This is a must read for anyone who seriously wants to learn about culture: Readers’ tipping nightmares and fairytales
1. Kenneth McLeod, Xiamen, China: I live and work in China; last year at a trade conference we were invited to a banquet by our Chinese hosts. The waitress was giving top class service and an American tried to give the waitress a tip, which she refused. However he still forced the tip into her pocket; at this juncture the waitresses manager saw the money go into the waitress’ pocket, the manager came across to the waitress and sacked her on the spot. She took the money out of the waitress’ pocket and tried to give it back to the American, who refused to take it back and an altercation started, much to our Chinese hosts’ embarrassment. I had to take him aside and explain to him that he was insulting our hosts and Chinese people in general. He couldn’t understand that it was insulting to tip in China, that the employer paid staff a wage set by the government. All I could get from him was: “Oh we do that in in America all the time.” He seemed mystified that customs in countries other than America are different. The waitress didn’t get her job back, because the manageress would have “lost face” with the rest of her staff, if she admitted that she had made a mistake.
…4. Ian H.Thain, Banbury, UK: I found that giving tips to hotel staff in the Philippines was met with embarrassment. But equally, I didn’t want to be seen as tight-fisted when I know how little they earn compared with us, and I felt embarrassed if I didn’t tip. One restaurant in the USA had a large notice by the cash desk: “We pay our staff well. Please do not insult them by leaving tips.” However, beside the till itself was a jar labelled “Insults”.
This clip is not only hilarious it should also serve as good material for studies of inculturation. ‘Get down’ of a car is a proper Chinese expression (下车), as in Chinese one does not get ‘out’ of a car but get ‘down’ from it. In fact the word ‘car’ means a whole range of vehicles – from the ancient chariot (马车, which literally means horse-car) to the automobile (汽车). So naturally, when a Malaysian Chinese thinks of getting out of the car, his Chinese mind directs him to the literal meaning in Chinese, which translates ‘get down’.
Of course this contextualised English is not to be considered as proper or standard English. However, it makes sense to Malaysian Chinese. In this case they hijack the language, break it down and ‘re-arrange’ it to express a meaning proper to the syntax of their mother tongue. In other words, the foreign language is modified to express the local concept, which produces the phrase ‘getting down from a car’.
Language is part of culture. When it is introduced to a community, it may come across lacking in expressing the meaning of what it intends in the ears of the locals. When the locals finally understood the meaning of a foreign word, the process of adopting and changing the way the language is used begins. So in this case once the local Malaysian got to understand what it means by ‘get’ and ‘down’, they naturally mapped it to their local language’s syntax and modify the English usage for their own use.
When the missionary arrives at a foreign land he will also face the same problem. What does it mean by ‘sacrifice’, ‘sin’, ‘atonement’, ‘kingdom’, etc? But once the locals grab hold of the meanings of these they will start using their own language or local expression to describe them. If they adopt the language which the missionary brought, they may substitute some of the words or their usage with their own expressions.
Recently one of my friends wrote about the ritual of kissing the communion table – of which is certainly strange to any Chinese Christians. This is because Chinese has no ‘kissing culture’. Furthermore if by ‘Christian’ here we mean the evangelicals, the issue of transubstantiation will certainly be raised. So how would an evangelical Chinese Christian to express his or her passion and love for Christ which is on par of the intimacy shown by those ‘high church’ brothers who kiss the communion table? Which body language can they use to substitute this act without losing the meaning of it?
So the case of the Malaysian English is similar to that of the inculturated practices of worship. Missionaries come with their cultural practices, of which the truth and the gospel are intertwined, but their practices may not make sense to the locals. Once the locals understand the message of the gospel, they will in turn develop their own ways of expressing those truths, and often this is done by modifying the practices brought in by the missionaries. Thus the ‘standard language’ is then replaced by a ‘local language’ of worship or ministry.
We do not normally say that we are experiencing ‘cultural clash’. The term has always been associated with ‘bigger issues’ such as the dispute on minaret in Switzerland or the issue of Islamophobia in America after 911 – which not all of us would be involved on a regular basis. Also, in such cases there exists a clear cultural difference between the West and the Islamic cultural. However, cultural clash does happen at smaller scale and between even groups which are traditionally from the same cultural root. For example, as the number of mainland Chinese immigrants increases in Hong Kong and Singapore, local Chinese are finding it harder to understand lest getting along with their mainland brothers and sisters. A simple explanation to this is the fact that mainland China’s experience of ‘cultural revolution’, and the acceptance of Western culture – to a certain extent – by the post-colonial Singapore and Hong Kong, has created a gulf between the two groups. Thus, cultural differences do occur between groups which share the same hereditary root. Of course we can argue to what extent can we define ‘culture’. As this would be best dealt with properly in other places, a simply definition of culture would be: a set of values, myths, narratives and rituals which give a sense of belonging and identity to a group of people. Myths and narratives here refer to stories which normally include key legendary figures and events which shape the values of the group. For example, Steve Jobs, and his story, have become, to a large extent, a legend and narrative which shape the values of Apple.
Now, not only that we can experience cultural clash with people which share the same cultural root with us. We face it locally. With that I mean we would face felt cultural tension not only in foreign places with foreign people. Rather, one may be feeling culturally distanced with those that are geographically close to him or her.
For example, a friend who has just returned from a Western country was hit by a car while he was on a zebra (pedestrian) crossing. He was so accustomed to the western society’s respect for law that he forgot that he is now back to his home country, where drivers have the habit of disregarding the pedestrian crossing. Is my friend now at home? He is at the country where he was born and raised where he shares a large part of his cultural root. However, he is not ‘culturally home’. There is deeper issue underneath this seemingly trivial matter. There is a clear cultural differences on the outside – different countries, hence customs, habits, and drivers. There is also a subconscious cultural habits formed within the few years my friend spent oversea. He has, to a certain extent, not just adopted the way-of-life (in crossing a street!) of the West, but may have also buy in to the value system of that culture! Perhaps the fact that since he has been so accustomed by their way of crossing the road or driving shows that he has somewhat, in his soul, accepted their culture and has become one of them? If so, can we say that he was a white man when he was crossing the Asian road and had a cultural ‘crash’?!
Well obviously in this case, my friend has been away for a while and got ‘converted’ by another culture. However, as mentioned, there is still no guarantee that if one is to stay put in one place, he or she will then be exempted from such ‘clash’. In today’s world it is not uncommon to have immigrants staying next door of us. Sometimes people from the same country could also live very differently due to their cultural difference. So we are all open to cultural clash.
No wonder missionaries over the ages are vulnerable to ‘reverse cultural shock’ as their re-enter into their home church and and home country. If ‘locals’ are subjected to cultural clash, imagine the shock missionary would have when they come ‘home’!