The difficulty of leaving your culture behind is that you can’t

You may be familiar with the didactic little parable-ish story with which David Foster Wallace opened his 2005 Kenyon commencement address:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

For much of my adult life, this has been my goal: to transition from the young fish to the old fish and recognize the water in which I live. It’s one of the reasons I chose the majors I did, and it’s also why I think travel is so important. By experiencing a new culture, you gain a new perspective on your own. But having spent five and a half months in Brazil, it’s becoming increasingly clear I’m running into a problem:

It’s really darn hard to notice water.

The clues have been there all along. I’ve mentioned how people in Caxias don’t strike me as particularly cold, because it’s what I’m used to coming from the East Coast. I’ve shared how I’ve been oblivious to entire rules in English (despite the fact I literally read about grammar for fun) simply because they aren’t taught to native speakers. And I just recounted how I assumed for some reason that all the buildings in Caxias would have indoor heating.

But this realization fully came to a head a couple days ago, when I was at a pizzeria to celebrate the birthday of one of Elaine’s daughters. Some of her friends were asking us about the things that we found strange about Brazil, so Barbara and I explained how it’s  annoying to have to go around and kiss everyone whenever you join or leave a party. (I find this is a safe difference to bring up, as opposed to like garish beauty standards or a general tendency to complain bitterly about other people’s behavior but then do the same thing yourself.)

Anyway, fast-forward a couple hours, and people start to leave. One of the friends we had been talking with stood up and gave a general wave around the table. Barbara and I said goodbye and returned to our conversation, thinking nothing of it. But then the friend said, “Just kidding! That was my American goodbye,” and proceeded to give everyone cheek-kisses instead.

Six months of living here, and I couldn’t pick up on the absence of a basic social cue because its absence aligned with my idea of normal. That’s the difficulty of noticing water.

DFW describes maintaining an awareness of water as “unimaginably hard,” which I think is fitting—it’s impossible to know what you don’t know. Even so, I went into my grant period thinking that if I was attentive enough, if I was aware enough, I would be able to make myself notice water through sheer force of will. Of course, I’m realizing nows that’s not how that works. I may be able to perceive cultural differences and check some of my perspectives at the door, but at the end of the day, I still have a history and heuristics—and I recognize I’m never going to be able to fully overcome those.

That’s not to say I don’t think I should stop trying. I think decentralizing the self is an inherent good, and the metaphor of water is a useful framework for thinking about life outside yourself. I used to have a professor who would call history the most dangerous subject because it teaches us that what is hasn’t always been. I think experiencing other cultures is similar, only lateral: it shows us what is doesn’t have to be.

Do I want to have to go around kissing everyone whenever I enter or leave a party? No. But do I wish the value at its root, a communitarian spirit of warmth and consideration for each another, had a little more traction in the US? Yes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the US is great. I’m thankful for the opportunities it’s given me and I’m proud to represent it abroad. But at the same time, the culture of the US—like any culture anywhere—is a product of values with inherent trade-offs. From studying and living abroad, I’ve realized that some of those values I barely even register; they just seem self-evident to me. That’s my water, which I need to learn to notice.

I’ll give some more concrete examples of these cultural values in an upcoming blog post. I don’t want to come off as too self-important here, but if I’m charged as a Fulbright Scholar with increasing mutual understanding, I think calling attention to these values (and the ways in which they differ around the world) is an important step.

Like I said, I one day hope to be the old fish in the story that DFW shared. But if I have to be the young fish, I can see one silver lining: I get to learn what the hell is water.

One thought on “The difficulty of leaving your culture behind is that you can’t

  1. Pingback: Cultural programming in comic books: practicing Portuguese with ‘Turma da Mônica’ | In the city of gaúchos

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