Monday, October 7, 2013

East + West

"Perception: How Germans and the Chinese see one another"

What is this!? This has been floating around for a while and was introduced to me through Facebook. This here is an image from Yang Liu, an artist in Germany who originally immigrated there from China at the age of 14 (the whole collection can be seen here). She has recently created a series of images like the one above to draw on the most prevalent cultural differences between her country of birth and the country she now resides in. It's pretty interesting and also, depending on your stance, a bit problematic. In what way? you ask. Because this particular way of portraying culture requires generalization.

Generalization gets people pretty riled up most of the time, especially when it is applied to a culture or society. I imagine this is because no matter what cultural society you are living in, there are always exceptions (i.e., unconventional people who don't "follow the rules"). Perhaps for this reason I have noticed some people accusing this little project of perpetuating stereotypes. Now if you read this blog, you know I'm no fan of stereotypes, but at the same time -- and this might upset some people -- the reason stereotypes are so damned complicated and annoying is because they do in some capacity reflect a cultural reality. Incidentally, stereotypes represent only a very specific reality, which is then unfairly applied to everyone who could possibly be associated with that reality.

In other words, stereotypes often do not just appear out of thin air, but at the same time they always oversimplify and assume. For example, the stereotype that black people like fried chicken, for example, is a blanket statement. It doesn't ask why, and it doesn't take into account non-African Americans who like fried chicken, and it doesn't take into account African-Americans who don't like fried chicken. For that matter, even though it is a blanket statement by its very construction -- suggesting that all people who could be considered "black" like fried chicken -- it doesn't take into account the millions of black people on the African continent, many of whom might not have access to fried chicken, especially if they don't live in one of Africa's urban centers. So then the statement becomes a logical fallacy: something that could not be true based on the law of averages alone. So yes, in other words, despite the fact that stereotypes may have an air of truth to them, they cannot hold up to pure logic and are thus pretty stupid. But how about generalizations alone?

Stereotyping is in many cases cultural generalization, but in the case of Yang Liu's project here, it is a way in which we are able to view a culture cohesively. Yang Liu has lived in both cultures; she has likely dealt with Germans and Chinese in both cultural spaces. In other words, her experience goes beyond "I saw five black guys eating fried chicken one time, so I guess black people like fried chicken." Liu is taking cultural elements that she has found to be prevalent in both societies and is contrasting them. That's quite a bit different from stereotyping, in my opinion. Here she is looking at cultural trends, which do exist and are quite real. Stereotypes are things born of limited experience that offer a skewed reality, apply only to a specific group of people, and should never be a measuring stick for an entire ethnicity or culture. But cultural norms do exist and are tangible. Sure, there are always exceptions, but there are reasons why etiquette sections are included in travel guides. Cultural conventions, though not immune to change, are things that can be explored, studied, and challenged, and I feel that's what Liu has done here. It might be easy to dismiss what she has done as stereotyping, but doing so would be to deny that cultures are in fact different from one another and have at least some easily identifiable attributes.  

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