If you want to be honest, try explaining your culture to foreigners

One of the first things you learn as an English teacher is that you know tons of things about your language that you don’t know you know. When we speak, we’re constantly using grammatical rules that we never consciously learned. This creates odd situations when teaching English: you can tell someone what the right way to say something is but not why it’s right, or you have to run through several examples in your head before figuring out the rule your student wants to know about.

Living in Korea, I’ve realized the same thing is true about culture. But often, the things we know but don’t know we know are embarrassing. Good thing we all know them, so that we don’t have to take the trouble of actually talking about these embarrassing facts.

This has come up especially when I do my English conversation for my Korean-born coworkers in the English department. Their English isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that we can talk about just about any subject. Sometimes, I’ve given them printouts of newspaper articles to read, which we then discuss. One time, I gave them an article about recent events in Afghanistan.

It came up that in Afghanistan, US forces are working with some Afghanis, but other Afghanis don’t want US troops there and are attacking them. This was news to my coworkers. It also led to the question of what, in that case, US troops are doing there. Then I had to explain the embarrassing fact that I don’t know what we’re doing there, and while the government has its story about what we’re doing there, different people have different opinions about that.

When you live in the US, you just get used to the fact that people have disagreements about politics, including nearly everything the government does, but people also feel entitled to some measure of respect for their political views, as long as those views are sufficiently mainstream to be considered part of the “two sides” we’re always hearing about (if your views are part of a third or fourth side, you have to live with being dismissed out of hand. )

From that point of view, not knowing why we’re in a war we’re in might seem like a natural state of affairs, hardly worth pointing out. Well, people who think we should withdraw from Afghanistan might think it worth pointing out, but they’d have to do so knowing that they were picking a fight, making a point that many would find controversial. Yet from an outside perspective, it looks totally obvious that we should be alarmed by the fact that we’re in a war and it isn’t clear why we’re there.

(Note: none of this is meant as a complaint about my coworkers. I came to Korea with even less knowledge of Korea than they have of the US, so I’m in no position to feel superior to them.)

Another example: one day, we talked about weddings. I was surprised to learn that in Korea, the standard way to get married is at a “wedding hall,” a place that exists solely so people can have weddings there. My coworkers, on the other hand, were surprised that wedding halls don’t exist in America, and we mainly have weddings in churches. What do people do who aren’t religious? they wanted to know.

In the moment, I quickly realized that to answer that question, I would have to explain that in America, there are people who are religious, and then people who are very religious. People who are religious but not very religious might not go to church very often, but they still use churches for weddings and funerals and so on. Part of the reason people do this is because people think you need to be religious to be a good person. A few people don’t have weddings in churches, but there aren’t enough of them for there to be a standard way to do it.

In a way, that wasn’t the first time I had thought about all that. I had thought plenty of times about how annoying it is that people will go through the motions of being religious, even if they don’t believe any of it, and how ridiculous it is that people think you need to be religious to be a good person. But all my rhetorical skill could never have made these things sound as stupid as they did when I tried to explain them to people with little knowledge of American culture.

Most of you probably live in either the country you grew up in, or else one with a very similar culture (like if you’ve moved from Canada to the US or vice-versa). That will make it hard for you to go through the experiences I’ve had talking to my coworkers directly. But if you’re trying to figure out if you’re giving an honest account of something, you might want to try imagining explaining it to someone who has much less background than you’re used to dealing with.

More examples from a recent article drawing on travel guides to the US (HT to I forget who):

One of the first things you notice in picking up Lonely Planet USA or Rough Guides: The USA or reading WikiTravel’s United States of America page, as I did (traditional guides such as Fodor’s orFrommer’s are more circumspect and not nearly as interesting), is the surprising frankness in discussing the warts of American history and society. The destruction of native communities and slavery both get long sections, the latter usually including some comments on still-present racial sensitivities.

Politics get heavy treatment in the books, as do the subtleties of discussing them, maybe more so than in any other guidebook I’ve read (what can I say, it’s an addiction). Lonely Planet urges caution when discussing immigration. “This is the issue that makes Americans edgy, especially when it gets politicized,” they write, subtly suggesting that some Americans might approach the issue differently than others. “Age has a lot to do with Americans’ multicultural tolerance.”

Rough Guide doesn’t shy away from the fact that many non-Americans are less-than-crazy about U.S. politics and foreign policy, and encouragingly notes that many Americans are just as “infuriated” about it as visitors might be. Still, it warns that the political culture saturates everything, and that “The combination of shoot-from-the-hip mentality with laissez-faire capitalism and religious fervor can make the U.S. maddening at times, even to its own residents.”

When invited to a meal in a private home it is considered polite for a guest to ask if they can bring anything for the meal, such a dessert, a side dish, or for an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host will usually refuse except among very close friends, but it is nonetheless considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host. A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.

Americans have a social institution called a “gratuity”. Basically, the price on the menu at any place which serves food is not the real price. The real price is 20% higher. You have to calculate 20%, write it under the subtotal, and sum to arrive at the real price. Taxis work the same way. It is considered very rude not to pay the “gratuity.”


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