Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being ethnocentric or putting other cultures down. In the Hello, Nihao & the Road Forward workshop, held on the third day of negotiations in the Villa de Cambio Climatica, Holly Chang opened the series of discussions between American and Chinese youth delegations by talking about culture shock. Holly works with Chinese and US groups to create “bridges of understanding” between cultures. She talked about how people are “meaning –creating machines” and “storytellers,” ascribing purpose and meaning to everything we perceive. Every culture, indeed every individual constructs a “black-white” reality that is unique. Most of the time, we are so unaware that our perception of reality is just that, one point of view. It is rare that you can step outside the confines of your ideological lens to understand the culture on another, let alone a more critical view of your own.
Holly says that we need to experience culture shock before we are able to create a just and sustainable future. The first step to “getting over” culture shock is educating yourself about other people, and let me tell you that actually being able to talk to Chinese, Australian, Mexican and other youth is best way to do this. The US China Climate Exchange Workshop was an intense way to do this. Some of these moments were awkward, or even a little uncomfortable, but they created what Holly calls “Aha moments,” when you not only get to understand the perspective of the other, which will seem strange to you, and even insane, but also a glimpse of your own insanity.
Hello & Nihao was a great way to have face to face interactions with people of two cultures whose mutual understanding or continued misunderstanding will ultimately determine the fate of the Earth’s climate in our time. It is uncanny learning about another culture in this way, for as I tried to relate my own experience of family with that of my new friend Xiangying Shi, I found myself realizing how distant I’ve allowed myself to grow from my siblings and parents. Learning about Xiangying from Xiangying made me understand Shane, myself.
Now why are we insane? Well, I’ll speak for my own culture first: I come from Lancaster Pennsylvania, known for the Amish and “John and Kate Plus 8.” Enough said? But its in linguistics that I find the most inanity. On the bus earlier, a nina of five years was instructing us in Spanish what the names of her toys were. She came to a plastic tea kettle, and forgot the word. We blurted out, “Kettle.” Kettle? I had been laughing at the fast-talking bubble of the Mexican youth, but “kettle” suddenly sounded like an elk vomiting. Or like when I try to say Xiangying’s name (she has no problem with Shane).
So yes, I do agree with Dr. Henry; all culture is insane. But it is also fundamentally humane. We are creatures trying to ascribe meaning that justifies and fulfills our lives and allow ourselves to exist in a community of our peers. For all our inanity, our individuality and historical difference, being a part of things like the Hello & Nihao workshop has made me feel closer to my global peers and my own culture, and laugh a lot harder than I have in a long time, like the madmen we all are.