Here Thar Be Monsters!

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The Cacophony of Cultures

I tend to write a whole week's worth of columns on Sunday afternoon, so if you notice particular themes running through them, then much of it has to do with the mood I am in on Sunday afternoon.  But, since my lovely bride just brought me a bunch of chocolate chip cookies, perhaps my mood will lighten up a bit going forward.

My habit is to scan through the news and look for things that set me off.  I use Drudge for the right-wingnut view, the New York Times for the left-wingnut view, and Rense for the pure-wingnut view. For seasoning, I throw in the Financial Times, the Strait Times, the Allgemeine Zeitung, and the Times of India (aka the Bombay Bombast).  Stir in Russia Today and Xinhua, boil till thick and aromatic. Then I create a mental picture of the state of the world.  And this week, that state is a pretty sad one.

What I came across, though, was an article in the Gray Lady (New York Times) about a Chinese surgeon that wants to perform a full-body transplant on a paralyzed man.  That triggered a memory about an article from Newsweek about an Italian surgeon that wanted to perform a head transplant.

The first thing that struck me is the underlying philosophical differences.  From the descriptions of what is being done, they sound more or less the same thing.  The difference is that the Italians (westerners) are changing the head, and the Chinese (easterners) wanted to swap out the body.

Not sure why, but this difference intrigued me.

Even beyond the Frankenstein movie horror images (the book used an alchemical process to create an homunculus), these articles revealed a very deep division in points of view.

On the one hand, the Westerners were transferring a head to a new host body, while the Easterners were giving a body a new head.  Do you see what I see?  The Westerners place the center of being in the head, while the Easterners view the head in context of the whole body.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China?  Probably not much, but it does highlight something that I often go on about here, and that is the fundamental assumptions that we all have and that are culturally induced.

In the West, we have generally come to assume that the head is the center of the body.  This is neither right nor wrong, though I tend to see it as incomplete.  The Eastern culture sees the entire body as a unified whole.  Again, neither right nor wrong, just incomplete.  They are complimentary assumptions and lead to a whole host of viewpoints that are completely in opposition to each other.

A great example is the Indo/Malay word hati.  Now if you ask a schoolchild how this translates into English, they will tell you "heart," and in a sense, they are right...and wrong.  In fact, hati strictly means liver, while jantung means heart - at least when it comes to physical organs.

However, in English we use the word "heart" for a much more intangible and philosophical thing: the seat of the emotions and wisdom.  In the Indo/Malay languages, this concept in located in the liver.  Don't ask me why, I haven't gotten that far in my ponderings, but the fundamental cultural divide is there.

Indonesians will tell you hati-hati (be careful), and perhatian (attention), or memperhatikan (take note of something).  Maybe they will say someone has berhati busuk, or evil intent, or berhati baik, a heart of gold.  In a book, when a character thinks to himself, he is speaking didalam hati, inside his heart.  But, if someone drinks too much alcohol, they will get sirosis hati.  There is no mistake that hati is liver, and it is quite apparent that the language embeds all of the aspects of the Western "heart" in the liver.

In this same vein, the Westerners will transplant a head and the Easterners will transplant a body.  Same basic procedure, completely different philosophies.

To me, and admittedly I'm a bit of a geek, this is one of the most fascinating parts of learning new cultures.  Oh sure, we all have our unique costumes and dances, architecture and food, but the most interesting part is the profound differences in the assumptions we make about the Universe as part of our cultural underpinnings.

Many people go through life without ever having questioned the very foundations of how and why we think that way we do.  They never experience completely different viewpoints or rotate around a problem and attack it from an angle that we are culturally blind to.

It's like religion.  Take Judaism and Islam.  They both abhor pork.  They both practice mutilation of male genitalia.  They both have stylistically similar languages with dozens of cognate words.  Yet, one claims to be descended from the legitimate child of a mythical character (Abraham), and the other claims to be descended from the illegitimate child of the same character.  For this, they have warred for centuries, laying claim to the same lands, when in fact, they are hardly separated philosophically.

Little differences that underlie big things.

That's why - and readers here seem to agree - my scribblings tend to take unusual tacks.  I tend to look at problems and issues from non-standard points of view, and even to create new ones by synthesizing alternative viewpoints.  I like to view the world as both a head transplant and a body transplant, because that one simple change can lead to all sorts of new ideas down the line.

The people I know who can do this all have one thing in common: they speak multiple languages.  The thinkers I tend to gravitate towards all speak at least two or three languages.  The people I most admire are polyglots.  And the things that sets them apart from others is their ability to examine the world as if through multi-faceted eyes, seeing angles that others cannot.

It's a valuable tool not to be locked into a single cultural perspective.

I went to school with the son of the guy who invented the Weed-Eater.  He kept the original in a glass case in his living room.  He got tired of the trouble and expense of sharpening and replacing blades on lawn edgers, so one day he tied a bunch of heavy-duty fishing line to a popcorn snack can and bolted in on to his machine.

My grandfather, trying to figure out a way to clean tanker cars on trains after hauling oil or chemicals, was inspired by the heating coil he used to keep his coffee warm on his desk.

They both became a multi-millionaires because he looked at a problem from a wildly different point of view, and that fact made an impression on me.

Of course, my solution is to wonder why I need to edge, or even have a yard, at all.

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