Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Our Better Selves

It can be easy to underestimate the power of "cultural misunderstandings," and "language barriers."  In truth, many of them are likely subtle, but subtleties add up and they shade the space between people and groups of people.  Perhaps the best antidote to this is to always assume that the other party has the best intentions, that any perceived bad intention or offense is merely the cause of cultural misunderstandings or language barriers.  They happen all the time.  All the time.  Today one occurred that struck me as interesting.

I was backstage putting away my cello from the morning rehearsal and the host from the last week's tempura party came up to me and said in unsure English, "Please give me 500 yen for the tempura party."  This was both a cultural difference and a way of using language that sounded differently than intended.  In America, the custom that if someone hosts or treats everyone, there is an expected gift in exchange, is not common.  But in Japan I'm learning that is.  Perhaps I had been rude to not offer one; it just doesn't follow from my upbringing that I think to do so.  In America one hosts and people may bring something to share, but often that's it.  Unless there is a keg, there isn't usually a fee or compensation for the costs of the evening.  But why not?  The evening was worth far more than 500 yen for what he prepared for us, and compensation makes it easier for one to feel free to host.  It isn't such a burden on one person.

In these situations it can be easy for either party to be offended; him because I didn't offer, and me because he seemed to be demanding something I hadn't expected to owe.  It's a very small thing, and on the surface it is very easy to say, "Why yes of course!" but to still feel the twinge of difference in word choice and custom, which in a native language and culture, would be conceived quite differently.

And sometimes these instances arrive very quickly and there is no time to reflect on what is actually going on and we are left with a slight offense towards what we have learned our whole lives as being the right and good way to act.  And these offenses can build up and be poisonous, though in reality they are completely innocuous.

To be so different in this country requires more alertness in this regard.  It requires the practice of the benefit of the doubt.  And if we can consider that cultural differences and language barriers are just variations upon simple upbringing and word choice, perhaps we could derive at the need to extend this privilege even to those we think come from backgrounds far more similar to our own.

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