mostly by their descen­dants, who tell Olé and Lena jokes and would call a Norwegian-Swedish cou­ple a “mixed mar­riage.” It turns out that I grew up with a Nor­we­gian sen­si­bil­ity about things.

Even­tu­ally I turned to the “About the author” sec­tion in the back of the book and learned that she was an Asian woman who had mar­ried a Nor­we­gian man and moved to Norway.

So the book was inside-out and back­wards for me! Osten­si­bly it described Nor­we­gian cus­toms, but I learned more about which Nor­we­gian cus­toms seem odd to an Asian and in turn what the Asian norms are. I also learned how my sense of nor­mal dif­fers from the rest of North Amer­ica, because the very things she pointed out about Nor­we­gians are the traits that have made me stick out since I left the snow belt.

North Amer­ica from the out­side in

I’ve since had the priv­i­lege of trav­el­ing quite a bit in Asia and Europe as a local­iza­tion pro­gram man­ager, con­tin­u­ing my inside-out cul­tural learn­ing over din­ners and drinks with my local­iza­tion teams and in-country colleagues.

What par­tic­u­larly strikes me about Japan is its quiet, com­pact order and elab­o­rate atten­tion to man­ners, and upon return­ing home from Japan I’m always star­tled by how big, messy, and casual we Amer­i­cans are. We think noth­ing of tak­ing a sip of a beer as soon as it arrives, and if we pause for a toast, it’s just “Cheers!” with much noisy bang­ing of glasses, and no atten­tion to whose glass clinks higher or lower. We walk down office hall­ways talk­ing in full voice, we’re more likely to call some­thing sar­cas­tic into our col­leagues’ open doors than to notice whether they’re busy, and by the time we’ve gone past three people’s offices, we’ve walked past more space than a dozen com­pa­ra­ble Japan­ese office-workers would use, and all of it is messier.

Over din­ner in Korea one night I learned what I’d never noticed before in years of sam­pling Korean music, dance, and the­ater: that it reflects mil­lenia of sad­ness. Korea’s long his­tory is full of inva­sions, wars, cul­tural loss, and great depri­va­tion. Korea’s clas­si­cal and folk arts express the reserved, wary sad­ness of a peo­ple rav­aged for tens of cen­turies by neigh­bors in every direc­tion. A Korean attend­ing an arts fes­ti­val in North Amer­ica would be stunned to see singers smil­ing, actors laugh­ing, dancers frol­ick­ing, and per­form­ers of all types mak­ing joy­ful eye con­tact with their audi­ences. Korean arts serve a more impor­tant pur­pose than enter­tain­ment and fun: they remem­ber loss and strug­gle, they record per­se­ver­ance, they offer per­spec­tive about daily chal­lenges in a con­text of sur­viv­ing the unsurvivable.

North Amer­i­cans think we are famil­iar with Chi­nese food until we actu­ally visit China and are con­fronted with the real thing. Theirs is a cui­sine of poverty, mak­ing the most of scarcity by using parts of the ani­mal we call scraps, using plants we call “weeds,” and using elab­o­rate tech­niques and richly lay­ered fla­vors to make them all palat­able. We might think that “Amer­i­can food” would seem sim­ple and deca­dent to Chi­nese vis­i­tors, but in fact they are as per­plexed by our foods as we are by theirs. The thing that puz­zles them the most? That our foods come in big hunks and sep­a­rated piles—think of a din­ner at a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can steak­house, where your plate comes with a huge hunk of meat, an enor­mous baked potato, and a pile of one veg­etable, all arranged so that noth­ing is touch­ing. I was star­tled to dis­cover that the foods my Chi­nese col­leagues pre­ferred were those that min­gled meats and veg­eta­bles in one dish, all in one-fork pieces, such as a casse­role. Their com­fort had noth­ing to do with the fla­vors and every­thing to do with shapes!

North Amer­ica from the inside out

What most North Amer­i­cans prob­a­bly don’t con­sider is that we are all out­siders in North Amer­ica. Our planet’s third largest land mass after Asia and Africa is home to twenty more nations besides the biggest three, Canada, the United States, and Mex­ico. We are all out­siders in twenty-two of those coun­tries. Nar­row­ing the focus to just the US, our nation’s young his­tory is one of myr­iad immi­grant and native cul­tures set­tling tiny pock­ets of a vast con­ti­nent. Cul­tures have blended to a cer­tain extent with those of the other peo­ples in the vicin­ity, and the result­ing regional iden­ti­ties per­sist to the present. The lines are start­ing to blur in the age of national and global tele­vi­sion, radio, and inter­net, but the poten­tial for cul­tural con­flict and mis­un­der­stand­ing is far greater than many peo­ple real­ize. I’ll share a few of the more amus­ing exam­ples from my own life.

When I left my Nor­we­gian enclave in the snow belt and arrived in Chicago for grad school, I couldn’t fig­ure out why my friends never offered me any­thing to eat or drink when I vis­ited. It wasn’t until some fel­low Norwegian-Lutheran-Minnesotans from my alma mater joked about our com­mon ten­dency to turn things down three times before accept­ing that I real­ized what the prob­lem was. My friends did offer me drinks and snacks, but out of Norwegian-American habit, I always said some­thing along the lines of, “Oh, I’m fine–no, thank you.” But that was that! My friends didn’t real­ize that the first three times you offer some­thing don’t count!

I spent about a dozen years work­ing for SAS and trav­el­ing fre­quently to cor­po­rate head­quar­ters in Cary, North Car­olina. Much later I found the Cul­ture Shock! series book on the Amer­i­can South and finally began to under­stand some of my expe­ri­ences there. When my col­leagues had responded to one of my ideas with, “Bless your heart!” they weren’t grate­fully com­mend­ing my cleverness—they were say­ing, approx­i­mately, “Oh, you poor baf­fled freak… you just don’t under­stand any­thing.” When they called me “Yan­kee,” it wasn’t a slight as I thought; they were just acknowl­edg­ing that I was dif­fer­ent. When I jok­ingly called myself a “damn Yan­kee” once, I was cor­rected with a smile: “You’re not a ‘damn Yan­kee’! You’re just a Yan­kee. Damn Yan­kees are the ones who don’t leave.”

We’re all outsiders

When a friend of yours grieves a death in the fam­ily or is recov­er­ing from surgery, do you send flowers?

What on earth for? What good are the flow­ers going to do any­one? Where I’m from, we make a tuna noo­dle hot­dish com­plete with crum­bled potato chips on top, and we bring it over to the house, hot and ready to serve, in a casse­role care­fully labeled with our last name on a piece of mask­ing tape. We do this whether we like tuna noo­dle casse­role or not, because it’s what is done.

Being an out­sider in North Amer­ica is not a priv­i­lege reserved for vis­i­tors from other countries.

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