Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Culture clash

The English soldiers were more polite. Or perhaps it was simply that no one could understand what they were saying.
Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement

Sebastian Japrisot's novel, like the wonderful film based on it by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, contains a surprising amount of humor despite its somber setting in the trenches of the First World War and the immediate postwar period in France. Among these welcome bits of fun is the passage quoted above.

It reminds me of a passage in Little Dorrit, a Charles Dickens novel that also, for all its sadness, contains much humor. An English family, the Plornishes, are entertaining an Italian named John Baptist Cavalletto. Writes Dickens, "They began to accommodate themselves to his level, calling him 'Mr. Baptist," but treating him like a baby, and laughing immoderately at his lively gestures and his childish English -- more, because he didn't mind it, and laughed, too."

And that then reminds me of occasions when we have entertained visitors from China, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia and Nigeria in our home. Most of these visitors spoke at least decent English, yet there were wide cultural differences, and everyone, both guests and hosts, were ill at ease and eager to please. There were constant smiles and, as Dickens describes, immoderate laughter.

At their best, these kinds of informal cultural exchanges build friendships, sometimes lasting friendships. They help us understand and appreciate people from other cultures with other customs. Yet there are dangers, too. The Plornishes mistake their visitor's weak English for a weak mind and treat him like a child. The French in Japrisot's novel can't be sure the English soldiers were really polite and not making fun of them in a language they did not understand.

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