Thursday, 19 July 2012

East meets West

We’re sitting at the dining table with my nephew, niece, my son and his European friend. This 8 year old friend turns to me and calls me ‘Cinthia’, drawing a stifled gasp from my Malaysian family. My niece looks at me aghast and whispers, “He didn’t call you Auntie! How rude! You should tell his mother.” My Asian kids would never address an older person by name while the children in Europe sometimes even refrain from calling their real relatives Auntie or Uncle.

This got me thinking. My first novel takes place in Malaysia and is being read all over the world. Will my Western readers be able to relate to the cultural differences that are obvious in a novel set in Asia?

Here are some major differences between the two worlds:
1. Asians address older people with respectful titles (eg. Auntie, Uncle, Grandma etc.)
2. Wide-spread belief in supernatural beings in Asia.
3. Higher levels of corruption in Asia.
4.  Asians generally swear less in front of their elders. Young people also don’t normally get involved when older people are having a conversation (unless they plan on digging their own grave…which brings me to my next point).
5. Upbringing (my Indian friend once threatened to slap her German-born son and he almost called the police while his older Indian-born brother cringed in the corner and swore eternal obedience) Whoever has listened to Russel Peters will know what I mean.
6.  Food (my European friends call prawns “Cockroaches of the sea”. They’ve obviously never seen a real night crawler.)
7. Pupil teacher relationships (we have Teacher’s Day in Asia…the teachers in Europe can thank their guardian angels if their car tires are still intact by the end of the day)
8. Punctuality (you can set your watch by the Western respect for being on time, but when an Asian says they’ll meet you at 6 for dinner you should make sure you’ve had a big tea first)
9. General respect for the environment (my Asian visitors stare in awe when we separate our plastics and organic waste in Europe. I once saw a lone toilet sitting at the side of the road on a Malaysian highway)
10. Westerners sit and talk after dinner. Asians tend to compare their latest apps.

Of course, these are all generalizations and things that I’ve experienced over the years. There are always exceptions.

So, should a writer stay authentic or should he or she try to mix it up a little, making it easier for their readers? I’m betting on the fact that readers are smart and will figure it out on their own. Staying true to yourself and your ideas is what sets you apart from the million other books on Amazon.

I’m hoping globalization is on my side. The internet and television have broken down the barriers of race and culture, changing the Mysteries of the Orient into “Hey this t-shirt’s not made in Bangladesh! What’s wrong with the world??” Let’s just hope that no one reviews my novel with words like “sari lengths of gibberish” and “wok of insanity”. Cheers!

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