Friday, 26 July 2013

In Which I Discover that I am an Imperialist Monkey

Researching for this post, it seems like this experiment never actually happened, FYI (Image Source Here)
 Have you ever heard about the experiment with the monkeys, ladder and bananas? Click the image to enlarge and read if you haven't. Although the specific details seem to be untrue, the story is based on published research about learned fearfulness (see Psychology Today). When I first read about the "experiment" I thought immediately about an exchange I had with my father when I was fifteen and had just started working as a kitchen hand. My dad went to use a wet dish cloth as a pot holder when taking a roasting tray out of the oven, and I told him not to. "Why not?" he asked. "I don't know" I said, "they told me at work never to do that." "I wonder why..." dad said, went ahead and did it, and got burned quite painfully. The dampness in the cloth turns into steam, apparently. My dad is like that, he wants to know how everything works. He'd be the monkey getting beaten up by everyone else. Actually, when he talks about his childhood, I think that's exactly what it was like. I remembered this story a while ago when reading This Japanese Life:

"Monkeys Eat Corn
Perhaps it’s a bad sign that after reading about monkeys, my mind wandered to my life as an expat. But a recent study, published in April in the journal Science (and a NY Times story here) made me think about social adaptation.

In the experiment, researchers dyed two batches of corn – one pink, one blue. For two groups of monkeys, the blue corn was soaked in a disgusting liquid, and the pink stuff was standard monkey corn. For the other groups of monkeys, they switched it.
So, two groups of monkeys grew accustomed to pink being inedible, two grew accustomed to blue being inedible. Soon enough, the monkeys only ate one color of corn (the delicious one).
Then the scientists stopped making the other color taste so bad. Once the monkeys got used to which color was good, they both ended up being the same. What happened was interesting: High-status monkeys never bothered eating the gross-colored corn, but low-status monkeys occasionally had to. And even though these low-status monkeys knew that the corn was identical to the good stuff (identical, now, aside from the color), they still favored the “good” color when they could get it. Meanwhile, babies who grew up watching mom eat one color of corn barely even registered that the other color of corn was even food. They’d shit in it.
Monkeys shitting in food have a lot in common with me, as an expat. I’m not always down on my life, of course, but anyone in one culture can get accustomed to interacting with certain things in certain ways. It’s a given: The institutions shape how we interact with them, and then that shapes how we interact with each other. Sometimes this institution is a school or job hunt, and sometimes it’s the people giving us corn.
But then the researchers did something really cool.  They took some monkeys and introduced them to the monkeys in other areas – areas where the opposite color of corn was “the good stuff.”
Wild Vervet monkeys, trained to eat only pink-dyed or blue-dyed corn and shun the other color, quickly began eating the disliked-color corn when they moved from a pink-preferred setting to a blue-is-best place, and vice versa.
These guys went in, looked around, and lost their old cultural identities. This is, at a literally primal level, a version of culture shock. Humans, lucky us, have a much more complicated set of adaptations to deal with. We don’t just want to eat some corn, we want our identities validated."

For anyone who lives in a culture not their own for any length of time, life becomes a balancing act between experiencing and respecting the host culture on the one hand while retaining a situated sense of self (and depending on your approach to ethics, trying to be culturally aware without succumbing to subjective morality). I've mentioned before the way cultural differences are often discussed in Japan on the one hand in completely trivial ways while on the other as completely uncrossable divide. People ask me if it's hard not wearing shoes in the house. They don't believe me when I say that many Australians have shoe-free houses and that I never wore shoes inside growing up. But even if I had... why would it be difficult to take off my shoes? (Slipper culture is another issue of course!) No-one ever asks if it's hard being casually insulted on a daily basis, because it doesn't occur to them that it's a cultural thing. But if I brought it up I imagine the response would be that I just didn't understand The Japanese Way. In fact, my supervisor at city hall asked me a while ago if I had any experiences of racism. He was very eager about it so I tried to think of an example that had been unpleasant for me but not so serious that it would turn into a 'thing'. So I told him about a function I had just attended for sports people who had represented our city at the prefectural tournament. I was there representing our naginata team and shared a table with representatives from various other sports. A man sitting opposite talked loudly about me all evening, despite the fact that I was speaking Japanese with everyone else and could clearly understand him. He didn't say anything bad, but it was a non-stop stream of: "I have to text my wife that I'm sitting opposite a 外人! She'll never believe it! Someone take a picture as proof. Oh look, the 外人 is eating some melon. Wow! It's eating melon with a fork! Gotta get a photo..." And yes, he literally took photographs of me eating while sitting opposite me at the table, without ever once speaking TO me. "Oh, but you have to understand that it's very exciting for Japanese people to see foreigners" my irrepressibly optimistic boss responded. "It's not discrimination or any bad thing!" And that is how it always is. You have to be understanding. You don't get to feel uncomfortable. You have to see the funny side of things when the fifth kid in a row asks your cup size during class and the teacher is obviously hoping that you'll answer. Anyway, back to the monkeys. Or rather, to me being a cultural imperialist.

At one of our many summer seminars for elementary school teachers we were broken into groups and told to play a card game with simple rules. That catch was that we weren't allowed to speak, and we were told that is was an exercise in non-verbal communication. After a minute some members were told to switch groups and keep playing. We did it a few times, and then the game ended and we were told the real purpose of the activity. If you're familiar with Barnga you'll have recognised it by now: each group is given slightly different rules, so when the players are shuffled around the group has to cope with players who have different expectations of how the game works. Some players will dominate their new group and enforce their original group's rules, some will go with the flow and assimilate into their new group's rules, and some will get confused or angry. It shouldn't come as a surprise if you know me or have been reading this blog for a while that I completely dominated every group I entered, ruthlessly enforcing "my" rules and quashing all opposition while all the while thinking what a great job I was doing of communicating non-verbally. Hearing the real purpose of the activity was an eye-opener. It wasn't news to me to discover that I am bossy and domineering, but it was a big shock to discover that I had gone through the whole exercise without ever once contemplating that perhaps the other players who were "doing it wrong" were actually playing with a different set of expectations. When it comes down to it, despite my desire not to be, I'm still one of the monkeys at the bottom of the ladder beating up the new guy without stopping to wonder why.
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  1. "Monkeys shitting in food have a lot in common with me, as an expat."

    Dear Imperialist monkey,
    Please don't shit in your food. It's not healthy.

    1. Perhaps I should have included quotation marks as well as indentation just to make sure everyone knows that bit's Eryk Salvaggio writing and not me ^_^;

  2. 1st off, thanks for trade marking the Japanese way, beat me to it...
    2nd, I know i would have reacted the same way as you in that exercise, so it means I need to think about what that means about myself as well.

  3. A thought provoking and enjoyable post as always. It's only a little thing, but I like the way your post titles are often so Winnie the Pooh :)


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