Friday, February 25, 2005

Blurring of cultural boundaries

Studying French in America is pointing out to me, bit by bit, how much more blurred cultural boundaries are in Europe than probably anywhere else, at the very least as compared to the United States and China. It certainly doesn't seem that way when you're there, because there are plently of things to mark the differences: local traditional cheeses as opposed to imported traditional cheeses, local traditions of design, glassware, architechture as opposed to foreign traditions of design, glassware, and architechture. But right there, the word "foreign" tells me something. Foreign isn't the right word. They're not foreign, they're.. from another European country. Logically, foreign is a completely acceptable choice, but the English word foreign has a feeling of.. far, far away and unknown and not understood. Not self, not familiar, not here.

Of course, Europeans express the idea "from another country" all the time - especially in debates about the EU. So what do they say, then? Well, they sometimes use words that I have to translate with "foreign," but they lack the feeling of far away. In fact, they're often used about things that are very common, very familiar, well-known and here right now. It has more of an essential overtone of origin, often invoked in slogans for intra-national products like "Suosi suomalaista!" (Favor Finnish [products/stuff/whatever]!) They put the focus more on the national rather than the Otherness of the foreign.

So in other contexts than exhorting consumers to pick local products to support local enterprises or farmers, what does one say? Well, European, for example. European as opposed to national. With the general discussions of the relative roles of the EU and nationstates and the on-going transitions toward integration, the relationship between central EU government - the European - and the individual nationstates - the completely Self - is in the back of your mind. Since one can't well mean European as opposed to us, whose country is in Europe but is not European, "European" has come to refer more to European as a whole, as a unified concept, as something more general that any nationstate is part of but no more than that. It is both Self and Other, and so its connotations - the way you feel when you say it - is very different from "foreign."

This type of language usage where region labels are used because there isn't a neat split between Self and Other is hardly new. Scandinavia and the Nordic countries have had passport-free travel for around 50 years between them for citizens of each other's countries, and their histories are heavily intertwined, as are their languages with the exceptions of Finland (Finno-Ugric language tree) and Icelandic (From the same tree as the modern Scandinavian languages, but retains many language features that are dead in the others, making it extremely difficult to understand. Think sort of like middle English). Switzerland has always had language diversity within its borders as well as fierce loyalty to a particular valley, creating both strong ties to the very local (the central government is very weak, and always has been) as well as to other countries via language in addition to the nation-state. For someone in a French-speaking valley in Switzerland, France or Belgium cannot be "foreign" in its English sense, even though they are different countries, there are different accents, and all such. When you already speak the language of a country, it is difficult to feel like a complete outsider the way you can if you can't even separate words out in speech and can't read a single thing. (Similarly, Americans seem to feel more kinship with other Anglo countries for the same reason, but America is far removed from it's sisters in a way people in Europe are not.)

Similarly, it seems that for Chinese, there are foreigners and Japanese. "Foreigner" seems to mean non-east Asian but including southeast Asian foreigners. However, there is a a bigger difference in perception between Chinese and Japanese than there is within Europe. Chinese food is Chinese food, Japanese food is different. Their tea is different. Their manners are different. Their culture is different. Although their histories have intertwined, they have not been as intertwined in terms of languages and movements of people as Europe's countries have been.

Food is, in fact, a good example. Ethnic restaurants in Europe tend to be non-European, like Thai, Chinese, Lebanese, Indian, kebab places, whatever. You won't see a German restaurant in France or an Austrian restaurant in Spain. Why not? Well, why would you want one? Local restaurants will serve dishes technically from all over Europe, in general, and it's just food. Wienerschnitzel is a very unremarkable lunch dish, despite a locality being in the name. Cheese is made everywhere - so buying cheese from France is not really different from buying cheese made in Denmark. For a purist, it may matter in terms of quality, taste, and tradition - but my point is that one does not really register a technically foreign cheese as foreign, it's just cheese. That it comes from all over Europe has more to do with modern cooled transportation than anything else. Wine has no origin, it's just wine. Some regions drink more of it than others, but some regions drink more milk than others. It feels more like a collective regional preference difference rather than Other. It's we. We drink wine, we eat cheese, we eat sausages and mash and coq au vin and moussaka and souvlaki and calamari and veal medallions in marsala sauce and schnitzel and beef stew and borscht. We cook with creme fraiche and roux and gravy and butter and olive oil and cream and tomatoes and herbes de provence and herbes, ce ne sont pas de provence. There are, of course, national and regional dishes - but they are few and not as common as all the dishes that are very similar. Those are the things we lift forward as separating marks, maybe with some things that are predominantly eaten in one region, because you don't notice all the similarities. It's just taken for granted.

In other ways, too, there is much more mixing than elsewhere. Food is relatively shallow; if that was all there was, one could argue America is very integrated with Mexico. What really has struck me in French class, to return to my starting point, is how little my classmates know about France, how foreign it is to them. La Sorbonne, for example. Le Quartier Latin. Expressions like "C'est la vie." But even more than that - l'esprit critique, the political discussions, all that. Still more familiar are some fantasy figures, almost icons, like Pierrot. One of my favorite toys as a small child was a turquoise silk Pierrot with a fine porcelain head and hat, sown to a pale yellow silk moon, crying. I so admired and felt sorry for Pierrot - why was he so sad? And why was he on the moon, all alone? But I envied him for sitting on the moon, something I had never done.

Later, in literature class, I did see a Self/Other split - but between European literature and non-European literature. We studied Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Proust, Brecht, Kafka, Ibsen, Voltaire, Strindberg, Shakespeare, all kinds of literature, poetry, and plays, all of which were considered something that one ought to know if one wants to pretend one graduated high school, because it was your literature. Later in the class, we were more free to pick what to study, and in a collective brainstorm we were naming famous authors and books they've written. I named almost every single American author and book on the board. Most of them no one had ever heard of except the teacher, who clearly considered them unnecessary. No mention of African, South American, Australian, or Asian literature.

Maybe Europe is the birthplace of one type of cosmopolitanism without being aware of it - a lack of black and white distinction between nationstates that is becoming generally integrated into identity conception, so subtly embedded in society that you don't even think about it. People like me do so to a completely different degree, and we do so consciously - but maybe Europeans can be the first people to society-wide identify with more than one nation-state. The circumstances are certainly favorable.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Score 1 for null hypothesis

Opinion voiced at panel discussion on global fundamentalisms: Europe isn't seeing a rise in religious fundamentalism in part because Europe doesn't feel as threatened by globalization. One piece of support for my null hypothesis.

One of the things I have the most difficulty understanding and sympathising with in the US is the excessive religiosity and especially the fundamentalism. The longer I've been here as an adult, the more it bothers me. Seems to be a general pattern for people. The mroe of it you see, the less you can stand it. At some point, you being public and vocal about your religion starts, in essence, pushing your religion on me, and I don't appreciate that. Especially, I dislike the idea that I ought to be behaving according to religious morals from a religion I don't believe in. It also sets up the scene for clashes and conflicts. That alone ought to be a good reason to keep your religion private. What you do in private is no one's business, assuming you're not breaking any laws. What you do in public, however, is subject to cultural and societal opinions, ethics, and restrictions. And, as far as I know, no religion considers it holy to self-aggrandize your piety. If you are pious, you can be perfectly pious without anyone knowing about it. If you don't feel satisfied unless you can show off how righteous and pious you are, then that has nothing to do with religion.

I still have trouble understaning why abortion and evolution are so controversial, especially evolution. None of the arguments I've heard explain to me why these issues, why now. The two seem rather randomly picked to me, really. The principles invoked to explain why these two issues are so crucial apply to all kinds of things where there is no similar outrage, and I can't figure out what has led to these two things being singled out for outrage.

I guess I've been gone long enough from Europe to start properly sorting out as an adult what is European. I saw many of the problems and the differences between the countries very clearly, but now I'm starting to see what is truly unique about Europe as a whole. Relative lack of insecurity about globalization is a pretty good trait to have.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Reality, realiteten ja todellisuus

Something even expats seem to have trouble grasping sometimes is that every place on Earth is real. Rather, I'm not saying that people think that some places are made up, but it does seem like many don't understand that everything they hear about, the news they see, it's right in front of someone. If they were that someone, it would be right in front of them.

For example, when you hear about people talking about snow skiing, they're thinking of old memories and resorts they've been to that you can touch, look at, live in, and be part of. If you snow skiied, it would all stand out in 3D to you too: all the smells, the sunlight, the kinds of trees, the cold, the types of snow, the mountains, the effect of the wind on the snow, the snow blowing into the air and into the light and glittering like a million little weightless crystals, the smell of food cooking when you walk into a restaurant... The fact that you've never done it or seen it doesn't mean that it's not real, that people aren't doing it or living it as I type. And anything that's real could one day be part of your life. Anything that is real really exists out there and is part of the collective human experience. Even though you don't deny that it's real - have you really affirmed to yourself that it is? That one day, you could be on a pair of skis, metaphorically speaking?