Saturday, May 31, 2008

Apologies Forthcoming Triggers Discussion on Cultural Differences

Last December I met with the director of our town library and set up a reading from my new book Apologies Forthcoming. She was happy to accommodate me but warned that it was hard to draw a crowd, that even well-known authors have shown up to empty rooms. She was, thus, pleasantly surprised when a roomful of people showed up and, she told me afterwards, very impressed with the animated discussion.

The event took place this week. I ended up not doing a reading, instead giving a short description of my motivation for writing the book, and some history on a couple of the stories, before opening up the room for questions and discussion. The conversation that followed ranged from questions like what the Dalai Lama would think of the book to whether Chinese or Americans are more judgmental and one-sided.

An important theme that emerged was the value of fiction in keeping social and cultural knowledge available to outsiders and new generations, and whether my stories would make such readers understand the cause of the Cultural Revolution. My take was that, as fiction, the stories depict human nature across cultures and times rather than providing an analysis of events. In general, fiction is more engaging, thus can reach a broader audience than scholarly nonfiction, and helps to increase inter-cultural understanding in a perceptual way; though in order to thoroughly understand an historical event, a reader would need to look at other research on the subject.

We also spent a good deal of time on trying to explain cross-cultural differences. Many of the people in attendance were Chinese immigrants who moved to the US as adults. One difficulty they face is having to explain to their friends in China why Americans behave the way they do. One example given for this was a woman who had been asked “Why on earth would Americans elect Bush twice?” (The question triggered uproarious laughter from both Americans and Chinese.) Her answer was that "it's too complicated to explain." That question, it seems, is an epitome for the assumption that people in a foreign country are homogeneous in their beliefs, one of the cornerstones of cultural misunderstanding.

After the discussion I signed books – delighted to see so many people were interested in reading Apologies Forthcoming.


Jonathan Kroner said...

I'm not sure that the answer to the Bush question is found in cultural explanations. The reelection seems to offer more lessons about politics --stimulating zenohobia and fear mongering, which is as true in China, S. Africa and here in the US, and well as everywhere else.

The book sounds interesting -- does it explore apologies in different cultures? Please post something about it.
Jonathan Kroner, JD, MBA

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for the comments. I think you are right about the reasons that Bush was reelected. The point I was trying to make, though, was about the reason people in different countries ask the question as they do, mostly just to show their attitude. Many Chinese view America as a monolith, so what one person does so the country does. Many Americans have the same perception of China.

The book is a collection of stories set during and after China's Cultural Revolution. It does not involve other cultures and, true to life, there is not any apologizing that happens - thus the title. For more on the book please check my website

BTW, your work sounds interesting - hope to learn more about it.

Linda Austin said...

This works both ways. Americans wonder why "those others" act that way, too. I think that's the reason traveling to other countries is so valuable, so we can experience each others' cultures, even just a little bit, and hopefully get a glimmer of their perspective. When we lived in England, the neighbor kids thought all Americans were rich and had guns!

I'm so glad your library audience included Chinese immigrants to give their perspective. That's a valuable learning experience for all cultures present. Wish I could have been there!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Linda,

Your comments resonate with me. I feel the same - it does seem to take the experiences of different countries to gain a balanced view and perspective. But not everyone can have multi-cultural experience. Limitation of experience is not the problem, failing to realize one's limitation and thus unable to keep an open mind on things is.