Reading Between the Lines: Understanding vs. Agreeing


This post was prompted after reading Janet Given’s memoir, “At Home on the Kazakh Steppe”. My thoughts about the book are posted on Goodreads, Amazon and my review blog. Here however, I’m answering one of the discussion questions (at the back of the book). “How did ‘my’ experience living in another culture compare?”

Now, before the going gets going, let me slip in how I had to first check myself. Nothing can be more ‘wronger’ than plowing through an answer, mowing backwards from the start.

I looked up CULTURE. According to a number of sources; dictionary, Google, Wikipedia and etcetera, culture is commonly defined as a system of behaviors, beliefs, values, and customs a group of people pass on from one generation to the next.

No reading between any lines there, and just what I thought.

Not to be glib on the matter, since there are cultures that do adhere to distinctive jaw-dropping customs that transcend what I’m about to slide in here, but classifying principles and beliefs is not a topic I oversimplify.

I’ve come across a number of distinct corporate climates, a few so ‘grandfathered-in’ distinctive that it can take an employee a few years and a battery of training courses to get down pat. I’m also mindful of those seemingly benign trips ‘going down south’, a term one of my aunts keenly dislikes, or out west, up north and the likes…visiting relatives where I happened to note our inherited ‘value system’ morphed into other customs quite distinctive in anything from dialect or language, to behaviors, beliefs, values, dress, cooking, lifestyles, and conceivably more.

This is what came to mind when thinking about the question. ‘Going down south’ happened to be where my appreciation for culture first developed, and then broadened as I moved across the country... overseas... and changed careers. These societal contrasts, in part, led me to write an ethnology paper (briefly blogged here) on colloquial cultural differences within the U.S..

Thus, where I found my experiences comparable to those shared in the book, was in how the narrator came to terms with understanding vs. agreeing (or disagreeing) with perspectives of a practiced culture. To paraphrase, moving in and out of cultures is something like kicking off one pair of shoes and stepping into another. Or, in another manner of written speech it is similar to the way I approach reading books on a wide range of topics, also comparable to what was most remarkable about Janet’s approach to ‘making friends for America’ in Kazakhstan... the main thing I simply cherished about this story.

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