Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Culture or is it just thinking differently? by Sheila Claydon

I have just returned from a trip to Australia via Hong Kong. During my visit I met with people born and raised in Australia and Hong Kong of course, but I also met people from Canada, Tasmania, Holland, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Greece, Indonesia, America, the Shetland Isles and various parts of the UK. Sometimes it was a one to one conversation but often there were 3 or 4 nationalities in one room, all using English as a common language. As a poor linguist but a UK born native English speaker, I consider myself very lucky to be able to use my own language to communicate with so many people from different places and cultures. It is the gift that allows an insight into worlds that would otherwise be hidden from me.

Did you know for example that in China a pregnant woman is treated like a fragile flower. Her pregnancy is considered a “hot” condition, so to balance the scale between “hot and cold” or “ying and yang”, she must eat so called “cold foods” throughout her pregnancy. From a Western perspective it gets worse. Eating food that is not properly cut or mashed will result in the child having a careless disposition. Eating chocolate will result in your baby having dark skin whereas eating light coloured foods will result in the baby having fair skin, something which is considered a big positive in China. Drinking coconut milk will ensure that the baby has good skin while eating pineapple may cause miscarriage. 

A pregnant woman is not allowed to exert herself by carrying heavy things or doing physical work. Even old people will offer their seats on a bus. She is discouraged from attending weddings or funerals to prevent her emotions being affected in ways which will adversely harm the baby. Nor should she handle any household detergents or chemicals during pregnancy without the protection of rubber gloves.

After the birth this careful approach continues with the female family members maintaining a 24 hour support service in the early months to ensure that the mother gets enough sleep. The father is often relegated to the spare room or even the couch, and once the mother is deemed strong enough she will co-sleep with the baby, often until it is 5 years old.

I could go on and on with the 'do and don't rules' for Chinese pregnancy, each one seemingly more bizarre than the last to Western eyes, but are they really? Many relate to nutrition, a wish to avoid miscarriage, the benefits of enough rest and sleep, and the joy a new baby brings to the whole family in a country that still conducts a mainly one child policy. 

Of course many of the modern Chinese mothers eschew these rules, laughing at centuries of superstition, working up until the last minute and refusing to conform to the old tradition of being confined to their room for a month after the baby is born. They do, however, still rely on their extended family for care and nurture but for a very different reason. Not because they feel fragile but because they want to get back to work, and to do this they need the help that has so willingly been given by the older generation for centuries. 

Then there's Australia where the people are almost all informal and friendly, and this is despite the fact that more than 25% of all Australians were born in another country. What is is about Australia that has persuaded all these different nationalities to adopt the same laid back attitude? Is it the weather, or the culture? Also, before my trip I didn't know that the largest Greek population in the world beside Athens in Greece can be found in Melbourne Australia, which accounts for the fact that I met so many Greek people while I was there.

Then take Holland. There adults put chocolate sprinkles on their toast, as well as eating an average of 2 kilograms of salty-sweet liquorice a year from a choice of over 80 different kinds of liquorice. Also, despite the rainy weather, they use raincoats and rain "suits" instead of umbrellas because the wind is too strong, and anyway it is almost impossible to hold an umbrella and cycle at the same time, and with more than 18 million bicycles in the country that's an awful lot of cycling.

I could carry on and talk about the things I learned about the other countries if there was the time and space but nowadays many of these facts are available at the click of a mouse. How much more interesting they are when they are part of a conversation, however, sometimes to be wondered at, but more often part of an interested and animated discussion. And of course we British are far from exempt when it comes to strange habits. Is there another country in the world where the population's accent changes noticeably every 40 kilometres? Living where I do, in the northwest of England, I can easily recognise at least half a dozen different accents from places less than an hour's journey away. And why do we enjoy meeting up in English pubs to watch a football game, play pool or just drink a beer.

The more I meet people from other countries and other cultures, the more I learn and the more I understand. How much more sensible it would be for us British, in our often rain-sodden country, to adopt the rain 'suits' of the Dutch instead of constantly fighting the wind with our umbrellas, and is chocolate on toast really less healthy than our sugar coated breakfast cereals? And maybe we would benefit from being just a little more laid back like the Australians.

No country or culture is right, everyone is just different, but it takes time to realise that, and to see that in the end it's the differences that make every single one of us interesting, not the similarities.

It's also one of the reasons that I write about the places I've visited in many of my books. Miss Locatelli is set in London and Florence, and every blade of grass and delicious mouthful of food is authentic thanks to the wonderful times I've had with Italian friends. Travel truly does free the mind to consider other ways of living.