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Back to Basics...of Intercultural Communication
Milton J. Bennett has spent decades exploring the complex melange of intercultural issues. An industry veteran, he's developed the Bennett Scale, or the Developmental Model for Intercultural Sensitivity, as a way to gauge the empathy and complexity of one's reaction to foreign cultures. The second edition of his landmark work, "Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication," is scheduled for released in early August, and while you may be able to wait until then, let's take a look at some characters throughout fiction that sorely missed out on Bennett's crucial lessons about interacting with and between two or more cultural spheres.
Sebastião Rodrigues, from Silence by Shūsaku Endō
One of the greatest novels to come out of post-World War II Japan, Endō's novel focuses on the experience of a group of idealistic Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan, a period when the country had implemented a policy of sakoku, which forbade foreigner's entrance into Japan under the penalty of death. Rodrigues is driven partly by his desire to spread his faith to the Japanese and partly by his desire to provide clerical services to the underground Christian community in Japan, but the main thrust of the novel is Rodrigues's compulsion to locate his mentor Cristóvão Ferreira who came to Japan some time before, hasn't been heard from in some time, and is rumored to have committed apostasy. An interesting note, Silence is one of Martin Scorsese's dream projects and has attracted Benicio del Toro, Andrew Garfield, Ken Watanabe, and Academy Award-magnet Daniel Day-Lewis to star in an adaptation that is scheduled to begin production in 2014.
Where he goes wrong: This is a novel that deals in some serious ambiguity. But the idealistic Rodrigues is absolute in his faith and his ability to make in roads with the Japanese people. He has come to spread Western Christianity, a concept that he believes is without regional and cultural tags, to a non-western, non-christian country. He does not expect and cannot adapt to the "swamp" of Japan that “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process." Rodrigues believes himself a benign imperialist, though some of the Japanese people he meets have seen his kind before.
The Shimerdas, from My Ántonia by Willa Cather
You probably had to read it in middle school, didn't, and now here it is again. Cather's novel on life in Nebraska centers around the enigmatic Ántonia Shimerda, a daughter in a family of Bohemian immigrants who are not always suited to farming and surviving the harsh winters. The narrator Jim Burden can't stay away from Ántonia, though, and Cather shows us with delicacy and depth the journey that we go through as we mature in the isolation of Nebraska and, particular to Ántonia, the isolation of a new country.
Where she goes wrong: The immigrant Shimerda family struggles mightily with adapting to a farming lifestyle. Cather makes it abundantly clear that this is not a systemic plight of immigrants, though, as the neighboring Russians, Pavel and Peter, run a very successful homestead themselves. What does the Shimerda's in is their heartbreaking longing for the way things were. The father still yearns for his scholarly life and the mother refuses to learn even cursory English. It's not a failure of assimilation - it's the refusal of one.
Alder Pyle, from The Quiet American by Graham Greene
First reviled in America when it was published in 1956 and then venerated as a landmark anti-war novel come Vietnam, Graham Greene's meditation on western intrusion into French Indochina follows the aging British reporter Thomas Fowler and the idealistic (do you sense a theme?) young American Alder Pyle. Pyle bursts into Saigon ready to execute the writings of a foreign policy "expert" despite his total lack of experience. Pyle is brash, arrogant, and confident that things will go his way, despite the fact that war has been raging just outside Saigon for years before he got there.
Where he goes wrong: Through his struggles with Fowler and his setbacks with his policy implementation, Pyle understandably becomes frustrated, yet he never gains any sense of self-reflection on what the culture around him truly is. He has fooled himself into believing that his ideology his truly sound and will produce the desired result. As such, the ends justify the means for Pyle, which does not turn out well for him.
EVERYBODY, from The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The winner of the 2011 National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Langum Prize, and the Prix Femina Étranger, I don't think I need to talk this book up much. Set in the early 1900's, a hauntingly beautiful first person plural narrator tells us the collective experience ('story' isn't the best word here) of Japanese picture brides in America. Since no one character is followed exclusively, Otsuka is able to craft the sense of an entire group's consciousness and experience with their new husbands, some of whom they stay with and some of whom they run from. With rare exceptions, the Japanese women are lied to about their partners and the culture they're thrust in to, as the novel closes with a pre-World War II America that has changed so much itself.
Where they all go wrong: Granted, picture brides coming from the other side of the world aren't exactly primed for success in 1900's American society, but in most cases, these women's first harsh experiences are enough to shut them off from any prospect of future happiness or success. That's not to say that they merely drift through life, but integration and assimilation (or as close to that as was possible back then for Asian immigrants) become almost unattainable for them. They constantly see themselves as perpetual foreigners, even when they find communities of other immigrants like Japantown in San Francisco. American society may never have welcomed them, but they never welcomed it, either.