Cultural Differences are the Spice of… the World

I have the very good fortune of being surrounded by a wealth of culturally different people.  It’s given me some interesting perspectives to think about.  Even if you don’t write about humans, this information is pretty useful when you’re considering having different cultures clash (I have a very deep thread of “elemental” culture in my Worldtree series– the different races of Elves have their whole lives shaped by it).

I know I have a few revisions to do… so let me know if you have other examples!  I’m born and raised in so-upstate-I-could-spit-on-Canada New York, so I have an admittedly narrow world-view (my every piece of knowledge is shaped by my upbringing).  I know I’ve gotten readers in Canada, Russia, the UK, Greece, Germany, Jordan, and the Phillipines- so feel free to share!  I’d actually really love to hear some non-American opinions!

I am trying to keep this as neutral as possible, which means it’s going to be a little lot general in some places (talking about race is just plain difficult).

For my specific observations on Jordan, go here.

For other, random stuff, continue reading…

  • I was informed by a South American exchange student that “American” doesn’t necessarily just mean the US.  It includes, depending how you look at it, all of the North, Central, and South Americas.  Now, “United-Statesian” isn’t a thing (nor should it be, because that sounds stupid) but it is interesting to know that someone, somewhere, might have this opinion.
  • Entrails and byproducts for one race are delicacies for another.  Fish eyes and fish lips may disgust me, but there are people who will fight over them because they’re the rarest part of the meal.  On that note, there are some cultures that eat weird things as a matter of boastful pride.  It’s like Fear Factor, but for a whole sub-culture.
  • On the subject of weird food… some of the stereotypes of Americans are hilarious (I’d love to hear more!).  My friend went to an “American diner” in Germany (coincidentally, her family owns a diner stateside) and they asked her if it was accurate.  Somewhere between the moose head and the rampant flags, though, they got it a little comically exaggerated.
  • There are a lot of foreign students here.  They have a very obvious connection if they come from the same place, and it’s quite common for them to form cliques (lots of immigrants back in the day, from all sorts of different places, tended to group together into ghettos– I’d guess this is how Little Italys and China towns came to be).  There are little networks all over campus of Chinese, Russians, Indians, Iranians, etc.  But as a result, a whole lot of them don’t speak and therefore don’t learn English as fast or as well as they could.
  • Okay, so that last one is wholly unsurprising… but I did know a girl who realized she had come to the US for school for the experience, and to learn, and she made a very conscious effort to blend.  Her habits were far more American, and her English was leagues better than her peers (the generally accepted benchmark here for mastering a language is the ability to swear in a grammatically correct way).
  • Similarly, I’ve met/ heard about a lot of older immigrants who turned into some of the most patriotic people I know.  The immigrants in my family were so proud to come to America that they flat-out refused to speak their native language, even if a grandchild just asked what a word was.  They saw coming here as a privilege, and chose to honor it that way.  This seems to be true more of those that assimilated into more “American” neighborhoods, rather than the cultural ghettos that people from their home country congregated in.
  • Customs include a lot of things you wouldn’t think of.  Some cultures don’t think it’s rude to not hold a door.  Some know that “please” and “thank you” are implied in what they say, and won’t say it explicitly.  Some terribly hot countries make deodorant a losing battle, and they don’t notice body odor or make an effort to combat it.  There are some professors who, in talking to foreign students, will tell them about these habits, and point out that Americans actually care about them, because it’s honestly something that’s hard to pick up independently.
  • I’ve heard complaints that American-made things tend to impress American values on the heroes.  The example there was 300.  A lot of movies with Vikings for heroes also show a very skewed view of them (there’s supposed to be the HEROES, after all).  Another example is the new Conan (SPOILERS: the new one says nothing about Conan having been a slave, since he was abandoned for dead instead of captured like in the original movie, so there’s no reason for him to care about freedom).
  • One of the most profound things I realized in Jordan was how very, very, very American I am when I saw, for the first time, a woman in a burqa.  Now, the media here told me since childhood, in no uncertain terms, that these women were forced to hide their faces and were denied educations and had no civil liberties and so on and so forth.  In some places, this is the case, but the media never told me it wasn’t everywhere.  Was the woman in a burqa a random passer-by?  No.  She ended up presenting the scientific poster directly next to mine.  She was on her way to a PhD, just like me, and there were plenty of others like her.  I’ve met people here in the US that hate whatever garb was forced on them back home, but guess what… they’re also PhD students.  Sometimes bad things happen, and there are bad places, but that isn’t always the rule, and that was a very big lesson for me on cultural awareness.

In closing, if you’re going to write about a different culture, be keenly aware of where that person comes from.  A recent immigrant or visitor is going to be far more set in the ways of the old country (and might think it’s strange that people hold doors or get offended by body odor or a lack of thanks).  A more experienced person will have a better chance of knowing these things, but it may depend on how immersed they became.

Conversely, an American might think it rude to have the door slam on them, or not be thanked, or to be surrounded by BO- even if they’re just in a very culturally diverse area of the US- because they aren’t culturally aware.  I was surprised shocked astonished floored amazed (words really don’t do that revelation justice) to see burqas on PhDs- a quirk that would fit nicely in a book, somewhere, I’m sure.

If you’re going to write about a specific culture, make sure you’re careful about whether you use their values or your own.  Also be sure of whether you’re impressing a sub-culture’s values on the whole of the race (a lot of stereotypes are actually based on highly publicized sub-cultures).  And make sure your media’s view isn’t horribly skewed.  Do your research.



DISCLAIMER: Commenting on cultural differences is not the same as putting one on a pedestal and spitting on the others.  I embrace cultural differences; it makes life interesting and can make your writing that way too.  These are casual observations, and I’m not trying to make broad generalizations (which is part of why I left out race wherever possible).  So… no offense meant, in any way.  Correct me if I’ve made an error- but keep in mind you can’t correct my experiences.

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