Monday, July 19, 2010

Crossing Cultures

Cliff Krieger recently blogged about a British custom whereby if a ceremony is going to open the doors at 5:30 p.m. for an actual 7:00 p.m. event., it is advertised as such. He wrote that the British way "takes the guesswork out of things" even if it does not allow for a more casual approach to living.

If by expressing a like for that custom, he meant that he preferred it (I don't want to infer too much or place words in another author's mouth), then I'll say this: I could not agree more.

As someone who entered into a legal marriage just over a week ago, but who had the knots tied (literally) around his wrists on Friday in a traditional Cambodian ceremony prior to a hybrid Eastern-Western style reception Saturday, I've definitely been thinking about balance today.

And in fact, the concept of needing some sort of *balance* is pretty much the one thing that nearly all the recognized Great Works of philosophy and religion have in common. Whether it's the idea of yin and yang, the passages in Ecclesiastes that inspired the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" or the many tenets of Buddhism that call for meditation towards achieving balance and stability, it's in there somewhere.

This is no doubt, an amazing city in an amazing country. Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan be damned, what makes us great is the diversity that has been part of our national fabric since before we were really a defined 'nation.' The diversity that has come since the mid-1960s, which has greatly increased the Asian and Latin American *flavor* of the nation, plays a hugely constructive role in modern America.

And those cultures bring us many great things...which is why we should embrace them.

By and large, we do; and if you really feel that we don't, and you honestly believe that America ranks high on the world's scale for xenophobia, you need to get out and see more of the world.


And then come back and let me know what you think.

All THAT said, there are so many phenomenal things about Khmer culture that I am excited to wholeheartedly embrace -- the emphasis on family, the communal spirit of warmth, the cultural traditions, food, music, dancing, etc. I can embrace those things in a totally non-defensive way: rather than take away from anything else I associate with my identity, I believe they just add to it and make it better. I hope that we have kids someday who feel the same way, and I expect them to spend enough time with grandma to be fluent in Khmer -- not just linguistically, but culturally, too.

But now that all THAT has been said, I think there are some aspects of the traditional Anglo-American culture that I prefer. I, too, value my time as a precious, non-renewable resource and generally appreciate knowing when I can expect things to happen. If someone tells me to hurry up and be somewhere because I absolutely must be ready to leave by 2, and then I end up sitting around on my hands for three hours because we don't really leave until 5, I tend to want those three hours back (and yes, I've learned to always bring a book or magazine in tow to be ready for precisely those situations). Ditto for a dinner, a wedding reception, or anything else. I completely understand the 15-minute leeway rule, but if you and I are meeting up for lunch, my general expectation is that you're at least going to make the effort to be on the way by our mutually agreed-upon time. And I would do the same for you out of respect; maybe this is just the career military officer in me, but at the end of the day, that's what punctuality is really all about -- respect for someone else's time.

I also appreciate our frankness. A friend of mine has a brother who frequently travels to Japan for business. Over there, he is endlessly frustrated by the cultural tradition whereby people are ashamed to say 'no' to a request. As you might imagine, that makes business situations extremely challenging. It's like, if I say, "Can you have a crew of 10 people here in this spot ready to work by tomorrow at 8:00 a.m.?" and you're going to say "Yes" no matter what, how can I really know what you're saying?

Also, something that we take for granted sometime is the way our society teaches us about cause and effect. That may sound so simple as to be a bit ridiculous, but again, expose yourself to enough different ways of thought and you might see why a cause and effect concept is sort of like air, water, or money -- not that important until you feel there's not enough of it around you.

So back to the main idea here -- the ideal we should strive for is to take the aspects we most admire from other cultures, embrace and adopt them, and enrich ourselves and those around us as a result. At the same time, it should be absolutely acceptable to acknowledge that there are elements of our own culture worth holding on to at the same time.

In other words, the street should always have two lanes open for traffic.

I love my wife, I love her family, and I love her culture. I embrace all three strongly, and simultaneously.

But if you and I have lunch plans for 11:00, and I haven't seen or heard from you by 11:15, I'm going to go ahead and order.


Jaybee said...

Great comments on cross culturalism. We seem to be lacking in tolerance in this area.

C R Krieger said...

Smack on regarding cross culturalism.  Learn and grow.  And remember.  On Friday I was sitting outside and crossed my legs and then crossed them the other way because in Thailand it is impolite to point the sole of your foot at another person.  I think respect for others gets us a lot, but it means thinking about how they see things.  And sometimes you have to cut a deal—even when it is between Southern California and Wisconsin, as is the case with my wife and myself.

And, again, congratulations and welcome to Lowell as a couple, and don't go running off to the suburbs.

Regards  —  Cliff

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the wedding, what an interesting and thoughtful post.