Across the Cultural Chasm

I have been watching this whole Danish cartoon thingy with the sinking feeling of someone watching a landslide gathering momentum and debris on its rapidly widening downhill path.

I know its roots: people staring across a deep divide in utter incomprehension at those on the other side staring back at them. That’s the kind of thing you recognise when you have been set adrift in another culture, not as a traveller passing by, but as someone come to belong.

Even people who ought to know better commit the same sins of incomprehension, myself included. Here in Malaysia, a land of many different cultural groups, and many religions of which Islam is the largest, a Sarawak newspaper published the cartoons. Who knows what was going on in their heads, but they are now out of business. Many years ago, my kindergarten-going Muslim daughter received an invitation to a birthday party – on a card picturing pigs in party clothes and the invitation to join them on such-and-such a date. This in a country where I have seen a Muslim woman get up from a table and vomit because people were talking about pigs.

To refuse a request or a query with an abrupt “no” is considered rude in Malay culture. A Malay, faced with a request he doesn’t like, will smile and say nothing. Another Malay recognises this as a refusal. You would think that Malaysians of other cultural groups would as well, having lived here all their lives. But I have seen just this scenario played out again and again among locals of different cultural backgrounds, with inevitable misunderstanding. How much greater, then, is the possibility of incomprehension between people from different countries and faiths and principles?

The trouble is this: when people start believing in something – whether it is religion, or rights, or politics, or anything else – they tend to stop thinking. Why think about something when you have already found the answer?

Yeah, I know I pontificate on occasion, but I do try never to stop thinking, and sometimes that means trying on another’s shoes.


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