Battlepanda: The fine art of Understanding Weird, Scary foreigners


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The fine art of Understanding Weird, Scary foreigners

As somebody with Chinese heritage, there is nothing that drives me bonkers more than some moron who hardly knows anything about Chinese culture siezing one fun fact he gleamed from an article or heard from a friend and overinterpreting the hell out of it. "Taiwanese people like to end the workday by saying "you've worked hard" to their indicative of the culture of overwork here...ah, I see you have given me a tentative nod. Thus emboldened, I will now cross the line by asserting that Taiwanese people like working for work's sake and thus end up harming their own productivity." "I find it fascinating that siblings are addressed by their birth order -- Big brother, second brother etc. How well it meshes with my preconceptions of Chinese culture as a dehumanizing meatgrinder where individuality is stamped out from birth." Next time any of you think that a random nugget of information have given you a window into another culture that you otherwise know nothing about and that you must share your brilliant insight...don't.

It's good to know that we Chinese are not the only victims. I guess the Iranians also find themselves falling under the Inscrutable Oriental catagory, and thus fair game for the "x is the key to understanding their culture" approach. Michael Slackman writes himself a doozy:
There is a social principle in Iran called taarof, a concept that describes the practice of insincerity — of inviting people to dinner when you don’t really want their company, for example. Iranians understand such practices as manners and are not offended by them.
Basically, Ogged of UnFogged decided to tear him a new one, and deservedly so...
I'm trying not to scream after reading Michael Slackman's truly awful, simply wrong article in the Times about Iranian culture. I've mentioned tarof on the blog before, and explained it as "ritual politeness." There are certain phrases and gestures that are basically the boilerplate of interpersonal interactions: if you grow up in Iranian culture, you learn when to use them, what they mean, and how seriously to take them. Insisting that an elder enter a room before you do is tarof; so is staying standing until everyone older than you has sat down; so is refusing food the first time or two that it's offered; so is the cab driver telling you that the ride is free; so are ornate phrases that translate literally to things like "I'm your slave." You show respect and your good manners wtih tarof. Slackman explains all this with such a stunning lack of understanding that we should all go lay flowers at the grave of Edward Said and tell him he was right about everything.[snip]

"Ritual politeness" is "insincerity." Just like when the Japanese businessman bows before negotiations, he's lying, because you know he really wants your money.
So when an old-fashioned Brit say, "I am your humble servant", it means that they're placing themselves in indentured servitude under you, correct? And when an American say "Mi casa, su casa", they must mean that you are now part-owner of their real estate, right? Otherwise, aren't we all as insincere and mysteriously inscrutable as those weird foreigners?

By the way, you will note that Slackman has covered his back by getting lots of quotes from real-life Iranians who say things that seem to support his drivel. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact in every single country on this planet, you'll be able to fins some academic or another who is willing to pimp out simplistic cliches about his country for a foreigner who wants to hear them.

In short, we didn't like it when Bernard Levy did it to us, so let's not go around doing it to other people anymore, OK?