Thinking about Thanking

November 23, 2016

Recently I have been meeting weekly with an ESL student to give her practice speaking conversational English and increase her understanding of American culture. Naturally the subject of Thanksgiving has come up more than once.

The first time, she asked me what the word “thankful” meant. That surprised me, since this is not her first year in this country and her English vocabulary seems pretty good. I explained it meant “grateful,” which she did understand. (Which seems odd to me – I would have thought that the word thankful is used more often than grateful.)

(A Google search shows me that some people do distinguish between thankful and grateful, but there does not seem to be any consistency in how the two are distinguished, and other people use them interchangeably. It may be that, to some people, “thank you” is overused to the point of conveying less sense of genuine gratitude. Personally, I consider the two to be synonyms.) Read the rest of this entry »


Books: A Cultural Handbook to the Bible

May 25, 2015

I first learned of John Pilch’s research into cultural aspects of the Bible when I was looking for resources to help me understand Luke 12:49. What did Jesus mean about wanting to “cast fire on the earth”? Is this the fire of divine wrath? Is it talking about the work of the Holy Spirit (associated with fire in verses such as Matthew 3:11 and Acts 2:3)? John J. Pilch explains that a better translation would be “light the earth-oven” , and that Jesus is referring to himself as a catalyst for conflict, much as salt acts as a catalyst in the earth-oven.

Pilch’s explanation gives a new meaning to Jesus’ teaching about his followers being the “salt of the earth,” which in the past I had always heard interpreted to refer to salt’s use either as a seasoning or a preservative. I was curious what insights on other passages I could gain from his work, and I decided his A Cultural Handbook to the Bible and decided it would be a good resource to have.

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Books: Caleb’s Crossing

November 10, 2014

Having enjoyed Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book so much, I decided to listen to the audiobook version of Caleb’s Crossing. It has a lot of features that appeal to me – it’s historical fiction, and it deals with themes related to cross-cultural communication, religious faith, and education.

I was fascinated by the depiction of life in the 1660’s, told by a minister’s daughter named Bethia. The language uses a variety of words unfamiliar to the modern reader, but never difficult to understand in context. This archaic phrasing helps reinforce the sense of the story being solidly set in the past, in a cultural context very different from ours.

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Books: The Righteous Mind

August 28, 2012

As I often do at the library, I was browsing titles without having anything in particular I was looking for. I had looked over the shelves of new fiction, and moved on to the non-fiction – usually not a source of a lot of exciting reading, but you never know…

Nothing interesting under computer programming (my younger son wants to learn programming so we’re making it a joint project) – all the books dealt with platforms that don’t interest me (such as programming for smart phones). Nothing interesting under health or cooking (topics that interest me but new books rarely present any really new ideas).

Then I saw The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. In a presidential election year, with the country apparently so strongly divided over what candidates or courses of action will best address the moral and economic issues facing us, what could be more compelling reading?

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If I ran a museum…

May 18, 2012

After my sons’ enthusiastic response to National Chocolate Chip Day on Tuesday, I decided to look for s0me more “days” to celebrate. But before I even got started, I opened an email from APTE (a provider of educational resources) and found out that today is International Museum Day.

I started thinking about what museum to visit this weekend. Then I realized that my son has a Boy Scout campout this weekend, so the museums will have to wait for another weekend. But in the meantime, I got thinking about the idea of museums.

The APTE email informed me that “the word museum literally means a seat or shrine to the muses. In Greek mythology the nine muses were brought to life to rid the world of evil and sorrow. Their job was to protect art and knowledge.”

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Just to make us think

January 11, 2011

I don’t know exactly what the Wall Street Journal’s reason was to publish this controversial essay about Chinese mothers (other than the obvious, to sell newspapers), but I think it’s good food for thought, no matter what you think of the opinions expressed in the essay.

Hearing a view very different from your own (and I would guess that most readers of my blog would have views much closer to the typical Western parent than the Chinese mother who wrote this essay) can make you see your own views a little differently. Maybe you don’t change your views, but having to think why you hold them is good – better than having those same views without thinking them through.

And maybe thinking about those different views helps you consider that there might be some good points in the opposite view also. After all, why is it that some people do hold such views so tenaciously?

My own inclination is always to guess that the best answer lies somewhere between two extremes. In the context of the article, I would say that typical Western parents can learn from the Chinese about having high expectations, and being willing to do the difficult work of insisting on high standards being met – despite strong resistance from children.

Based on some of the comments (though I read only a few of the 2500+ comments), it’s not at all clear how typical the views of the essay’s author are, among Chinese parents. But however many do hold those views, and see them as superior to the typical Western view (and I don’t know just how typical that view is either, though I would guess pretty widespread), they can learn something from the Western point of view. Not every child can be the best – obviously. There are valuable traits and skills that may not manifest themselves in high grades and awards.

I can’t help but lean more towards the Western view, but it’s worth stopping to ask myself why.

How much of our views comes from the culture we live in? How much from our individual experience (including direct observation of others we know personally)?

Is there one best way to parent? What are the unintended consequences of both parenting styles described?

Must stability in society always be at odds with innovation? If one has to err on one side or the other, which has the better long-term consequences?

Is it possible for everyone to be special? If so, what does it mean to be special?

What do you do with the low achievers in society?

I almost didn’t read the article, because the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” didn’t sound like it could be intended to do anything but grab attention and provoke strong reactions. But I’m glad I did read it. Because it made me think, and that’s always a good thing.


Movies: Tortilla Soup

March 17, 2010

I suppose it’s not very Irish to watch a Hispanic movie on St. Patrick’s Day, but what can I say? I’m not Irish (though I am wearing a green T-shirt with a beautiful golden dragon against a background of Celtic knotwork). Of course, I’m not Hispanic either, but having studied Spanish and lived in a Spanish-speaking country, I became particularly interested in their culture.

Tortilla Soup was recommended to me by a co-worker from Brazil. He was born in Argentina, so he speaks Spanish as well as Portuguese – and good English as well. He had watched the movie one weekend, and he loved the music in the movie. He told me he thought I would enjoy it also. (He knows I speak Spanish, and I have attempted to learn a few phrases of Portuguese also.)

Based on his comment, I was expecting music to be part of the storyline, rather than just background for the action (as it is in just about any movie). Instead, the art form that plays a lead role is cooking, as the movie is about a widowed master chef and his three grown daughters, who live with him. He is losing his sense of taste and smell – a very bad thing for a chef. And it seems that he is losing his daughters also, as they are trying to find their own way in life – an American way of life – without asking his advice and following the traditional ways.

My husband said it seemed like a Hispanic version of Fiddler on the Roof, with conflict between the traditional father and his daughters. As it is set in the present, the daughters have not only love interests but also careers. And in Tortilla Soup, there is also the question of a love interest for the father, who has been widowed for fifteen years.

I learned from imdb.com that it is actually a Hispanic version of a Taiwanese film, Yin shi nan nu (Eat, Drink, Man, Woman). The screenplay of both movies was written by Ang Lee, and one viewer review pointed out that the dialog is almost word-for-word the same in both movies – except, I’m sure, for the obvious differences in language and cuisine.

If I had been told that the movie was about four women and their romantic interests, I doubt I would have been interested. The movie is rated PG-13 for sexual content, but the suggestive content was limited mostly to one scene, one comment in a later scene, and a brief scene showing a woman in only bra and panties emerging from a bedroom. Mostly, though, the movie is about people and their relationships – not only man and woman but father and daughter, the three sisters, and the chef’s friendship with his longtime partner at the restaurant.

Every one of the relationships seems strained nearly to breaking at times. I usually hate seeing people make fools of themselves on the screen, as I feel so embarrassed for them. But the struggles in these relationships are so typical of real life, and they are believable also in the way they are resolved. There’s not a happy ending to every relationship, but there is a happy ending to the movie.

I wonder if next I want to see Yin shi nan nu with English subtitles.


Cultural conundrums

October 8, 2009

Yesterday, while waiting for my computer to finish doing something or other, I was reading the October issue of the Toastmaster magazine. I didn’t actually read much of it, just skimmed through to see what might be interesting or helpful. When I came to the article “Know Thy Culture,” however, I slowed down and read every word.

I don’t remember just how much interest I took in understanding culture before I studied Spanish, though certainly I had at least some idea of the challenges involved in cross-cultural ministry from the books I had read about missions. The more I studied Spanish, however, the more interested I became in the subject. When I decided to participate in a summer abroad study program, the matter became very practical rather than just theoretical.

I’m not sure just how much I learned to recognize cultural differences during the time I spent abroad – not only that summer (which I extended to six months when I stayed on for the fall semester) but also, two years later, another nine months that I spent in Madrid as a graduate student. The most obvious differences are probably the least important. The foods are different, the daily schedule is different, and the holidays are different, but one can become accustomed to all those and still know very little of the real cultural differences.

I commented on one occasion to a Spanish acquaintance about having had to live on a stipend of only $3000 the previous year (1983). He pointed out that a Spanish man might support his whole family on that income, so he could hardly see why a single woman should think she needed more. I knew that I could buy more food in Spain with the Spanish equivalent of one U.S. dollar than that same dollar would get me in the U.S., and that housing also cost less. But I wasn’t sure how other expenses compared, and how much of the difference was being accustomed to a different standard of living (even though I had always lived frugally by American standards).

From books and classes I knew that there were also differences in family relationships, attitudes towards time, personal space (how far apart people position themselves to feel comfortable), and many other aspects of daily life. I could recognize such differences, knowing they existed, but I don’t know how much I would have picked up on, on my own, during the limited time I lived there – especially as I spent more time interacting with other American students both in and out of class than I did developing close relationships with Spaniards.

The article in the Toastmaster magazine makes it clear that some of the most important aspects of culture to understand are those that are hardest to see. There are assumptions about behavior that are so ingrained that it doesn’t occur to us that they are culturally based. Even when we come into contact with people of another culture, who behave in ways that offend us, we may easily blame it on poor character rather than a different set of values.

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