Sunday, September 4, 2011

reveling in uncertainty

One lasting effect of my time in Chile is a stronger sense of relativism: of just how arbitrary cultural norms are. I have a much better sense of how strongly cultures can differ on points that initially seem really important, and how the set and sequence of what matters in Culture A can be more or less orthogonal to what matters in Culture B.

Let's illustrate this with two social-religious issues: divorce and gay sex.
  • Divorce in the United States has gone state by state, but a brief scan indicates that Maryland legalized it in 1701, while South Carolina legalized it around 1949. Chile legalized divorce (fault-only) in 2004, and no one uses it: they just separate and go start families with other partners.
  • Chile legalized gay sex, by repealing the laws, in 1994 (yes, 10 years before divorce). Many American states never actually legalized it: Lawrence v. Texas struck down all the sodomy laws in 2003, but states only rarely bother to repeal laws rendered unenforceable. (Especially if, like the American South, they're a little cranky about the law being struck down and they want to leave it on the books as a middle finger to the Supreme Court.)
Abortion is illegal in Chile, with no medical or rape exceptions. It's tempting to think the country is a right-wingnut's dream, but pre-marital sex is ubiquitous, and teen pregnancy is generally treated cheerfully. It's a tolerant society; they just tolerate different things, at different rates of change.

A couple weeks ago some of us at work were chatting about our various migrations around the country, and I was explaining to one of our interns (whose parents are Taiwanese!) that Chileans tend to stay within a 20-minute drive of their family, and if that impacts their career, they're generally okay with that, because the family is what matters to them. Furthermore, Chileans who do leave their families behind often face significant pressures to come back. He wasn't getting it.
"Wait, so they just...take whatever jobs are near where their family is?"
"For the most part."
"They're happy like that?"
"Of course. They're living according to their values. If they weren't happy about it, they'd do something else."
This doesn't mean that we can't have values. There's a small raft of things I won't tolerate at all if it's in my power (rape, torture, slavery), and then a somewhat larger raft of things I disapprove of but I recognize exist more reasonably within their cultural context: like teen pregnancy in Chile, which hinders girls' prospects for a better life, but because of their tighter-knit family fabric, it's a more manageable thing than here. Or veiling women in the Muslim world, which you can write many books about, itself having many contexts, some good, some bad, some just very alien to us generic whitebread Americans.

Most cultural differences, though, just aren't that important once you start looking at them. Chileans eat horrible, awful, boring food as a matter of course, but it's still a beautiful country full of perfectly friendly people. Their map of social dishonesty is different: they can't say "No" to a request, and we can't say "You're looking fat today". It's not really possible to say that's a terribly important difference, and to have relationships there, you really have to open up and accept those differences.

Here's where this can change everyday life.

If those differences are not very important between cultures, it follows that they're not really that important within a single culture, either. If you learn to accept vast differences when you're embedded in a different culture--when you have no choice, if you want to have relationships and participate in that society--then you've already re-wired yourself to let go of things you thought mattered but actually don't. You can meet someone who disagrees with you, or that you have a negative reaction with, or whatever, and instead of thinking, "This person is a jerk" the way you would have thought, "Holy crap, Chileans are insane" (which they kind of are but I totally have anecdotes to back that up, and Chileans don't disagree), you can think, "Huh, this person and I aren't getting along. I wonder why?" and you can start out by asking questions instead of making judgements.

Most of us need to be less sure of our judgements, and living abroad is an excellent way to do that.

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