Thursday, June 5, 2008

Notes on Culture

The other day I attended a lecture on American culture given by a visiting professor from American University in Washington DC . The lecture was held at a local private English-medium university. Many of the students will be continuing their studies in the States, and the lecture was designed to prepare them for that experience. One of the things the professor noted was that people should not judge the host culture by the values or standards of their own culture.

Following the lecture, some time was given for questions. In the States this usually means a member of the audience asks a short question and the speaker gives a response. In this part of the world, it often means that members of the audience use the opportunity as a platform to talk about whatever. The first person to stand up went into a monologue about I-have-no-idea-what. But I do remember one sentence, “We all know that America will never elect a black person as President.”

The visiting professor was very generous. He commented that he would be willing to “bet a cup of tea” with the student that the next American President would indeed be black.

I wouldn’t have been so kind. It would have been the chance for a “teaching point” I couldn’t have passed up. I would have said, “This is exactly what I was talking about. You are judging another culture by the standards of your own culture. Just because you will never be king of Saudi Arabia, you assume the Americans would not elect a black American as President.”

Following the lecture I had a conversation with a delightful young student in his second year. His English, although good, is not perfect. The visiting professor had also encouraged the students to not be afraid to make language mistakes in America, because Americans are very understanding and helpful with people still learning our language. The student asked me if this was true. I assured him it was, and gave him the example of Nobel-prize winner Ahmad Zewail whose English was also weak when he first arrived in America. Ahmad recounts that when he went into a restaurant and asked for “desert”, his wife had to teach him the difference in pronunciation between “dessert” and “desert”.

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