Thursday, 27 September 2012

Cultural Mediation

It's the start of the new academic year and I'm all geared up for my third year--no, not third--final year!  I'm also refreshed & inspired after a bit of cultural mediation of my own.  Fifteen of my friends and family members came over from the States for our wedding earlier this month, so I had the amazing experience of being their local tour guide.  It was so interesting to see my adopted home through their eyes.  They asked so many questions, and I noticed so many things for the first time--little things, like digging through the sauce packets at a pub lunch: 'What's salad cream?  Is it mayonnaise?  No, here's mayonnaise--so is it like salad dressing? What does it taste like?'  (Confession: I've never tasted it...I use Italian on my salads...)  Sometimes, being unable to answer their questions made me feel like a bad host--but to be fair, there were a lot of questions.

The experience of showing them around made me think about the host country in a way that I never had before.  I realised that before they arrived, I had my own agenda: to show them certain favorite places, introduce them to favorite foods, take them sightseeing in York and Haworth, etc.  When they arrived, they had come with (15 different) agendas of their own: shopping, photography, pub crawls, sightseeing, hiking, travelling to Ireland/Scotland/Wales, etc.  My agenda was based on my personal experiences with Yorkshire over the past 4 years, and their agenda was informed by online research, travel guides & word-of-mouth advice.  Sometimes it was frustrating to try to keep things on schedule and it felt like we were just ticking things off a list--but then I remembered that this is what tourists do.  It's what I did as a tourist when I first came here.  I was thrilled to be here, just as they were, and I wanted to see and do as much as possible.  And I think this might be a key issue in cultural mediation--the adjustment period might be made all the more difficult because of the fact that the host and visitor each have different agendas.  The host wants to introduce the exchangee to the host's vision of the host country, while the visitor wants to explore the host country on his or her own terms (especially its tourist hotspots).  Can mediation really take place in these early days, while the visitor is still giddy about sightseeing?    I think in-depth culture learning might require getting the tourism out of the visitor's system.

(As it goes, they did have an amazing time, and my main goal was just that they could see why I love it here so much--and they did.  As my mom said, very matter-of-factly, "I don't know why anyone would want to live anywhere else.")

Over the honeymoon, I reversed the US-to-UK cultural mediation theme and showed my new husband around my favorite US places in California.  We took a 10-day road trip down the coast, starting up in Napa and San Francisco, and ending up in LA.  I hadn't been back to that part of the country since 2005, when I worked at a summer camp near Santa Cruz during uni.  It was so strange to realise that it had been 7 years since I'd lived there--and almost 5 of those 7 years had been spent in England.  Sometimes I felt just as foreign as Richard did.  Other times, it was so nice to just talk to waiters/hotel staff/shop assistants without getting comments about my accent.  Now Richard had to deal with the comments I usually get--Oh, where are you from?!  It was so comfortable and relaxing to just blend in for once.  Some of the Fulbright students in that pilot study had said the same thing--that they missed the comforting familiarity of home after awhile.  I definitely understand where they're coming from on that one.

We spent our last day at Disneyland, and Richard finally understood what I'd been going on about.  It really is 'The Happiest Place on Earth'.  My first visit was when I was 4 years old, and I still remember the amazement & the magic of it all.  The staff are also the friendliest people in the world, and they really are being genuine.  At a gift shop, we bought a wedding-themed photo frame, and the cashier was genuinely thrilled for us and gave us "Just Married" badges.  When we wore them, every other staff member we saw congratulated us--and they really do mean it.  I think it's a part of American culture that some people misunderstand, because we can come off as disingenuous and overly gushy.   Richard had a hard time getting used to restaurant staff on his first trip to the States--they're thrilled to bring you a free refill, seriously!  On previous trips to Disneyland, I'd never really noticed how American it is--this time, I was struck by Main Street, U.S.A. and its rows of flags, the "Rivers of the Americas" and the Mark Twain steamboat, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, etc.  We ran into a lot of foreign tourists, of course, and it got me thinking about the impression Disneyland gives them of America.  It seems too good to be true, of course, and quite artificial, but there are some elements of Disneyland, like the genuine friendliness of the staff, that are accurate representations of American culture.  At the same time, the cheapest adult ticket is $80, so everybody in the place 1) has disposable income, and 2) is determined to enjoy themselves, having just spent $80+ to get into the park.  It's a strange thing, really--and I think those two factors actually capture America well.  We've got wealth (even the poorest people in the US are better off than many others in the world), and we're determined to have a good time--'the pursuit of happiness' is an inalienable right for us.  If you can understand Disneyland, you're on your way to understanding American culture.