Opinion: Incomplete Observations and Cross-Cultural Understanding - Helen Kim, PhD

cross-cultural understanding helen kim heritage identity incomplete observations opinion Nov 15, 2021

Incomplete Observations and Cross-Cultural Understanding 


The following story is a fictionalized account of an authentic experience. At one level it is about wearing clothing to reflect “heritage” and how some people from distinct cultures have different ideas about that. Just as clothing is often in layers, this story has several layers of diversity. It is also a story of the human tendency to find an explanation for other people’s behavior within the constraints of their own mindsets. Finally, it is therefore a story of a missed learning opportunity. 


A friend of mine relayed this story to me based on a recent experience of his. I wonder if the readers will be as curious as I was, about whether a better resolution to the story could have been reached. 


It started out simply. He was going to be one of several invited faculty speakers at a zoom discussion on cross-cultural communication. Because he knew that each of the speakers’ families was from a different culture, he suggested that it might be fun and educating too for the viewers if the panelists all wore authentic clothing indicating their cultural background. He, for example, would wear an outfit reflecting his Japanese heritage, the one lady might wear an outfit reflecting her Brazilian background. He asked a third participant who was African American, whether he was going to wear an African outfit, or a “regular” American outfit, but where the shirt might be made with African fabric, containing fantastic batik, or block printing, that he had seen in certain African textiles at a museum textile arts exhibit. In response, the African American colleague looked blank, then said cheerfully, “hey, I’m American, I was born here, so I will just wear normal American clothes.”  


The Japanese colleague knew from previous interactions with his African American colleague that the latter was indeed African American. When asked was he not African American, the African American colleague replied that of course, he was, “but that was several generations ago!!!” Overhearing this part of the conversation, the Brazilian colleague (unseen by her African American colleague), got a perplexed expression on her face. The Japanese colleague mentally stopped in his tracks, also befuddled but outwardly trying not to be. Since this was all happening two days before the event, the Japanese gentleman did not pursue it any further, not wanting to cause any discomfort, or misunderstandings. 


On the day of the discussion, the Japanese colleague did indeed come in classical Japanese men’s attire, the Brazilian in a colorful skirt and blouse ensemble typical of her South American country, and the third in a nice American business suit. The zoom session went well with the student audience, and there was a nice round of applause at the end. Nothing wild, just polite. Because the discussion had been “good,” but not passionate, nor deep. It was as if no one really wanted to get to the crux of the matter—the excuse of course being not enough time. 


Afterward, all the faculty professed to being rushed and had to leave for their next commitments; it happened that the African American left first. The remaining two looked at each other, their outfits, at the backs of the departing faculty, and shrugged. They wondered aloud: did he perceive himself as only American because his African heritage was several generations ago? Or was he embarrassed because his family generations ago had been enslaved? Or did he have a different definition of “heritage,” and think that no matter where your parents or parents’ parents had been born, if YOU were born on American soil, your “heritage,” was American, not African, or Asian, or South American. Was it a semantic issue, or more? The fact was though, he had as much said, before the meeting had started, in chatting with the Brazilian colleague, that this idea of identifying people as Japanese- American, or African American, or Brazilian-American, was unnecessary; “it complicates the fact that we are all equally American…; why do we need to further identify ourselves? It does not matter what else we are, the only thing that matters is we are all American. The more we further identify ourselves, the more it divides us.” 


After the meeting, the Japanese faculty dug deep into his psyche, and came up with the honest feeling that, to him, it DID matter that he be identified as Japanese American, and that his colleagues be identified as Brazilian-American, and yes, African American. To his way of thinking, being called something-something-American helped identify you just a tiny bit, to others, without knowing anything else about you, and told them at some point in your family’s history, a person, or parents, had been born and raised, on soil other than American. It helped differentiate him from others in a crowd, who might have Brazilian, or Hawaiian, or Chinese heritage, yet in his mind, it did not in and of itself make him better or worse than the others. The impression he would make would depend on how his whole persona would be perceived in each scenario, and it should be independent of his cultural heritage even though the latter would always be a factor.  


However, he and his Brazilian colleague wondered, is there something about a people who have been taken from their “home country,” oppressed and held in bondage in another country by the ancestors of the very people they now call “neighbors” that makes them not want to outwardly “celebrate” their African heritage? He and his colleague did not have the answers. Certainly, the Japanese had their dark moments in history of which no Japanese should be proud. Yet the Japanese professor knew that no Japanese would for a minute, deny or make light of who their ancestors were. Their heritage was deep, complex and one of a kind. Why did his African American colleague not think similarly of his own heritage? 


The Japanese professor and his Brazilian colleague decided they could not themselves figure out the subtleties or complexities of why some deny their heritage, and others embrace and celebrate theirs. Even if they spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure it out, because they genuinely wanted to, they might come to a dead end of incomplete understanding, especially if they did not include their African American colleague in the conversation. He could provide the information that they were lacking to understand this situation more fully. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” was right when he said it is not enough to WANT to be nice or non-racist; your instincts are based on your life experiences; if you want to change your instincts,
you must change your life experiences to include those you fear, or do not understand, so that they become familiar parts of your life. They certainly did not fear their African American colleague, but they needed to include him in their lives. 


As a fitting acknowledgement to their limitations, and what an exhausting day it had been, they decided to get ice cream cones—good old American ice cream, the kind that melts in your mouth, and down your hand on a sweltering summer day. Nothing to analyze, just appreciate the realities of ice cream. For that matter, maybe sharing culturally unique dessert foods on a regular basis, could be a beginning of intercultural communication and relationship building where there is no judgment, just appreciation of different taste sensations and combinations of ingredients. Yum, just think, American frozen yogurt piled with berries, nuts, and hot fudge one week, Korean egg breads (gyeran bbang) the next week, and Brazilian cheese bread/muffins, or pao de Queijo the third. How many ways can one spell delicious??? And gradually all could be encouraged to come to these dessert retreats in clothing reflecting our heritage(s), letting everyone—children and adults alike—appreciate and indeed celebrate the differences. 


Helen Kim, PhD

President, Alabama Asian Cultures Foundation