Thursday, April 9, 2015

Seeing Through Different Eyes, by Karen Rees

A few months ago a British transport minister on a trade visit to Taipei made the headlines in this part of Asia because of a diplomatic blunder. She presented the mayor with a pocket watch. She didn't know that giving a timepiece is taboo in Chinese culture. Because of the similar pronunciation of “giving a clock” and “attending an old person's funeral”, her gift suggested that the mayor's time was running out.

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 fiancĂ© 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.


  1. Absolutely fascinating, Karen. We also have learned a few no nos when we minister in Thailand every year. Don't beckon a person with palm upward. Hand should be closer to the body and turned the other way. Keep feet tucked in where possible. Don't pat people on the head. Asians will probably give you the answer they believe you want to hear. All this makes it a lot of fun. However Christian folk are most forgiving of silly Westerners!

    1. I've never been to Thailand but have heard of the things you mentioned. I think some may also be in other cultures. Yes, Asians do usually give you the answer they think you want. As you said, it makes life fun.

  2. I find cultural differences fascinating, and I've no doubt run into some blunders, myself. It is certainly something to keep in mind when writing about other countries! Thanks for the post.

  3. Karen, I love how you tied in the cultural taboos as intriguing moments in your novel. I had no idea clocks and flowers have a dark side when given in certain situations.

    Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

    1. So many ordinary things can mean something entirely different in a different culture. It makes life interesting.

  4. Such an intriguing blog, Karen--thank you. And what an interesting way you wove those cultural differences together to come up with that possible contemporary romance thriller! I have visited Turkey five times and discovered some things NOT to do there as well.

    1. Thanks, Jo-Anne. I've never visited Turkey but would guess some of the taboos have to do with Muslim traditions - the more secular, liberal Muslims like the ones we have here in HK..

  5. Karen, great post! The cultural differences are fascinating and reveal the importance of researching the cultural setting for our stories. Thanks for sharing your insights with us :)

  6. Thanks, Narelle. Most people don't even think about the possibility of cultural differences because they live in a one-culture place. Writing about a different place or time period does require a lot of research before we can present the culture correctly.