How NOT to introduce people to new cultures

Also published on Wordpress.

No, I am not basing it on my real life experiences. I am too much of a hermit to directly immerse myself in different cultures, too much of a hermit to even bother interacting with fellow human beings.

And yes, instead of writing about how to introduce people to new cultures, I prefer to write about how NOT to. I am so easily drawn to negativity.

My thoughts are based on what I have observed on Youtube videos and their comment sections. Buzzfeed videos produced years ago still linger in my mind because they featured American reactors of foreign dishes who were often lambasted by the comment sections not only for their ‘disrespectful’ reactions, but also for their limited tastebuds. But, I was more annoyed by the commenters than I was by the American reactors. Still am.

Years after discovering Buzzfeed, I found Simon and Martina who made videos about their life in South Korea before moving to Japan. They often took a very contentious tone when speaking about South Korea which angered many Koreans and Koreaboos, ignoring how the couple still emotionally-attachment to the country even after leaving it.

Right around the same time, I also discovered Englishman Chris Broad who initially made sarcasm-laced videos about some basic information about Japan. Then, as his career progresses, he makes more travelling content. Despite being grumpier and more sarcastic than Simon and Martina, his honest assertions about the country he lives in somehow feel less contentious than the couple’s regarding Korea. But, he is not without controversy, which I will discuss it later.

Through Simon and Martina, I was introduced to Josh Carrott AKA the Korean Englishman; took me a year to check out his videos. Unlike them, he almost has entirely positive view of South Korea. I am usually suspicious of anyone who have utterly positive opinions about anything; it often comes off as insincere. But, with Josh, I don’t have that problem at all and I will also explain why later.

I also have to mention Life Where I’m From, a Youtube channel run by Canadian Greg Lam who documents the life in Japan. While the Chris Broad and Simon and Martina occasionally make videos that can count as documentaries, Greg is the biggest documentarian among them.

Not only he interviews significantly more individuals, he is also a lot more methodical on which information he wants to display, on how he obtains it and on how he presents them; he also sees entertainment values as supplementaries. As a result, he does a great job in destroying negative stereotypes about Japan while simultaneously putting more attention on the downsides of life in Japan. He does a better job in portraying the country with nuances than many of those so-called journalists.

Now, to the reason why you clicked in the first place.

For me, before you even consider introducing people to new cultures, you should NEVER do the following:

Use stereotypes

We all know bigots love to use stereotypes. But, the thing is even people who claim to be ‘tolerant’ and interested in other cultures fall for them as well; instead of using negative stereotypes, they use the positive or neutral ones.

Yes, they are not negative. But, they are still stereotypes. They still see their fellow human beings as the ‘others’ who are devoid of human intricacies. It is still dehumanising.

Excluding Josh Carrott and Buzzfeed hosts, the aforementioned Youtubers frequently described how Koreans and/or Japanese people behave and, on a surface level, the descriptions do sound stereotypical.

But, if you listen closely, they actually debunk some of the stereotypes and reveal things we never expect from either nation. That’s because the descriptions are NOT based on hearsay, they are based on said Youtubers’ personal experiences interacting with the actual people!

Unlike stereotypes which are entirely simplistic and rigid, human beings are complex and unpredictable creatures who will never fit into any preconceived moulds, no matter how much you force them. The more you know them, the more you feel guilty about ever forcing them in the first place.

While he describes Japanese people as generally unassertive and shy, Chris Broad also had an easy time making his Japanese friends and colleagues -some of whom were older than him- eagerly learn English profanities; he knows that Japanese people are human beings, NOT ‘cute, cuddly anime characters’ as he put it in a subsequent video. In fact, his friend Natsuki has no qualm about doing antics publicly (e.g. dressing and acting like Zorro) and approaching a complete stranger just to befriend him/her, which was how the two met.

One of my favourite Greg Lam’s video is The Rules That Rule Japan, which title is self-explanatory. To summarise it, Japan is ruled by written and unwritten rules that seemingly contradict each other and, depending on which rules, the breaching is not always considered a faux pas. Basically, if you want to know how it is like living in Japan, you’ve got to live in Japan.

And it is not just Japan. Virtually every country on earth also shares similar situations regarding rules. Mind you, Japan is a very homogenous country and yet it is a very complex society to break down effortlessly. Now, just imagine breaking down more populated and more diverse countries like my home country Indonesia. If a country’s description feels so simple, then it is very likely infiltrated with inaccuracies.

A year after leaving South Korea for Japan, Simon and Martina made a video titled Japan or Korea: Did We Make The Right Choice? in which they expressed their preference towards Japan as a place to live. They were honest and uninhibited with their criticism about the living conditions in South Korea. But, it seems people don’t even bother to watch until the end.

The couple also explicitly made a disclaimer about how they were speaking from their own personal experiences and acknowledged that others might have diverging impressions about either country. Many in the comment sections, presumably both Koreaphobes and zealous Korean nationalists, ignore the disclaimer and thoughtlessly spew their dogmatic vitriol.

They intentionally ignore the video’s nuances just for the sake of affirming their versions of ‘reality’. They also ignore that Simon and Martina still see South Korea as their second home; even Simon said randomly meeting a Korean person in Japan made him feel at home.

Thanks to Chris Broad and Greg Lam, my interest in Japan actually increases and thanks to Simon and Martina, I have actually become interested in South Korea. My interest increases and emerges NOT despite of the scores of scathing tones, but because of it.

The imperfection makes both countries feel more real and human. The older I get, the more I actually find absolute positivity nauseating.

Be extreme

… And my hatred of absolute positivity is the reason why, as I mentioned before, I hate those who made negative comments on Buzzfeed’s food reaction videos more than their trashy American reactions.

For those commenters, NOT liking the dishes was not an option. They believe the reactors HAD to like them! For them, not liking those dishes was akin to spitting on their faces. They genuinely remind me of over-zealous fandoms.

Correct me if I am wrong. But, those reactors volunteered to be in the videos; basically, no matter how unrefined their behaviours were, they were willing to try to new things and that is something we must appreciate! To this day, my willingness to try new things is still too minimal.

I previously mentioned Josh the Korean Englishman whose (seemingly) absolutely positive view about South Korea does not put me off; nowadays, anything that seems will immediately put off. I believe it has something to do with how he expresses his love of Korea.

Some of his videos can be summarised as ‘foreigners (mostly English) trying Korean foods’ and those foreigners are not only honest about whether they like the foods or not, they sometimes make jokes about them… and you know what? Josh was not offended at all!

He does not care whether they love the food or not, he just wants to share an aspect of one of his beloved cultures. If anything, his passionate yet civilised tactic actually works! His friends end up appreciating Korean culture. Even his mom and his best friend’s father, whom have been repeatedly described as ‘very English’, also end up appreciating Korean culture!

But, even if you are not a hostile, you should be methodical in how you introduce a certain culture. Don’t go straight to the ‘weird’ stuffs.

If you want to introduce someone to Japanese cuisine, don’t go straight to sushi, sashimi or natto. Not every country in the world eats raw meat and foul-smelling, fermented soybeans. Take it easy and go with tempura and ramen first, which I know will make easy starts as fried foods and noodle soups are common all over the world.

If I were tasked to introduce Indonesian cuisine to foreigners, I would consider their backgrounds. If they are of East Asian descent, I would start with Chinese-Indonesian dishes. If they are of South Asian descent, I would start with gulai dishes which are considered as ‘Indonesian curries’. Unless the foreigners are from other Southeast Asian countries, I would think twice about starting with Sundanese and Javanese cuisine due to them being almost entirely indigenous.

If you go extreme -whether in how you behave or how you determine the starting points-, you would deter others from being adventurous.

Be arrogant

I do believe the ability to appreciate different cultures is a sign of sophistication. But, I still think there is no excuse for self-conceit. Our relatively broad cultural palates exist because the cultural exposures we have experienced…

…And those exposures exist because of our fellow human beings. You would not be as sophisticated if it wasn’t for them.

I used to be smug about my cultural sophistication. I was able (and still am) to appreciate the both foreign cultures and the distinct regional Indonesian ones, particularly in the forms of foods and music. But then, I realised that my tastes in both have something to do with me being a citizen of Indonesia, a culturally diverse country that also willingly accepts foreign cultures; I have lived in the Greater Jakarta area, which is unsurprisingly diverse, and my hometown Batam has not one but five dominant ethnic groups and is located near Singapore and Malaysia.

When it comes to my music taste, I also have to credit one of my music teachers and my mom. My teacher introduced me to Mahavishnu Orchestra, which was my gateway to more complicated music and my mom had the 1999 version of Badai Pasti Berlalu CD, which was my gateway to quality Indonesian pop.

My relatively-sophisticated taste is a product of my socio-cultural environment and I can confidently say the same thing can be said about yours… and Josh Carrott’s.

His attachment to Korean culture was born out of his sense of isolation as the only British student in an international school in China. It was the Korean students, the school’s main demographic, who took care of him and consequentially exposing him to the culture. If they didn’t do so and/or he decided to transfer to an English boarding school, he would not have his dual Korean-English identity. There would be no Korean Englishman!

In the case of Simon and Martina, Chris Broad and Greg Lam, it is different from Josh’s and mine. Their appreciation of foreign cultures emerged or increased after they moved abroad; Greg moved because he is married to a Japanese citizen while the others decided to teach English as a foreign language. Without their decisions which require them to leave their national and cultural bubble, they would not have the cultural sophistication they have now.

And because our experiences have definitely happened to other human beings, it is very reasonable to assert that we are NOT the only ones who possess cultural sophistication.

…..

Once again, I have to remind you that I have never done anything that is remotely similar to what those Youtubers are doing. I am basing my words on my observation of Youtube’s content.

Yes, I do not have any peer-reviewed studies supporting what I am arguing above. But, let us use common sense here: do you seriously think hostility, conceit and the tendency to stereotype are desirable traits in an individual?

Whether you believe it or not, those traits are off-putting. Embracing even just one of them means you are repelling others from liking you; the only ones you attract are those who share your repellent quality and are also avoided by more well-refined personalities.

If people are disgusted by you, how do you expect them to love what you love? If anything, not only others won’t end up loving what you love, they will end up hating it. It does not matter whether it is of good quality or not.

You, the enthusiast, are seen as a representative of the thing you love. Because you are such an abhorrent individual, many will assume the thing you love is equally abhorrent. I mentioned ugly personalities attract each other and it seems some people believe the same principle applies to non-living entities as well; many people thought the extremist tendency of Steven Universe fandom manifested the show’s poor quality, despite having never watched a single episode.

Yes, it is fallacious to deem something solely based on the behaviours of its enthusiasts. But, it is also wrong to carry ourselves so dementedly, we present outsiders an extremely distorted view of our fellow enthusiasts and, most importantly, the thing we love.

We love it so much, we make others hate it.

……

Now, those of you who are not guilty of such abhorrence may think I am making a big deal out of nothing and I am like a cat fighting his own reflection in the mirror; admittedly, I can be that neurotic and I have lost count how many mirrors I have smashed. But, if you have ever interacted with your fellow human beings online and offline, you would acknowledge that common sense is not common.

If you watched Buzzfeed videos many years, you would remember how malicious the comment sections can be against the hosts simply for not liking certain dishes. Even if you were never interested in such content, I am sure you have interacted with fandoms who think they can abuse anyone into loving their beloved idols and works of entertainment.

The idea that common sense being common is an exaggeration.

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