Finally, the next in Norman’s series of articles on culture.
There are several definitions of pride, ranging from having a high level of self-esteem to possessing or holding a righteous view of oneself to the exclusion of almost all others. Interestingly, prejudice is defined as a feeling of like or dislike for someone or something especially when it is not reasonable or logical. So, does being prideful or prejudicial necessarily mean that someone is a bad person, ignorant, or someone that should be condemned for his or her likes or dislikes? Not necessarily, after all, in this day and age of “political correctness” that is, chastising anyone for being judgmental, doesn’t everyone have a certain amount of pride or prejudice for or against one thing or another? Because of the many terrible events that have occurred in regards to race relations both in the U.S and other countries around the world that have garnered lots of media attention recently, “prejudice” has acquired the negative aspect of the definition. Unfortunately when any word is constantly associated negatively, the negative association can dominate.
Consider this. Language is neutral, without bias or agenda of its own. It is the way people chose to use language that gives words their meaning and connotation. For example, I have a love of Jazz music. An even stronger one for Latin Jazz. In other words, I have a prejudicial preference for jazz just as I have bias against the use of foul and offensive language or behavior in public.
One of the benefits about traveling or living in other countries is that you get to learn so much about other cultures. What is surprising, however, is how that experience can change you. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, if you are exposed to a different culture other than your own, at some point you will to begin to see your own culture through different eyes.
Does this mean that you have to accept and adapt to every aspect of another culture? I can’t remember meeting anyone who was so accepting and unbiased that no matter how someone expressed themselves culturally, that person accepted them entirely and wholeheartedly without reservation of any sort. We’re all products of our upbringing and our cultural views. And, there are instances where we must use our judgement (sometimes referred to as our gut feeling) to keep us safe. There are also times when experiencing another culture causes strong emotional reactions for or against what one has experienced. A quick example is when I was living and studying abroad. I recall that on the subway train, I found it very rude that people would stare at me for long periods of time. Being in a country where I was a rarity made people very curious and one way they expressed this was to stare. But I mean staring in a way that in the U.S. is considered very rude if not threatening. There are other examples that I could give that are much cruder, but the purpose here is not to incite but to elucidate.
As in any culture, there will be things that one will embrace and others that one will reject. People are not perfect and will create stories to either explain away something of another culture’s habits or practices or to show a difference between their own. In a way, one could equate this to myths. Not the myths of fables, story tellings, folklore or saga but the “false beliefs” that most cultures create in order to explain away things they don’t understand of another culture’s expressions. So where am I going with all of this? Well, for me, in order to be able to travel abroad and do so in a way that allows me to have positive memorable experiences, I must free myself of the debilitating negative prejudicial stereotypes that I bring from my own culture. Once you can get to that point you will find that those negative views previously held by you, free you of the stress, doubt, fear and reactionist behavior that can make traveling a horrible experience that you never want to repeat again.
Educating oneself of another people’s culture is the surest way of beginning to understand and appreciate them. Although I was brought up in a small, impoverished neighborhood, I did have exposure to a few other cultures but what really opened my eyes and mind was when I was exposed to so many people from around the world during my undergraduate college days. One of my most memorable learning experiences (and rather humorous but embarrassing story) was when I was attending a student-run international dinner on campus.
As part of the evening’s dinner entertainment, an international exchange student from Brazil played and sang to what then was still immensely popular Brazilian Bossa Nova music on his acoustic guitar. His playing and singing was very exciting for me as I was familiar with that genre of music, having listened to recordings by Charley Bird and Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Sergio Mendez and Brazil ’66 and other great jazz musicians as well as original versions by the creators of the genre, Tom Jobim and Astrud Gilberto. I loved it! After the exchange student’s wonderful performance, I got the chance to ask him the following question: “I was listening to you singing and was wondering; is Brazilian a mixture of Spanish and French? I can understand some Spanish words in your language but I can’t understand any of the rest”. Well, as you can immediately tell, I had no clue that Brazilian was not a language but a people from the country of Brazil. Their language, Portuguese was what I was completely ignorant of. The young man was very gracious and patiently and gently educated me on the subject. While I felt completely humiliated and embarrassed for my own ignorance, I at least walked away enlightened with the thought that not too many of my fellow students had noticed my faux pas. One thing I now know is not to make assumptions when it comes to other languages. Although I have been studying French for some time now, I am learning how words that are similar in Spanish take on an entirely different meaning and usage in French. So I now approach my studies of the French language with an open mind and without making too many assumptions of what a word or phrase means, or how it it used.
On my first trip to France (a long time ago), I recall walking down a charming narrow street in one of the older sections of Avignon. As I was passing a small Bistro, an attractive young girl was standing on the side walk in front of the Bistro inviting passersby to stop in and give it a try. As I approached her, she greeted me in a beautiful sing-song lilting French, inviting me to go in. Although I did understand her, but having studied very little French at the time, I simply told her that I was sorry but that I didn’t speak French. To my surprise she replied “mais, pourquoi pas?vous êtes en France.” (but why don’t you speak French? You ARE in France.) All I could do was to say “yes, it’s true, it’s true. This little encounter made me realize that while it certainly is impractical to learn every language of every country that one would like to visit, at least learning a few courteous words and phrases goes a long way to making one’s travel much more pleasant. Traveling in a country that doesn’t speak your language can be challenging.
A more recent encounter was when Cheryl and I went to a small but famous French restaurant in Lyon to enjoy our first quenelles, invented by the chef/owner of the restaurant. Having dressed appropriately to enjoy an evening meal and at least trying to order our meal in French, the waiter instantly realized we were not French and also didn’t speak much French, nevertheless he treated us respectfully and provided excellent service. On the other hand, a fellow American who was dress rather causally, walked in sometime after we were seated and tried to have a long, friendly personal chat with the bartender and another waiter telling them both that he was an American from Texas. Speaking loudly, he went on telling them about his life, travels in France, and other more personal details about himself and his wife. Both the bartender and the waiter glanced at each other with the slightest rising of their brows and rolling eyes. Needless to say, there wasn’t any seating available and they let him know it albeit with as much courtesy as they could muster. In France, the French never speak so casually to anyone they do not personally know. And so, to the bartender and the waiter, the Texan came off rather rude, pretentious, and uncultured.
A little preparation goes a long way. Traveling is stressful. Planning, packing, financing, budgeting, timing, making connections, and all of the myriad details that need to be attended to as well as the unexpected and the “accidental” things that can and do go wrong, must be dealt with, willingly or not. By educating yourself about all the important aspects of your trip beforehand, you can eliminate most of the uncertainty and stress thereby gaining confidence and strength to overcome your fears and doubts. This same practice works when you educate yourself about another culture. Even a small effort can pay large dividends.
In my next post, I’ll recount a story whose humble beginnings lead to a long and fruitful relationship.