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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/05/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 40
Table of Contents
Boskone 39 Convention Report Available:
Evelyn Leeper's Boskone 39 convention report is now available at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/bosk39.htm.
Just this last week the film industry mourned the death of three men who were known for three very different kinds of comedy. They were Milton Berle, Dudley Moore, and Billy Wilder. Celebrities in Hollywood seem to die in threes. I know if I was a Hollywood celebrity I would never even get into a three.
The True Provincials:
Probably everybody has gone through the experience of sitting up at night and thinking about the past. Frequently they find themselves wishing they had said or done something differently. I am thinking of something that I said in an elevator in Japan to a Portuguese woman, a fellow tourist, that was a little facile. I should have told her a little more. I should have explained things better. Part of the reason I didn't was that I didn't have time in the elevator to talk to her in detail to her. Like us the woman was new to Japan, and she was going through a bit of culture shock. She said to me that Japan just seemed very strange to her. Then she said that being Americans, it probably seemed a lot stranger to us. I told her that no, it did not seem all that strange to me. That was mostly true.
In fact, what prompted that answer was just that "strange" struck me as the wrong word to use. She probably concluded from my response that being an American I was oblivious to the differences of Japanese and American culture. It could be that some Americans come to Japan and carry their culture with them. It was like in China, some American tourists came with a suitcase full of snack food and instant soup afraid to eat unfamiliar food. Other Americans probably stay in hotels that reproduce American culture for them. Japan has such places for Americans to stay that reproduce our culture fairly well . . . for a price. And in Japan it would be a heavy price. Sixty dollars for a steak, that sort of thing is what you hear. In spite of our clothing, which was not the height of fashion, the woman probably assumed that we were rich Americans. The truth is that I did find Japan a little exotic, but her statement obviously showed that she thought that Americans were very provincial. That is an impression that many Europeans have of Americans. And it may have been true in the 1940s and it may even be true in parts of the United States even today. But I do not think it is as true today.
Thinking about it at three in the morning I think what I should have explained to her is that her view of America is what it once was, but it really is not today. Americans no longer live isolated from other cultures. If I want to get in my car and drive for half an hour I can find myself in a Mexican community where the language spoken is Spanish and the customs are somewhat different from those in Mexico, perhaps, but more different from those on my street. If I want to go in another direction I can be in an Orthodox Jewish community. Many people dress in the custom of the old countries. Men have the long curly sideburns and the flat hats. Yiddish is spoken on the street. The restaurants are not all Kosher, but many of them are. If I aim my car in another direction the half hour will take me into an Indian community. Decorations are of Rama and of Indian festivals. Just at the moment they are taking down the decorations for Holi. Posters are up for Hindi films. An hour's drive will take me to a Russian community with Russian Orthodox churches. There are probably a few more international cultures living in close proximity that are not coming to mind at this moment. Certainly if I drive into New York City which is about an hour away, suddenly there are a lot more subcultures I could visit. The Black community culture is different of itself and may exist no place but the United States. Then there is Ukrainian culture, different from the Russian near me. I could not even begin to count the number of different cultures in New York City. (The metric of how long it would take to drive there breaks down in Manhattan because a different culture could be five blocks away and it could take a very long time to drive there. That is more a function of traffic in Manhattan than of there being a single culture. Michael Caine had a great line in a movie where he said that he saw an ad for house in New York that said it is "30 minutes from Fifth Avenue." He says, "the only thing that is 30 minutes from Fifth Avenue is Sixth Avenue." But I digress.)
Some people have likened America to a huge melting pot. They say that many different cultures have melded together into a single culture. Others say that that is an inaccurate representation. That assumes too much that each nationality has given up its individuality and has picked up the mass culture. They would liken American culture to a stew. In a stew you have many kinds of food coming together, but here is a piece of meat and it is entirely a piece of meat. There is a potato and you do not confuse it with a piece of meat. Yet all of the foods flavor each other and there is an overall flavor. That is probably a truer metaphor though the truth is somewhere in between. In any of the cultural neighborhoods I have mentioned you can probably at least get by in English and in most English is probably more commonly spoken than the language of the home country.
Certainly in the metropolitan areas, a lot of the culture shock is lost at an early age. Most people will have been through moderate stepping stones to another culture. Most of these Americans can find themselves in Japan and appreciate that the culture has a different flavor, but at the same time not be too shocked that things are strange. The woman from Portugal probably felt that she was the one who was cosmopolitan in that she is a European. Her country borders on France and on Spain. She probably feels that Spain has a very different culture from Portugal. From the US we do not see so much difference and she would feel that this is because we are the ones who are ignorant and provincial. In fact, the reason may be that we daily rub elbows with cultures that are as alien to us as Spain is to Portugal. Probably they are as alien as France is to Portugal. It may be that in ways it is the Europeans who have become provincial in today's world and Americans who are cosmopolitan in spite of the Europeans' self- created impression that it is the other way around.
Well, the truth is there were many aspects of Japan that are different for Americans. Some of Japan might have struck me as at least a little eccentric. So what I told the woman may have been a half truth. But the fact is that she was the one standing in the elevator astonished that Japan was so strange and for me the degree of difference was no more than I expected and in parts of Japan disappointingly less than I had hoped for. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: It takes a long while for a naturally trustful person to reconcile himself to the idea that after all God will not help him. -- H.L. Mencken
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