Friday, July 01, 2005

Cultural differences

Outside the employment office at Pratt one morning, I noticed a poster with visual depictions. It showed a hand with a circle made of the index finger and the thumb, while the other three digits pointed to the sky. In some cultures, this sign meant fantastic or delicious, in some other cultures it said you're useless, and in some spanish-speaking countries, it was a strong suggestion to go screw yourself. I decided to retire this sign during my time at university because there were just too many cultures around to explain this to.

Now there's this. Mexico releases some stamps featuring Memin Pinguin, a character loved by Mexicans for no reason other than the fact that he's damn cute, and the US expresses displeasure because its a racist icon in the states. Black and Hispanic leaders weren't too happy about the stamps, and asked the president of the US to express how mad everyone was about this.

Whatever happened to context? The possibility that an action could mean one thing in one culture and something different in another? Why the uproar and the offence? To me, at least, it had nothing to do with racism. It was an adorable cartoon. Why apply standards of one culture to another?

Which reminds me. I don't quite like the way New Yorkers sit far away from me on an empty train. I'm a Bombayite used to having people press up against me on empty trains. Which head of state should I complain to?


Anonymous said...


People press up against you on empty trains in bombay.

Hmmm...what charms have u acquired since u left NY :)

anyways...when are trains empty ? after midnight and before sunrise?

I think that people's sense of personal space is different culturally. In NYC personal space is quite large. Not that it can be physically measured, but i would say at least 6 ". U touch a person by mistake in the subway and u get dirty stares.

In the same vein, the personal space in bombay is non existant. Thus we can experience what sardines feel like in the can !!

hemangini said...

Lemme see... you're LOOKING to be pressed up on trains? That should not be a problem to arrange AT ALL. Just give me a day, coweater.

Anonymous said...

Here another one for you. I recently bought a house and as per Hindu tradition, drew a Swastik on door frame of the entrance after a Vastu Puja. I didnt erase it after the Vastu Puja was over. It was drawn with vermillion and next to it were written Shubh and Labh in Gujarati. A few days later, a guy came to install cable at my home and asked me if some vandals had done some these decorations in mischief! It then struck me that he thought that since I was not white, some white people had come and drawn the Swastika as a sign of white supremacy. I told him that I had done it myself and it was part of a religious ritual in our culture. As soon as he left, I wiped it out lest I get more questions!

mandar talvekar said...

Americans are generally very finicky about being "culturally sensitive." And yes, in their zest to be so, they often steamroll over the symbols and their meanings in other cultures (an american reading this would take offense because I am 'stereotyping' americans). Often their reactions seems absurd and extreme to others. Recently in one of the projects that I was working on we were asked to replace "chocolate cake" in one of the stories with something else that's "non-sugar rich." The explanation given to us was that chocolate cake is a high calorie food - "sinful" -- obese people and people on a diet will find it offensive.
With such sensitive sensibilities, it is not surprising the Americans have reacted the way they have against the Mexican Pinguin stamp.

Anang said...

I don't know about americans in NYC since I've never lived there but most americans I've met (white or otherwise) may be culturally sensitive but not overtly. They enjoy their culture and are proud to display and show their own sense of culture. I don't think they are scared of offending someone so much as they believe that everyone is free to express themselves and show pride in their culture (kwanza, chanukah, whatever). Most americans will just ask you straight up if they're confused about something (like whether the diamond om I wear around my neck was considered bling bling or not).

Anonymous said...

I think the loss of context is a fallout of what we would largely call globalisation. In certain circles at least, the world truly is becoming a smaller place, and while that means we are exposed to new things, it also means we have new sensitivities to deal with.

One would think that people who are a part of a shrinking world (for not everyone really is) would allow for context to render their POVs useless or strange in certain cultures, and hence accept the weirdness they may perceive. But it doesnt always work that way, and while we like to be open to new perspectives, we cling onto ours rather tightly.