"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 30, 2017

Love In A Foreign Language–Relationships Are Tough Enough Without Having To Deal With Cultural Diversity

Fidelity, trust, consideration, respect – all these come to mind when asked ‘What accounts for a good marriage?’.  Without them marriage would be a free-for-all. Without the stability and predictability that comes with a mutually-respected moral, contractual relationship, it would fall apart.  At best it would become a sexual convenience store and daycare nursery.  At worst it would be meaningless.

Edward Albee hated marriage but his plays all expressed his sentiment that marriage is the crucible of maturity.  Without the enclosure, the No Exit sign, and the presumption of durability if not longevity, no one would have to stand and fight, demand, conciliate, apologize, or forgive. 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, perhaps his most famous play, is on the surface a drama of a married couple who hate each other.  The torment, torture, vindictiveness, and cruelty they inflict seems intolerable.  Yet they stay together; and by the end of the play, exhausted and spent, flayed not only to the bone but ‘to the marrow’, they are finally ready to live if not love together.   They have grown up.
 


Some critics suspect that the grand guignol will continue; after the play ends; that such flawed and selfish characters can never grow up; but most others have accepted Albee’s vision of the mystery of marriage and how no one can do without its compulsion.

Respect, fidelity, trust, and consideration have all been tested in the crucible – tested to the point of mutual destruction – and have been proven strong and indeed durable.

But such a focus on moral behavior begs the question.  Such incidents of moral testing -  doing the right thing, and looking inward for resolve and courage – are few and far between.  Most marriages simply soldier on.  One day is little different from the next.  Dinners, outings, bedtimes, housework, calendars, and car repair are all predictable, unsurprising, and boring.

The one thing that saves marriage from being a stale repetition is humor.  Couples that can laugh at the odd bits and pieces, quirks, distortions, bombast, and cheap makeup outside routine – on power alleys and on the bus; in the street, on television, and next door – survive best. 

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Marriages, especially long ones become serious affairs.  Positions have become hardened, arguments over issues once dismissed become common.  Pride replaces conversation – a middle-age self-image issue.  Once job, children, and house-and-home have become part of the emotional woodwork, and all of the sparkle and allure that attracted couples in the first place is long gone, there is little left but well-staked out points of principle.

Yet the funny ones – the couples that take nothing seriously and laugh at everything – survive and survive well.  

In today’s politically correct climate, humor has been pruned, and shaped according to measure.  Nothing out of place.  No weeds.  No voles or squirrels; only the allées, trimmed boxwoods, and flower beds of a formal garden.



Funny couples, however, pay this no mind. The genetic twists that turn out distortions and irregularities, freaks, long noses, short arms, and dullness; and the social incidents that complement the genome and assure shyness, bombast, insecurity, and laziness are the stuff of humor. Without this absurd diversity, life would indeed be far more tedious than it already is.

Funny couples are by and large culturally homogeneous.  The come from the same background, have similar tastes, and above all speak the same language.  Without language and the innuendos, double-entendres, puns, equivocal meanings, irony, and cultural subtlety it enables, humor remains on the set – scripted jokes of a prime-time sitcom that everyone can understand. 



Slipping on a banana peel, cross-dressing like a tart; stumbling, misreading, stock-in-trade stereotypes.  Without linguistic subtlety, intelligence, and cultural synch, humor would always be burlesque.

A close friend once had an Argentine lover, and thought he had gotten over the conviction that intimacy depended on a common language and cultural origins.  She responded to him sexually like a woman – any woman - and he felt that through her responsiveness he had understood her.  There was something that only physical intimacy could provide in a knowing relationship.

Yet after the fires had been banked and they went about their business, he found that as fluent as she was in English, she missed every nuance, every irony, every off-handed reference, every sidelong glance that he translated into English. 

In a group of Argentine friends she was in her element and shared the same, peculiar, and unique ironies, references, sarcasm, and put-downs that people of any cultural group do among themselves.   As long as he didn’t become Argentine – which it would take to appreciate the subtlety of cultural humor – he would remain as much of an outsider as she was to America.

Explaining humor lets the air out of the balloon.  If a joke has no air, it is all ballast.  My friend got tired of translating.  The relationship became tedious.  While they shared cooking, skiing, and visits to the Hirschorn, these externalities could never replace the appreciation of the cultural bits and pieces, odds and ends, curios and anomalies that two Americans could share.  More importantly, there was nothing funny at the Hirschorn.

Much has been made these days of cultural ‘diversity’ which is to be ‘celebrated’.  There is nothing more engaging, stimulating, and mind-expanding than the rub of cultures.  There is something exciting about a community of unlike-minded people, a cultural adventure without having to leave American shores.

Yet, of what real value is such cultural diversity?

A colleague of mine had worked in over 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern and Central Europe.  He had always wondered whether people from different cultures all behaved the same way; or did their cultural differences absolutely define them?

It didn’t take him long to conclude that all cultures share so many common beliefs, practices, and attitudes that real diversity does not exist.  People of all cultures believe in some form of divinity; have priests, witch doctors, and shamans.  All have families and care for them; all work; all are enterprising and self-interested; all draw perimeters to keep out the Other; all expand their territory, influence, and dominance where possible.


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Language, dress, custom, folklore, cuisine, and art may differ dramatically, but the same native human instincts and impulses are behind them.  They are distinguishing, recognizable symbols of worth and importance; and as such they are as common as wind, rain, and dust.

Which is why the emphasis on cultural diversity is distracting and superficial.  If people are all essentially the same – endowed with the same native intelligence, physical abilities, and intellectual interests; and concerned with the same elements of survival – then ‘diversity’ boils down to trappings, irrelevant in the scheme of things.

Assimilation quickly removes these distractions.  Communication and intimacy result from reactions to a common culture and the expression of these reactions in a common language.

Moreover and most importantly, assimilation and the sloughing off of cultural trappings, permits the expression of real diversity – individual intelligence, creativity, ambition, compassion, and humor. Nothing is more deflating to individual expression of native abilities than the forced collectivity of cultural diversity.

The vitality of a any society is based more on its individualism than on its collective assembly. 
The sharing of mutual cultural perceptions through a common language is key to a truly integrated society and to more expressive and intimate personal relationships.


Such relationships are tough enough without adding cultural diversity to the mix.

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