“My culture is better than yours”


#AE  Reading with our partner from ANGRY ITALIAN!! by

In a world that is highly international, we tend to get in contact with people that share a very different culture from ours. I personally had the chance, or better to say the privilege, of being exposed to Chinese culture for an extended period of time. That experience was for me a life changing one, a moment where I felt I was growing a lot and that allowed me to become more grounded. That experience convinced me even more of a concept that has been one of the very few ideas in which I strongly believe: cultural exchange is the ultimate way of development and growth. At least it has always worked that way for me.

Now that I am back in Asia I am again challenged to deal with a different culture. Living in Thailand, a country incredibly exposed to international tourism, life is much easier than when I first landed in China. However, talking to people and exchanging ideas, a question comes to my mind: is it really possible to absorb a different culture and be able to live with it, accepting it without any kind of intolerance? Can a European go to live in China and after five or ten years contemplate Chinese culture as something that has the same, even if in a different way, validity as European culture?

This might sound like a Eurocentric, post-colonialist issue that a contemporary international society doesn’t need to address as it has already been solved, but the truth is that we are more racist than what we’d feel comfortable admitting.

Even people who are brave and open-minded enough to go abroad and challenge themselves fall in the trap of a Eurocentric way of thinking. By Eurocentric, I don’t mean that people consciously declare the superiority of Western culture as it is, but it is the general feeling that your own idea of justice, truth, beauty, common sense, success is necessarily the only right one.

I guess that, put it this way, the concept I’m trying to share is a bit abstract and difficult to grasp, so I will give some examples of sentences that always make me stop and think…

“The country X is culturally growing”
“Westerners went to country X and trained the people”
“Westerners went to country X and taught culture to the people”
“People X are stupid” (this feels incredible but you truly hear it)
“I don’t like people X” (even referred to a country with over 1 billion population)
“Country X is not civilised”
“It is peculiar how the West has developed and the East has remained under developed”
“People X are extremely rude”
“People X are so ignorant, they don’t understand a word of English”
“You would assume that person X, after having studied in the West, would want to continue their self development and stay working in the West, instead of going back to their country”

As you see, all of these sentences have in common the preconception that culture only means Monet, Bach and Shakespeare, that there is only one way of dealing with things, that there is only one way of civilisation, one way of progress, one way of being polite. Unfortunately, this is what we are taught. These ideas are so grounded in us that it is incredibly difficult to even consider that they might be wrong, or that there might be something different.

It is like when you look at something and you perceive its appearance as objective: this is objectively blue, round, smooth and flexible. You could never think that it might actually be green, squared and stiff for someone who has different eyes and different hands.

And then there is another bad habit of us Europeans: we always want to have an opinion on everything. As soon as we experience something we feel the need of judging it and shout it out to the world. Well, I will tell you something: we don’t actually need to judge straight away. And you are not going to look smarter if you do that, quite the contrary. It is a relief to be able to contemplate something and absorb it without judging. The idea that you have about it will come to you with time.

I am extremely grateful to have had people and experiences in my life who taught me how not to fall in those traps so easily (even though being an Italian I often hear and tempted to say myself that Italy is the “country of culture”, one of the most common traps of where I come from).

On a side note, I was looking for a picture for this post and typed “Chinese people” on Google. First suggestion was “Chinese people who eat children”. Talking about stereotypes…

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