Peoples & Cultures are Neither Homogeneous nor Heterogeneous

In my post, How Fresh is Fresh? I wrote about my first trip overseas to Italy. What an eye opener that was. But as I reflect on the different cultures I’ve experienced, I realize my first true culture shock happened in the USA, when I arrived in Seattle in the fall of 1969.

Birds of a feather flock together and still squabble.

Seattle was not as I had expected.

I spent my first 18 years growing up in the heart of the City, New York, not even Brooklyn, nor the many towns of Queens, let alone the Bronx, but New York (Manhattan, for the uninitiated). Being in the heart of it all, makes one think they know it all and have seen it all. I certainly wouldn’t be the first New Yorker accused of a little hubris, especially coming from the heart of the heart, Greenwich Village. New York is nothing if not multi-cultural, and Greenwich Village was its soul.

In those days, Greenwich Village was the inexpensive refuge for people of all creeds, regions, colors, races, sexual preference and artists. The place for “different” people, my parents settled there because there were few places an inter-racial couple could live peacefully at that time, even in Greater New York and the rent in the West Village for our two-bedroom apartment was only $50 per month. Even communists were welcome, as Alger Hiss rented the top floor apartment in our little four story, four apartment building, when he got out of jail. A very nice man by the way. Our upstairs neighbors were two men, they would be called a couple now-a-days, but in the Greenwich Village of the ‘50’s, labels were neither needed or desired. They were simply two nice mean and neighbors for me.  I learned to take people at face value, as I wanted to be taken. My brother and I just knew them as them as the good men who would make pancakes for us occasionally; like uncles, in fact better than my true uncles who I never met until I was 50 years old!

Fast forward to 1969, I found myself in Seattle, having decided pretty much on my own that I was going to the University of Washington (UW). (Which is a tale for another time of independent kids who involve their parents only on the periphery). Once I was accepted to the UW in the spring of ’69, I looked up all the information I could find about Seattle.

I knew its population was about 500,000. New York’s was 8 million, but Manhattan was only 2 million, therefore I figured Seattle is roughly a quarter the size of New York.  From that factual conclusion, I made some interesting assumptions.

I figured life in Seattle would be like living in New York, if I never went north of 57th street or left the City (any place out of Manhattan). Therefore, I’d be giving up my occasional trips to the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island and going to Mets’ games. But then I figured one has to make some sacrifices to be able to attend a university.

My one quarter the size assumption, implied the quantity of everything I was used to: shops, movie theaters, buses, stores, delicatessens, etc., would be reduced to 25%. So, instead of having a choice of 20 delicatessens, I’d have a choice of 5. No problem I thought, nor did I think quality would be reduced to levels last seen on the Oregon trail in a Conestoga wagon.

Now, the UW knew the out of state kids would have some adjusting to do, so they had come a week earlier. Thus, I bonded with the other out of state kids in the dormitory and one in particular who was from Long Island. He wasn’t even from the City, yet even he could tell something was amiss here.

Bad food, bad coffee, bad everything; not even one delicatessen and the buses stop running at 11 p.m. The bagels that were sold in Safeway appeared to have been made months earlier by people who had never eaten a bagel but had once seen a picture of one (meaning it was round).

Who knew people lived like this? This chubby high school kid lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks.

In the early days, still thinking that civilization would return as I knew it, I’d ask for those things common to New York. In the summer everyone drinks ice coffee. But not in Seattle in 1969, when I asked for an iced coffee, the waitress had no idea what I was talking about. Somehow, the culture of strong coffee mixed with ice in the summer time never made it past Chicago (If it even got that far).

Another time, when asked how I liked my coffee, I replied, with that New York classic, “regular”, meaning with milk and sugar. They gave it to me black, well not really black, as I could see the spoon at the bottom of the cup. The coffee was an undrinkable, light brown concoction, of hot water and coffee flavor.

I survived, but it was my first eye opener, that when one leaves home (however large or small that “home” may be), one has to leave assumptions behind. Nothing was basic, even the telephone operator for my monthly collect call home, usually misunderstood my telephone prefix “Oregon” for “Argon”.

While I consider myself a life-long learner, I never said I was a fast learner. But as life went on, I learned to dump more and more assumptions so that I’d arrive at my new home naked with eyes open.  From there one can make the case that there are no true assumptions. Assumptions by definition are conclusions based on spotty data. Good luck with that.

In the next two decades, I found myself in many varied places: Alaska, Colorado, Southern California, Italy and Germany, even the Arctic Ice Cap for half a year. Assumptions melted like a popsicle on a hot summer day. One of the aspects of European life that I like so much is the absence of urban sprawl. In some places more than others, particularity so in Germany.

I ended up living in Germany twice, in small German towns, around 2,000 inhabitants. One day while trying to follow a conversation with my neighbor’s daughter and her boyfriend, who was from the next town up the road about 5 km away, I realized he was speaking in a dialect that was even different than the Rhineland Pfalz dialect I was accustomed to and could reasonably decipher. I asked why his speech was so different. Then I learned that was because his town, which I drove thru twice a day, was a “Catholic town”, as opposed to the Lutheran town I was living in.

And because of this difference, there was much less interaction with this neighboring town, than with other towns.

Who knew?

Well, seemingly everyone but me. To this day, I have no idea if this pattern of towns based on region was a regional thing, a local thing, a national thing, or anything at all, (certainly local people have their own biases, which you must be aware of), but I do know never to make any assumptions about anything.

During that same stint, I met a German meteorologist, who was from Northern Germany, but was now teaching meteorology to pilots in Bavaria (southeastern Germany). We met for work, became friends and I visited him often. He told me that when he moved from the north some years earlier, no one would sell him a house simply because he was not local. He began making weather forecasts for the local farmers and after a few years they did accept him enough so that he was able to buy a house.

My take-away from this, just like the different town thing, was that the label “German”, as most labels, is not helpful in understanding personal interactions that take place on an everyday basis on a small scale.

I thought an of interesting way to look at these differences in macro and micro cultures using numbers.

Think of a number line from zero to 10, we’ll call it the Homogenous population.  If we have a population of 1000 evenly spaced between zero and 10, every number is 0.01 or 1/100th apart in absolute numbers. Now, take a different population of numbers, this time from zero to 10,000, which we’ll call the Heterogenous population. Divide by 1,000 again, and every number is now 10 units apart in absolute numbers.  Therefore, to the Heterogenous population, the Homogenous population seems much closer in value in absolute terms, and the Small population looks at the big population and sees far more diversity, since the range is not zero to 10, but zero to 10,000.

But looking at both populations from within, on a relative scale, Homogenous sees a difference of 0.01/10 =0.001; while Heterogenous sees the same result, 10/10,000=0.001. Therefore, even in populations that seem homogeneous to an outsider, to those inside the population the perceived differences are just as great as in a population that is viewed as heterogeneous.

My point is that perceived differences are in the eye of the beholder and that the differences one sees are as great to the Homogenous group as to the Heterogeneous group.

We cannot make the false assumption that populations that seem homogeneous to us, like Germans or Koreans or Italians or Chinese or Vietnamese or anyone for that matter, are in fact, homogenous, because for them, inside that population, they see diversity that we are not trained to see.

Or let’s put it even another way.

I believe that Queens County is the most diverse county in the USA based on the number of different languages spoken at home based on the last census.

So, if I am having a coffee in Queens, let’s say the neighborhood of Astoria, it’s likely that at a nearby table there sits: a Bengali, a Greek, an African-American and a Korean. While they may all speak different languages at home, may be both female and male and of different religions, creeds and colors, they will all know what a “Regular” coffee is.

 

 

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What We Know

It was about 10 years ago, 5 years before acquiring Dauntless, my first and probably last boat, that I got a vague idea about cruising and living on a boat. I’d never heard of Kadey Krogen, I thought sailors who crossed oceans were living the life of hermits.

This bot was watching that light (upper right corner) and as soon as it turned green, he pointed so his mother would notice.
Kids love helping and being engaged .

I spent the next 5 years reading everything I could find about people on, in and about, boats. I’d always been fascinated with merchant marine stories, so now I just expanded to the small boat world.

Pretty sure that the sailboat life was not for me, my first readings were dominated by those prolific powerboat writers, Nordhavn owners. I’d stalk the mailman, Steven, (yes, even in the Big Apple, we had our mail carrier’s phone number), waiting for the latest issue of Passage Maker, to find out what some hardy Nordhavn owner was up to.

By 2009, it was obvious that the real estate market was not going to keep doubling every few years. I’d never have the money of the Passage Maker crowd. No one was going to give me a $100,000 sponsorship and fly parts needed to repair of my hydraulics stabilizers, by helicopter, to the Northwest Passage.

I expanded my reading to that I had eschewed previously, about sailors and sailing. The amount of material about non-powered boats was 1000-fold greater. I didn’t censor what I read. I was reading to learn, to understand, to experience without having to do, even those experiences I had no interest in doing myself.

I realized just like moving to Italy in the ‘70’s, I needed to have an even more open mind than normal. The more I read, the more I understood that there was no “right” way.

It wasn’t that what I knew was wrong, it was simply that it may not be right.

Even weeks before my first Atlantic crossing, I knew four people was the right amount. But I couldn’t get four.  Julie and I came up with a new plan. She would come but leave at the Azores. Then a third person volunteered at the last minute. But at that point, we decided that two was just fine; and it was.

Sitting in the Azores, looking for crew to assist me from the Azores to Ireland, a 9 or 10-day passage, I was finally convinced by an American sailor from North Carolina to just go on my own. I’d be fine, and it would be better than wasting good weather sitting around and it was.

What I took from all this was that what was obvious, wasn’t.

The Front Seat

I was brought to this entire train of thought recently as I watched a mother and daughter (maybe 2 or 3 years old) on a motorcycle here in Saigon, Vietnam. How touching the scene was. They were having a conversation as they motored along at 20 mph. How could it be safe? Children that age will normally sit in the very front on a little stool or stand.

Surely, I know that a child in a car seat in the back of an automobile is safer than this!

But then I wondered, safer, certainly; but happier, more secure. I wondered?

Over the days as I thought about it even more, I realized I’ve never seen a crying child on a motorbike. Not one. I see captivated kids. They are watching the world go by, with their parent nuzzled snugly right next to them, holding them.  How can you feel more secure than that?

On the other hand, how many times in the USA have I observed some child having a tantrum while being put into a car seat in the back of a car? Too often to count.

Safety versus separation anxiety. For many kids, probably not mutually exclusive, but for some?

 

Even in the First World, we know less than we think we do.

 

A child seat for your motorbike
Getting ready to go


 

 

How Fresh is Fresh

In the last 5 years Dauntless has visited almost two dozen countries.  While, I’ve been in couple dozen more in the last 40 years. That’s a lot of different languages and cultures.

Chicken, Rice, a green vegetable, some pickled vegetables

It was 42 years ago, that I first set foot in Italy and it would begin a life of living and experiencing new languages, cultures, foods, etc. Sitting on a bus, passing thru the middle of Milan, in just looking out the window, it was obvious this was not the Italy I had expected, nor was it the Little Italy of New York either or the Italy of Italian-Americans. Not one cannolo was in sight. In fact. It would take me a year to find one and that was further south in Florence.

Passing a billboard advertising skin cream which depicted naked women, I vowed then and there to leave my perceptions behind and reboot my expectations. For effective cross-cultural communications, this can be the only starting point. When in Rome, Do as the Romans.

No phrase probably sums up a successful expatriate experience better. I was/am always amazed at the number of Americans I would meet living overseas like I yet complaining that it wasn’t Kansas.

Living so, accepting the people and cultures I’m immersed in, allows me to enjoy my travels and adventures with Dauntless, or like this month, without her, in Vietnam.

Even when speaking a common language, understanding and accepting cultural differences is crucial for good relationships of any sort.

Trinh speaks pretty much fluent English. When she doesn’t understand a word, it’s usually because of my pronunciation. Our miscommunications center around different understandings of the same word or sometimes, while the words are understood, the background isn’t.

Thus, began our discussion about “fresh” chicken. A little question about fresh chicken, became a bridge to cross cultural communication.

Trinh is the best cook I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’ve always prided myself on my own cooking and for most of my life, I’ve done most of the cooking in the household. Over the past year, I tried to analyze what makes her cooking so good, even better than almost any restaurant I’ve eaten here in Vietnam. And should we try something new to her, if we like it, she will recreate it at home. I’ve concluded that it’s her meticulous preparation and wholesome ingredients she uses.

By far my favorite dish is her fried or sautéed chicken.  I’ve never had such delicious fried chicken any place or any time in my entire life. The skin cooked to almost a hard, crunchy shell, with moist, tender chicken underneath and flavors that just melt in your mouth.

Chicken to die for.

I knew she always bought the packages of chicken wings at Co-Op Food. Co-Op is owned by the government of Vietnam. They have two retail stores that are everywhere in Vietnam: Co-Op Mart, which is like a large supermarket, familiar to any westerner and Co-Op Food, a small, convenience store style store. I like both, initially, I had to leave my preconceived ideas at home about Co-Op Food. When I think convenience store, I think packaged snacks, old hot dogs, mystery meat burritos heated up in microwaves and gallons of colored water, chemical based drinks in large plastic cups.

But Co-Op Food is the place for everyday items and fresher foods than Co-Op Mart (the supermarket) offers and why Trinh only buys the chicken at Co-Op Food, not Co-Op Mart.

Now, if you know me at all, you know I’m skeptical of almost everything I hear and half what I see. So, I pressed Trinh on the difference, why was this package of chicken wings better than that one?

What do you mean the chicken at Co-Op Mart is not fresh? When was it killed in the last week or so?

She looks at me, like I have two heads (because she wouldn’t touch chicken killed last week. Who knew?, not I).

No, she responds, the chicken at Co-Op Food is killed that night.

What do you mean that night? I ask, still not able to get my mind around her expectations of freshness.

She explains: Chicken at Co-Op Food is killed, plucked, packaged at 01:00 a.m. on the morning I buy it. It’s on the shelves around 06:00 a.m.

She doesn’t know how old the chicken is at Co-Op Mart, she guesses a few days at most, but it’s older and she’s not buying it, ever.

For a boy grown up in a supermarket culture, with foods routinely shipped thousands of miles and processed and packed ages ago, it’s fascinating to realize that while the outside package looks the same, the behind the scenes processing is totally different. These supermarkets and smaller food stores are competing with local markets that are everywhere, literally every quarter mile.

Supermarkets do as local markets

Who knew that fresh could be that fresh.

Lotte Supermarket in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City

I can’t fault the results.

How Fresh is Fresh?

In the last 5 years Dauntless has visited almost two dozen countries.  While, I’ve been in couple dozen more in the last 40 years. That’s a lot of different languages and cultures.

Chicken, Rice, a green vegetable, some pickled vegetables

It was 42 years ago, that I first set foot in Italy and it would begin a life of living and experiencing new languages, cultures, foods, etc. Sitting on a bus, passing thru the middle of Milan, in just looking out the window, it was obvious this was not the Italy I had expected, nor was it the Little Italy of New York either or the Italy of Italian-Americans. Not one cannolo was in sight. In fact. It would take me a year to find one and that was further south in Florence.

Passing a billboard advertising skin cream which depicted naked women, I vowed then and there to leave my perceptions behind and reboot my expectations. For effective cross-cultural communications, this can be the only starting point. When in Rome, Do as the Romans.

No phrase probably sums up a successful expatriate experience better. I was/am always amazed at the number of Americans I would meet living overseas like I yet complaining that it wasn’t Kansas.

Living so, accepting the people and cultures I’m immersed in, allows me to enjoy my travels and adventures with Dauntless, or like this month, without her, in Vietnam.

Even when speaking a common language, understanding and accepting cultural differences is crucial for good relationships of any sort.

Trinh speaks pretty much fluent English. When she doesn’t understand a word, it’s usually because of my pronunciation. Our miscommunications center around different understandings of the same word or sometimes, while the words are understood, the background isn’t.

Thus, began our discussion about “fresh” chicken. A little question about fresh chicken, became a bridge to cross cultural communication.

Trinh is the best cook I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’ve always prided myself on my own cooking and for most of my life, I’ve done most of the cooking in the household. Over the past year, I tried to analyze what makes her cooking so good, even better than almost any restaurant I’ve eaten here in Vietnam. And should we try something new to her, if we like it, she will recreate it at home. I’ve concluded that it’s her meticulous preparation and wholesome ingredients she uses.

By far my favorite dish is her fried or sautéed chicken.  I’ve never had such delicious fried chicken any place or any time in my entire life. The skin cooked to almost a hard, crunchy shell, with moist, tender chicken underneath and flavors that just melt in your mouth.

Chicken to die for.

I knew she always bought the packages of chicken wings at Co-Op Food. Co-Op is owned by the government of Vietnam. They have two retail stores that are everywhere in Vietnam: Co-Op Mart, which is like a large supermarket, familiar to any westerner and Co-Op Food, a small, convenience store style store. I like both, initially, I had to leave my preconceived ideas at home about Co-Op Food. When I think convenience store, I think packaged snacks, old hot dogs, mystery meat burritos heated up in microwaves and gallons of colored water, chemical based drinks in large plastic cups.

But Co-Op Food is the place for everyday items and fresher foods than Co-Op Mart (the supermarket) offers and why Trinh only buys the chicken at Co-Op Food, not Co-Op Mart.

Now, if you know me at all, you know I’m skeptical of almost everything I hear and half what I see. So, I pressed Trinh on the difference, why was this package of chicken wings better than that one?

What do you mean the chicken at Co-Op Mart is not fresh? When was it killed in the last week or so?

She looks at me, like I have two heads (because she wouldn’t touch chicken killed last week. Who knew?, not I).

No, she responds, the chicken at Co-Op Food is killed that night.

What do you mean that night? I ask, still not able to get my mind around her expectations of freshness.

She explains: Chicken at Co-Op Food is killed, plucked, packaged at 01:00 a.m. on the morning I buy it. It’s on the shelves around 06:00 a.m.

She doesn’t know how old the chicken is at Co-Op Mart, she guesses a few days at most, but it’s older and she’s not buying it, ever.

For a boy grown up in a supermarket culture, with foods routinely shipped thousands of miles and processed and packed ages ago, it’s fascinating to realize that while the outside package looks the same, the behind the scenes processing is totally different. These supermarkets and smaller food stores are competing with local markets that are everywhere, literally every quarter mile.

Supermarkets do as local markets

Who knew that fresh could be that fresh.

Lotte Supermarket in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City

I can’t fault the results.