The stories that are told in Distant Mirrors reflect how people can be so comfortable with the way they live that they will never realize what is around them. This does not happen unless they take the initiative to research the”outside world.” I focused on three stories. These three stories share in the fact that when the person researched a new culture they were in awe of the differences and similarities that they found. Plainly put, these anthropologists underwent a culture shock; “disorientation experienced by a person suddenly to an unfamiliar culture.” Each anthropologist migrated to America in order to compare and contrast their culture to a country with all types of cultures. The first story that caught my attention was, “First Impressions: Diary of a French Anthropologist in New York City,” by Francoise Dussart.
Dussart decided to migrate to New York for a taste of its “exoticism”(p.34). She had previously been living in Australia because she was studying Australian aboriginal culture. Once she arrived at New York, she heard many stories about where the “good” places were and where not to end up. She ended up staying exactly where she was told to stay away from, “West 107th Street”(p.35).
Her stay here involved seeing the everyday problems that America and many other countries face, which are poverty, drug abusers, and unwed mothers. Dussart is surprised that what she was told was true. She describes these problems as”depressing.” Dussart also finds that there is a distinction between poor neighborhoods and rich neighborhoods. The “poor” neighborhoods consist of mainly minorities, and the “rich” neighborhoods consist of mainly Caucasian people. She states this clearly when she says, “When I note “poor” it is a poor Hispanic and black population, and when I write “rich,” it is predominantly white…”(p.37).
In conjunction to this, Dussart also makes the observation that depending on what nationality you ask where they feel safest; their reply will most likely be an area, which consists of their race. Clearly this was a huge culture shock for Dussart because she says, “I cant think of a European city in which wealth and poverty exist in such close proximity.”(p.37) She was surprised by the things that she witnessed and by the way society functioned in New York because that is not how her society functioned. As a resident of New York, I have observed that when you have lived surrounded by such issues all of your life, they become in a way “numb” to you. Eventually, it gets to the point where you know it exists, but since you see it ever day you become aware that you cant change these problems.
I can do things to help try to eliminate these problems, but the problems will never fully diminish. Someone that is not part of this type of society will be in shock by the things that they encounter. It is only natural, and by the end of her essay she realizes this, “The tendency to judge must still be fought. I still make comparisons, but less often.” Dussart realized that her culture does influence how she looks at the world around her.
The second story that caught my eye was “The Young, the Rich, and the Famous: Individualism as an American Cultural Value,” by Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel. Poranee is an anthropologist from Thailand. She went to America to see how the two cultures varied. Poranees conception of how Americans interact was, as she eventually discovered, very inaccurate. For example, it came as a surprise to Poranee that when someone asks you how you are doing, they do not really want to know, and they are just asking you out of respect. It is a way of greeting people.
This was contrary to Poranees culture. In Thailand, when someone asks you how you are doing they expect for you to actually discuss things with specific details. Poranee states, “We were reacting like Thais, but in the American context where salutations have a different meaning, our detailed reactions were inappropriate. In Thai society, a greeting among acquaintances usually requests specific information about the other persons condition…”(p.69).
She looks at how different American verbal interaction is from those of Thailand. Poranee looks at all aspects of American culture including the way they eat. Her Thailand values conflict with Americans everyday routine of compiling all types of food on their plates. This comes as a culture shock to Poranee because she says, “If I were to eat in the same manner in Thailand, eyebrows would have been raised at the way we piled our food on our plates, and we would have been considered to be eating like pigs, greedy and inconsiderate of others who shared the meal at the table”(p.71). As you can see clearly, Poranees values are a very important part of who she is.
She also goes on to describe how different family structure in Thailand is from in America. Looking at Poranees perspective as a whole, one can reach the conclusion that she is very observant when it comes to the differences in these two cultures. As much as she wants to learn and explore the American culture, it is second nature to incorporate her own cultural values. The functions of American society came as a complete culture shock to Poranee. This is evident when she states, “Although Thais may admire the achievements and material wealth of American society, there are costs, especially in the value of individualism and associated social phenomena”(p.73).
The mere fact that uses the word phenomena demonstrates the culture shock, which she has experienced. The third story I found interesting was, “A Cross-Cultural Experience: A Chinese Anthropologist in the United States,” by Huang Shu-Min. Huang is an anthropologist from China. He describes his cultural values as, “A reverence for age and custom, a high motivation toward scholarly achievement, and a strong sense of responsibility toward society had all been incorporated into my thinking throughout the process of growth”(p.29). Huang takes these values with him while he spends time in San Fransico.
While there, he observed everything with a critical eye. Huang experienced culture shock in a big way. He says, ” While we may claim to reject our cultures values and moral standards enmasse, in the deeper layer of the heart and mind, our thinking and behavior may still operate, even though unconsciously, under the same set of beliefs”(p.30). In simple terms, no matter how much a person wants to conform to a different culture, their actual values will always be revealed because it is unconscious. Even down to the way a person eats, talks, interacts, their values are present everywhere they go. Huang tries to understand culture as a whole by observing cultural values and human interaction.
Huang ends with a very strong statement; “It is hoped that by such a consistent practice of self-examination, we may come to understand the deeper meaning of culture on a firsthand basis”(p.33). He also says that we must examine ourselves in order to see that our culture does form who we are. These anthropologists took the initiative to try to understand culture as a whole, but in doing so, they experience culture shock. It is only natural to experience this because we as humans use what we have been taught, and what we have seen and incorporate it into how we view our own culture as well as others.
I can say for myself that if I were to go to a different country, I would impose my thoughts and opinions on their culture because it would be an unconscious act. At the same time, it is important to be open-minded to other cultures. If everyone were to exercise this, it would be a little easier to understand other cultures.