Thursday, April 9, 2015
Seeing Through Different Eyes, by Karen Rees
During the years that my husband and I worked with a Chinese church here in Hong Kong, we learned of another similar taboo. Never take flowers to someone in the hospital; flowers are associated with funerals.
Later we began working with household servants imported from the Philippines. We discovered that Filipinos point with their lips, hospitality is high priority while punctuality is not, and wives handle the family money. If they manage it badly, it brings shame on their husbands.
Our current part-time involvement with a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker family from a Hindu background has exposed us to the habits and values of yet another culture.
These three cultures are different in many ways. But, all being Asian, they share a basic value: the rights of the family take priority over the rights of the individual. This value is seen in a tradition of arranged marriages that benefit the family, in the expectation that money earned by one is available to all and in the requirement that individuals put the wishes/needs of the family before their own.
This “family first” value is in direct conflict with the “individual first” culture of the West.
As writers we know that conflict drives the story. We usually create conflict by giving our characters, all of whom have likely Western values, different backgrounds, personalities and desires. Consider the additional conflict possibilities if one or more characters came from a culture with different values.
Countries, and couples, have gone to war because of clashing cultural values. It's not uncommon for a Western husband and a Filipina wife to do battle over how to spend the household money. He, being an individualistic Westerner, wants it all used for themselves and any children they may have. She, with her “family first” values, insists that they send money to her extended family in the Philippines.
Cultural differences can add interest, and conflict, to international contemporary novels. Recognizing cultural differences also helps when writing historical fiction.
As I researched Tudor England for my novel THE RUBY RING, I discovered that the Middle Ages shared the same 'family first' value as 20th century Asia. Choosing a spouse in the 1500s or, more likely, having one chosen for you, was primarily a business matter, not a matter of the heart.
Because of this, the couple in my novel who wishes to marry for love faces much greater family opposition than they would have in today's individualistic Western, 'all we need is love' culture. Since they also are caught up in England's religious turmoil, I had enough conflict to keep many readers up well past bedtime.
But to maintain a feel of authentic Tudor England, I had to allow my characters to deal with the conflicts in a manner suitable to that culture. I had to see life through their eyes.
Returning to the present day and the Chinese view of clocks and flowers, how's this for a contemporary romantic thriller?
After graduating from a Western university, a courageous young Chinese female reporter begins working in China only to receive death threats for her honest reporting of government and business corruption. She flees to the relative safety of Hong Kong. There she meets a handsome young Western businessman. After a whirlwind romance, they become engaged.
At their engagement party they receive an anonymous gift – a beautiful clock. He is pleased. She is fearful. Are her enemies still after her? A few days later she is injured in a freak accident and spends a few days in the hospital. Her fiancé brings her flowers.
Her previous apprehensions abruptly intensify as a new and terrifying possibility arises. Is her fiancé merely a thoughtful but culturally ignorant Westerner? Or is he actually in the pay of the corrupt Chinese businessmen who, through the clock and flowers, are telling her that she can't escape them?
It all depends on which cultural eyes you're using.
Karen Rees and her second-generation missionary husband Benjamin have served in Hong Kong since 1975. Besides her involvement in the mission work, Karen loves history, quilting and writing. They have two children, Matthew and Megan, and two grandchildren, Hadessah and Arthur. She is the author of the historical novel, The Ruby Ring.