Saturday, July 04, 2009

An Asian versus a Western perspective

A few months ago, I went with T to see the film "The Reader", starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. One of the reasons that I wanted to see it was that Kate Winslet won an oscar for her role, and indeed, it's a good film.

*** plot spoiler follows! ***

The initial scenes of the film occur shortly after the end of the Second World War. The basic plot is that Kate Winslet's character likes being read to, and gradually as the plot unfolds, one discovers that the reason for this is that she's illiterate. Another secret of hers is that during the Second World War she was a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Eventually she and some other women end up being put on trial for what they did while they were guards at Auschwitz. However, during the trial it turns out that Kate Winslet's character is so ashamed of being illiterate that she won't even admit it when accused of doing something that she couldn't possibly have done because of her illiteracy. The result is that she's sentenced to life in prison, while the other former guards get off with relatively light sentences.

The day after we saw the film, I end up discussing it with T. I may not have mentioned this before but T is Asian, and until recently had lived all of his life in his home country.

"It was fascinating how Kate Winslet's character wrecked her life because she couldn't admit that she was illiterate," I say, feeling pretty sure of my conclusion.

"Actually," replies T, "I didn't see it like that at all, because she got exactly what she wanted."

"But how can you say that?" I ask, astounded that T sees it so differently. "If she'd have admitted that she couldn't read or write then she wouldn't have wasted away in prison for all those years."

"That's true, but for her that wasn't the important thing, because if it had been then she would have admitted her illiteracy. She didn't want to lose face and admit that she couldn't read or write. As it turned out she was able to keep her secret, so she succeeded in her most important objective :-)."

I'm shocked at T's rational analysis of the situation, because that conclusion would never have occurred to me. One can still debate the subject of course, because arguably Kate Winslet's character would have had a happier life overall if she'd admitted illiteracy and avoided the life prison sentence, or early on in her life had made learning to read and write her objective instead.

The fact that T can see some things so differently to me means that it could be a fascinating and rewarding experience if I end up being his boyfriend. However as I said in my previous post, I worry about how closeted T is, and how he can't imagine admitting that he's gay to his straight friends and family. Indeed, I sometimes get the impression that he may regard telling them that he's gay as being comparable to Kate Winslet's character admitting her illiteracy! However, the good thing is that in the film, eventually Kate Winslet's character learned how to read and write :-).

14 comments:

Bill said...

I spent a number of years helping to design and produce training packages (not for delivery in a class-room environment) in a bank; our target audiences (in branches and subsidiaries) worked in a multitude of countries and covered most of the main human races and cultures. Naturally before final delivery we conducted extensive testing to ensure that the packages were consistently effective across cultures and it is quite amazing how people's thought processes function differently in different cultures - requiring us to use language that was not only unambiguous, but likely in most subjects to result in the same outcomes whatever culture the trainees came from. The teams involved in producing these materials were themselves from different cultures, too, which helped to avoid cultural stereo-typing in the way the packages were designed.

So it surprises me not in the least that your friend T. looked at the same situation as you and came to totally different conclusions; your cultural frames of reference are quite different, it seems. In addition I think that the cultural frame of reference you assume to be valid for the Kate Winslet character is obviously one you are not familiar with (nor me really), but I believe there are many people with poor or no literacy in this country and Europe generally for whom this is a closely-guarded and shameful secret - I've often read reports indicating that a higher proportion of people with low literacy levels inhabit the prison system than they comprise within the overall population. 'Face' is thought to be more noticeable in some Asian countries, but it seems to me entirely wrong to think it plays only a small role in European cultures.

unsungpsalm said...

Wow, this write up completely makes me want to watch the film!! Even though you totally ruined the story for me :P

close encounters said...

GB, i guess you had to give away the film ending - but you might want to include a spoiler warning in future ! although i've seen it already - thought it was brilliant (probably cried a bit) - my south american friend that i saw it with wasn't moved at all - another perspective !

i seem to remember that Kate Winslet's character was an old woman by the time she learnt to read - hope it doesn't take T that long ... hopefully with your encouragement, and being able to see the upsides, he will get their more quickly ...

Shawn LI said...

I think besides cultural background, afraid of changes also plays a role in T's closeted behavior. When a person stays in the same (closeted) environment for too long, he will enjoy keeping the status quo, and afraid of whatever consequences the change may bring (either positive or negative, he doesn't care, because he think the current situation is OK for him, why risk?) Same applies to Kate Winslet's character

Anonymous said...

Hey GB
Is T an Oriental or South Asian? Would be interesting to know since I believe there is a difference in how both cultures react to the situation mentioned

Vidal said...

I his observations on the personal importance of face provide some real insights for you as a suitor. After all, what is being closeted if not an attempt to "save face". He may be comfortable staying closeted his entire life. Sounds like life in prison to me.

Will said...

The reality of "losing face"is very strong in many Asian cultures to the point where students who did not make the cut in the "civil service" exams in medieval Japan would commit suicide.

Bill is right about about the concept existing in Europe as well. John Culshaw, the storied producer for Decca records, told of an incident while recording an opera with Renata Tebaldi in Italy. At one point she asked if it would be possible for her to have a cup of tea. Culshaw asked a member of the staff to get one for her but the man refused on grounds that even though she was a great star, his position on the crew was high enough that doing so would mean "brutta figura" or bad face for him to do a menial task.

Anonymous said...

Hi GB, as an anthropology PhD holder, I can't agree with you on this. Yes culture surely influences people's cognition and psychological aspects, but culture is not the only thing. Even in the West there are guys like your friend T and like you in the East. It's true that East and West are different in many ways but people have been also influenced by globalisation, which means that now it is going to be much more difficult to draw a clear line between East and West. Well, this is just my opinion...

badabing said...

Isn't is more likely that KW's character does not reveal she is illiterate (and how exactly do you get through a trial without this becoming known ?) because she wants to go to jail. As for the T boyfriend stuff: why don't you just give it a go instead of worrying about what might go wrong. Simples, as that cute insurance hawking meerkat would say.

silverrrcloud said...

I'll have to agree with GB here. This is largely a matter of cultural prospective. No doubt, you may find a number of westerners embracing similar attitudes when it comes 'to saving the face', but we all know that very few Europeans/North Americans would really seriously consider going to the extent described in your posting, i.e, life sentence vs. saving your face.

I see your fear that he may never choose to come out, and thus, possibly make his and your life a difficult affair altogether.

Having a relationship with someone who holds very different views from those of your own is always a difficult issue. Yet, you want to seriously consider establishing a minimal common denominator before you go any further. This is a fundamental issue in every human relationship. Differences may, to some extent, be reciprocally attractive. However, when it comes to the fundamentals, you want to have a degree of congruence before you start investing your time and energy into the relationship at hand.

Anonymous said...

Hi GB, been a while since I sent an e-mail thought I'd write here. I am on the go so I didn't have time to read other user comments.

What I want to say is that I understand your take that it is a matter of culture (Eastern VS Western to generalize?) and how those two are often put in a binary opposition context. However things have transcended those boundaries now so I reckon labeling them in terms of those categories might not be taken so well with your modern day individual.

I believe though, history and experience used to play and still play a big part in people's perceptions and understanding. Lines can be traced back to East vs West philosophy and how those have shaped minds ...

I'll drop you an e-mail soon with updates. Catcha later.

-Anon

Anonymous said...

p/s: So really your thought is still valid :-)

Anonymous said...

I saw this movie, but a spoiler alert, as others said, really needs to go up.

Nine said...

There are actually cultural differences between so many cultures, even ones which are traditially held to be similar. Even after all these years I still butt heads with Hubby over some issues because he comes at them from an American perspective, whereas I'm far more 'British' about things. Having said that, we both hold a 'London' view of things, which is a decent compromise :-)

Even within families there are differences. I'm a painfully honest person wherever possible. When I realised I was gay I had to tell all my friends and family as I felt it would be dishonest of me not to. My brother managed to keep the fact that he'd remarried secret from us for 6 years! His perspective is that he never lied to us, he just chose not to reveal 'the facts'.

I think it comes down to personal morality.