Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Local Knowledge

When a migrant arrives in a new country the natives often make assumptions about what newcomers already know and what they will need need to learn based on stereotypes about their country of origin.

This can be quite a comedy.  Here are a few I've seen and experienced:

  • The Frenchman at the restaurant in the host country who is passed the wine list and told to select the wine for 20 people because, being French, he is so obviously better qualified than the other guests to make the right choices.  He may protest and try to decline the "honor" (especially if the local wine list contains varieties and brands he has never heard of, much less ever tasted) but there is usually no getting out of it.  National honor is at stake and he must not only choose, he must choose well since a poor performance will greatly disillusion his dining companions.
  • The American who must submit to an hour-long sex education lecture by well-meaning friends or family in the host country because everyone knows that the U.S. is so puritanical that the basics of human reproduction are never taught in the schools.
  • The Eastern European who is welcomed into the bosom of a democratic nation and when he declines to answer if he is feeling the freedom, the natives go to great lengths to explain the concept to him.

Assumptions about the country of origin and attempts to fill the perceived gaps in the migrant's knowledge are generally not meant to wound (the natives mean well) but they are embarrassing to the migrant who either feels that he or she must live up to a positive stereotype or suffer through a negative one.

The truth is that most of what migrants need to know in the host country are things that the natives cannot teach because they don't know themselves how things really work and why they do what they do.  The question "Pourquoi" (Why?) is all too often met with "Parce que c'est comme ca ici" (Because that's the way it is here).  Ask an older Frenchwoman why she insists that children must sit at table with a "rat in front and a cat behind" and she will look at you blankly and tell you that this is simply the way it is.   This is more than unsatisfying, it is positively infuriating in the beginning when a newcomer is desperately trying to find his or feet.

The psychological impact of this on the migrant is quite deep.  It hurts to be perceived as ignorant and it is humiliating when others assume knowledge based on national origin and you fail to measure up.  And when one is wounded or feeling humiliated and lost, there is a very human desire to get angry and to lash out.

My very best advice is this:  Don't.  Getting bitter or defensive is a temporary relief that does long-term damage.  It closes doors instead of opening them.  It took me years to learn this and every angry moment of my first years in my adopted country is something I sincerely regret today.  I think there is a better way which might look something like this:

Humility:   Humility before a culture that is complex and beautiful which you do not know (yet) and must diligently study and learn from.  Think of the beginner's cup in Zen;
Humor:  There is something profoundly funny about some of the attempts to "educate" the foreigner.  When the foreigner is you,  you can smile, listen and know that you are learning something about the citizens of the host country (their perceptions) which is probably not what they intended to reveal but is nevertheless useful knowledge;
Goodwill:  Howard Rheingold's Golden Rule for his on-line communities was, "Assume goodwill." Works just as well in the real world.  When you can reframe an attempt to make you an expert on something based on your culture of origin as a way of doing you and your country honor (and not a trap to be feared), there is less performance anxiety and more gratitude;
Grounded:  Robert Kaplan summed up the the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore's approach to cultural identity this way, "He grasped intuitively that to appreciate other cultures one had to be strongly rooted in one's own."  Know that there is something beautiful, unique and irreplaceable about your place of origin.  Love where you are from and it becomes so much easier to love where you are.

Clifford Geertz once wrote, "To see ourselves as others see us can be eye-opening.  To see others as sharing a nature with ourselves is the merest decency.  But it is from the far more difficult achievement of seeing ourselves amongst others, as a local example of the forms human life has locally taken, a case among cases, a world among worlds, that the largeness of mind, without which objectivity is self-congratulation and tolerance a sham, comes."

Alas, this level of knowledge, which should precede our forays into other worlds, usually only comes to us after we have experienced the peculiarities and particularities of another place and its people.   I think seeking this "largeness of mind," this acceptance and love for local knowledge (our own and others), is worth the journey.  With it comes something you might call "wisdom" and, given enough time, the serenity of knowing that there are no lesser or greater travelers on this road, only humanity in all its joyful and ever fascinating diversity.

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