Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sedaris: What's so Funny about America

In response to a comment I gave a link to a very interesting talk by David Sedaris, an American humorist who has been an expatriate for some time now.  He lived in France for a while and is now living in the UK.  His humor is a bit off the wall - I have no idea how it translates - but I encourage you to give him a try.  His books, When You are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day, had me howling on the train much to the amusement of my fellow passengers.

In this talk which he gave to an audience in Melbourne, Australia in 2011, he tells the audience a little bit about his journey from the U.S. to France to Great Britain and about how different his home country looks from abroad.  I think this is a very common experience.  Culture is to man what water is to a fish.  When we're swimming in a particular sea we take most things for granted and it doesn't even occur to us that things might be radically different somewhere else.  Oh, do we wake up when we go live in someone else's ocean for a few years.  His comments about how money has a very different place in French culture versus U.S. culture is absolutely correct and a bit unsettling for those intrepid souls from either culture who dip their toes in the world of the Other.  What I like about Sedaris and a few (very few) commentators on cultural differences is how they quietly show that it possible to talk about these things in a non-judgmental way.  We can even poke gentle fun at each other or at ourselves.  Instead of saying, "Isn't this exotic?" or "How dreadful that these people have no sense of [insert lack here], " we could choose to look at these differences with wonder, surprise, or even appreciation and say, "Wow, isn't that interesting? I never looked at it that way before."  And then you roll with it and see where it takes you.

This reminds me of something my father said once about professional experience.  He said that he sometimes asks people to clarify what they mean by "10 years of experience."  Is it 10 years of progression in your metier, sir, or is it the first year of experience repeated 10 times?  Can this happen with expatriates/immigrants?  You bet it can.  I think we've all met people in our travels who seem to be saying, "You know, I've been here for over 20 years and it's the strangest thing - these natives are still not like me."

That, in and of itself, is pretty funny.  And, to be honest, we all do it at one time or another when we've uncovered another layer in the host culture that sets us back on our heels.  The antidotes to this are, I suggest to you, humility and humor.  A Beginner's Mind and a willingness to lighten up and laugh at ourselves.

2 comments:

bubblebustin said...

i know where to go to get shot, lol.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Same here :-)

I come from Seattle which is a pretty peaceful small regional city but it has a few scary places. My grand-parents lived their lives in a part of Seattle called White Center. It had it all: burned out cars, crqck houses, police sirens and a level of daily violence that was really shocking to someone from other parts of town. But for the folks who lived there since the end of WW II it was home and they simply refused to leave.