Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cultural Ambassadors, or How To Actually Learn Something

While having another lovely and lively conversation with Ambaa the other day, a very interesting question was brought up, and that was the question of "cultural ambassadors."

It's a bit racist to expect that any given person of another culture can and should be a window to that culture for your knowledge and edification. At best, it's simply the intellectual fallacy of "one person represents the entire group." At worst, it's another exercise of white privilege and entitlement - that you believe you deserve to be, ought to be, educated in the ways of this strange culture by this representative of said culture.

At this point, the frustrated do-gooder throws up her hands and says, "You want me to learn. How am I supposed to learn, if you don't teach me?"

Well, you can always start learning on your own. Books are always good, and there's this thing called the Internet.

But even there, don't you need a starting place?

If you want to learn more about another culture, and you read only an introductory textbook, or worse, writings by colonial-era authors about the people they colonized, complete with the racist structures of the times, you will get a very incomplete picture.

This is partially why it's so easy for people to mistake Muslims and Sikhs, why they only things the everyday American knows about Hinduism are caste and cows. Sure, there's a lot of information out there, but where do you start?

Maybe you don't have to do anything. Maybe you just need to stop doing something instead. Stop talking. Stop overthinking. Stop stereotyping. Watch. Listen. Experience. Build relationships with people that are not based on the fact they're from another culture, but because they're interesting people. We all have differences in how we approach things; you learn from your disagreements and arguments. You learn when you ask questions with a sincere desire to know in a situation where it's ok and comfortable to ask.

But, much like relationship-based selling, this doesn't work if the emphasis is on the secondary part. You won't sell a product if you are building a relationship with an ulterior motive of selling. You have to build the relationship for its own sake. Likewise, you can't learn anything about another culture if you're only building relationships because you are curious about the culture. Every second of your interaction, then, is viewed through your lens of what they probably view through their cultural lens. Meta, isn't it? Build relationships with people, not with expectations. Expectations that they will give you something you are looking for. Relationships are for connecting, not for getting. And it's through connecting with other people that you learn about life in general and how to be a better human. That's the goal, not finding out about some strange and exotic culture.

Because nothing is strange and exotic, really. It's all normal to somebody; if it wasn't, it wouldn't exist.

The goal in becoming proficient in cross-cultural communication is not to know everything about a culture. It's about how to shift into a different sort of normal. And you can't learn that from reading books or interrogating people. You learn it by watching, listening, living in relationship with others. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

One of those girls

I've gotten used to that feeling now. It's the Inward Cringe. The eye rolling, slightly sinking feeling when a politician doesn't know the difference between Muslims and Sikhs, a celebrity thinks it's okay to use brownface, a movie star shoots a film about India and converts to Hinduism as a result, and most recently, when a magazine prints a feature full of embarrassing cultural appropriation.

And it's weird that this makes me uncomfortable, because I'm not even Indian. Or maybe it is because I'm not Indian. I'm married to an Indian citizen, have lived in India, and have been acquainted with Indian communities in the US for over a decade. And every time one of these stories pops up, I'm a little embarrassed and frustrated - how come people don't have even basic intercultural knowledge when it comes to South Asia? - and at the same time, I wonder if I am perceived in the same way as Julia Roberts or Anja Ploetz -- as "one of those girls." A cultural dabbler; a dilettante; the girl who, wearing a sparkly salwar suit in the convenience store, tries to strike up a conversation in Hindi with the Sri Lankan working behind the counter; someone who flippantly talks about how Americans don't really have a culture so is it so wrong if I like yours? It's so spiritual. So colorful.

I feel I have to justify myself in some ways, so here's my story, in short form: I'm married to an Indian, who I met because I was learning Hindi and he thought it was weird. I was learning Hindi because I had recently started singing in it. Singing in Hindi happened because a few of my friends from India would listen to their CDs in my car and I learned some of the words so I could sing along, then one of them entered me in a talent showcase and it spiraled a little out of control to the point where I had 1-2 singing engagements a month. Plus, I wanted to learn Hindi so that I understood when these same friends were talking about me. :) They taught me to cook, we'd hang out together, we'd go to cultural events together; making Indian food and wearing bangles to appropriate events quickly seemed normal to me, not weird or special or exotic. We'd make vada pav and then go watch an independent movie at the Angelika in jeans and halter tops, or we'd go for a Diwali celebration dressed up in sarees and then have dinner at an Italian restaurant. I was brought up in multicultural cities and understood that "different" from one point of view was "normal" from another one, and that nothing was really "different" once you got used to it. Cultural mix was just a part of life.

And when I was singing, I tried to be especially careful. I knew I didn't understand everything, and I wanted to make sure I was appropriate, not appropriating. Even when in Indian dress, I refused to wear bindis for the longest time, mostly because of the impression Madonna and Gwen Stefani gave of white women wearing bindis. It was not until I was at an engagement and a woman huffily stuck a bindi on my forehead in the bathroom that I actually wore one on stage. Eventually, my rule of thumb became "do appropriate things when appropriate." And to do this requires a lot of listening and not very much talking, a lot of observing and as little "look at me" as possible. It requires humility, gratitude, and the constant need to 'check your privilege' and realize that you can be both a guest and a part of the group all at the same time. It requires building relationships, building trust, and - this is the tough one - being okay with however others choose to view you.

But I still bristle when someone asks me "why I am into Indian culture" because even though Indian culture is a fairly major influence on my life, culture isn't something you're "into" like knitting or river rafting or the complete works of Justin Bieber. I know this, but I don't know that other people know that I know this. And although I certainly accept that I can't change anyone's first impression of me, I still do not want to be viewed as that silly dilettante, as one of those girls. I've spent ten years deconstructing stereotypes, trying to not become a stereotype, and every time something like this hits the news, it seems it's back to square one. It's almost like I have to say something about Julia Roberts, Gwen Stefani, Anja Ploetz, in order to distance myself from them, to prove that I am somehow different from them.

But at the same time, am I?

What do I know about Anja Ploetz other than what the editors of New York Magazine decided to include in their 100-word article? What do I know about the blonde girl in the magenta sari at the farmers market?

Does being married to an Indian or living in India or having a basic understanding of intercultural communication make us superior to those who do not have that kind of connection?

Does it give us the right to judge?

Is it appropriate to try to distance ourselves from those we perceive as dilettantes?

Does it give us the responsibility to educate or deconstruct stereotypes?

Let me know your thoughts.

(This post is in part inspired by Jessica Kumar's article "Conversion vs. Covenant: White Hinduism - a Religion of its Own?")