Cultural Perceptions

I’m intrigued with the idea of being able to see my own culture from another culture’s point of view. It’s something that seems like it would be easy, but in truth is takes mental gymnastics and being honest with yourself and your upbringing enough to disown it a little bit. I think it also takes having people from other cultures who know you and are willing to show their perceptions of your culture. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over the conversations and interactions I had in a coffee shop in Kathmandu a couple weeks ago, and it might be enough to illustrate what I learned.

This is an excerpt from a blog I wrote right after it happened, and I’ll restate the section here to give it a clearer context:

My friend Milan is a musician who has travelled to the US several times to perform for Nepali communities in the US. I really like talking to him about culture because he has a very clear understanding of his own, but he also has interesting perceptions of American culture. He was in Houston right after the hurricane doing a show and staying with a friend there. During our talks he asked me about Texas culture. He’s very astute and wanted to know why the gun culture was so prevalent there, but didn’t seem to be in San Francisco.  “Do you have a gun in your house?” I explained the wide range of philosophies in the US, how our Constitution plays in, and that we don’t all agree, but it’s usually ok. He had previously mentioned wanting to go to Nebraska, so that he could meet these people with such differing philosophies from his own (a more noble quest than most of us are willing to undertake, for sure). I ended up explaining corporate farming and huge wide spaces rather than people. Nepal has all family farms and small owner farms (for markets), so the corporate behemoths in the Midwest would be unknown to most Nepalis. Still, I pointed him to Omaha.

Not much later, we were sitting in a coffee shop next to a super-sized American, who’s visited Nepal since 2006, “To do those treks, you know, I got friends up in Naaymchie (he meant Namche, which rhymes with Tom Shay) …but this is my last time because I’ve seen everything.” He doesn’t like the change. “Soon they’ll have a road to Lukla and that will ruin it all.” Then he went on to complain about how his mill town in central Oregon “used to be a great place, ‘til it filled up with all them Mexicans on welfare.” Yeah, one of those guys. I was polite and we talked until there was a break, then I turned to Milan. He had an uncomfortable look on his face.
-Are you worried?
-Yes, he scares me.
He looked over my shoulder at the huge man. At that moment I understood one thing our culture does that his does not. Ours deadens us to the idea that anyone could walk into a public space and open fire. I’m pretty sure it’s what Milan was thinking. It is a reality that Americans live with every day, whether you realize it or not. Guns are everywhere and show up in public places. And that’s not a universal, global thing. Its America. As much as our news shows countries like Nepal through headlines of disaster, famine and riots, their news shows everyone shooting everyone else in America.

I thought for a moment about how I feel every time I see a Nepal policeman with a semi-automatic rifle. This trip, I had the nerve to walk up to them on the street alone and ask for help or directions. In the dark streets of Kathmandu, I asked one pair where to stand for a taxi. It felt normal-ish. But in my own society, this would scare the crap out of me. The mindset is different. Its not that guns are scary, it’s the mindset of the culture that holds them which determines how scary they are.

As a related segue, one of the big reliefs I got when stepping back on American soil after this trip was, I got to quit apologizing for my country. (Other reliefs were brushing my teeth without purified water, access to recycling bins, and being able to eat fresh veggies.) I talked to Australians, Europeans and lots of Nepalis. So many of them said, “Yeah, I have family there, but I am not able to even visit.” Most of them began with a smile and “oh, a great, big country,” as a lead in, and a few said, “I have been to New York. It is beautiful,” but not as many as last time I was in Nepal. Some were distraught in speaking their words. My pat reply: “I’m sorry, my country sucks! I hope you can visit your family.” They have a saying in Nepal: ke garne – “what to do?” It’s what you say when there isn’t anything else to say.