Thursday, April 7, 2016

Some thoughts on judging and self-centeredness

The last couple of years I've been surrounded by people from different cultures. One of the most important things I've learned through this is that you may not take for granted that everybody shares your particular habits and knowledge. We humans are like a piece of clay, shaped and adjusted to the accepted and expected norms and values of the place where we are born, made to somewhat fit within the through traditions shaped, oddly looking box called culture. One very simple example: Dutchmen likely know who Rembrandt van Rijn was, and will also be able to mention 'The Night Watch' as one of his masterpieces. I may not judge an Austrian for not knowing this. Austrians, on the other hand, will probably all know Gustav Klimt and his breathtaking 'The Kiss'. May a Dutchmen be blamed for not knowing this? No. I realize that this topic overlaps a discussion on common knowledge. Yet, one can't know all. 

I'll share a moment from which I've learned. When noticing that my friend from Denmark didn't know the name of the Dutch Queen (Beatrix at that time), I was slightly disappointed. At that very moment, I didn't know the name of the Danish Queen either. I had absolutely no right to judge my friend on not being able to mention Beatrix's name. 

The very same concept can be applied to Americans and their knowledge on European countries, and the knowledge of Europeans on American States, too. Recently, when an American asked me in which country I was born, I gave him several options to choose from, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Finland. He didn't have a clue. Interestingly enough, he initially thought I was from New Zealand. Nevertheless, I'd be somewhat puzzled too if he'd make me pick from for example California, Utah, Nevada or Arizona. 

Language-wise I came across some examples of this matter too. During a philosophy class I took at my home university in Kaunas, Lithuania, all students were asked to write a speech. Eventually, we were assigned to carefully read someone else's speech and to highlight what one personally considered stronger and weaker parts of the written piece and why. While I shared my opinion on the speech written by one of my Lithuanian classmates, two exchange students from Spain had to cast their voice on what they thought of my text, coincidentally handling Dutch monarchy and Queen Beatrix, now being Princess Beatrix. The two Spanish girls hardly ever showed up in class, and if they already did, they never contributed to the discussions, as their English language skills lacked sufficient vocabulary to convey their opinions in any kind of way. Still, I didn't want to have negative thoughts about them. Firstly, because I don't want unnecessary negativity in my life. Secondly, because I didn't even know these girls that well, through which I had no right to start off thinking bad about them. It's somewhat imaginable one might think the girls don't come across as highly intelligent when only knowing them in this particular setting. Every time the professor asked them something, the question marks in their eyes only got bigger, which didn't have to do anything with the actual content of the questions, as the messages didn't even reach their destination that far. This is exactly the point. Their intelligence cannot be judged upon their laborious, yet not very effective efforts in a language they've hardly ever used. Them being exchange students from a university already shows they're probably capable of among others a decent amount of reasoning.

One might be a genius, specialized in a certain topic one can normally passionately talk about like a never ending waterfall, however, in another language it might just not work out. If you'd ask me now to tell you something about hot air balloons in French or Spanish, it would most probably come across rather clumsy, whereas if I'd be telling the story to my colleagues in Dutch or English, it'd be a solid piece embodied in a firm frame. Having said that, I once spent half an hour (from Metz to Pont-a-Mousson) preaching passion on ballooning and the Baltics in French to a taxi driver. I made the most terrible mistakes, but with a bit of effort the driver understood me, responding with some intelligent questions. It felt like a victory. Learning by doing is key, and thus the perceived failing should be seen as progress, whether that might not always feel like it. 

In Thailand I've encountered an issue similar to the one with the Spanish students. When out flying your balloon with solely Thai ground crew, you better be lucky to be picked up in a deserted rice field in the end, as proper communication isn't going to be on your side. I hardly came across Thai people being capable of understanding more than five words of English. Then again, in comparison, my Thai (Mai Tai: "Our love is his-to-ry", do you know that song? It's from a Dutch eighties band actually!) is even worse. I then do start to wonder on what the time is spent which is saved by not offering English classes. What would the Thai miss out on in Europeans, which they'd take for granted?

Nowadays we live in a society in which it's so easy to get in touch with people from different countries than one's own. Different cultures have never been so approachable. This doesn't have to mean you have to renege your own descent. Remember the lessons learned, open up your mind and share what can be beneficial to others. When you're a baby, your mother is the centre of your world. When you grow up being a rather average human being, your country is the centre of your world. Sounding truly hippie-like, but meaning it: when you're a free spirit in a positive mind, borders dissolve and you become a world citizen on an endless globe of possibilities on which no centre can be determined. So wherever you come from, your country is never the imaginary centre of the world. The manners, knowledge and deeply grounded cultural roots valued by you, might not be evident for another. Let's be kind, and always sort of keep this in mind.

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