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Life, Law & Libros

Discussion: A Lesson Learned Abroad

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Last Thursday, I reviewed Katie M. Stout's debut YA novel, Hello, I Love You. I didn't love it, but I was a little surprised by the number of DNF's I saw on Goodreads, many of which cited not being able to stand the "judgmental" main character who didn't learn anything about South Korea before moving there for school. To be fair, I thought Grace's character was hard to relate to, and for the majority of the book, she wasn't very likable. I also thought she was a bit of an idiot for not doing any research before the trip; but a few of the reviews kind of labeled Grace a horrible human being, which got me thinking (and made me glad I never blogged about my semester abroad because goodness knows how people would have reacted to some of my impressions).

Reading about Grace, and others' reactions to her, brought back memories of my semester in Spain and some of the stuff I learned there. The big thing I think we forget is that experiencing another culture doesn't mean you have to appreciate or like everything about it. You're allowed to prefer the comforts of home, to crave your usual food, and to come out of an experience not having acclimated, or even disagreeing with parts of it. Spain converted me to eating ham (which is BIG there), but I never became comfortable with the Spanish definition of "personal space." I need more than a few inches. ;) And while I'd say NYC moves at too fast a pace, Guatemala moved too slowly.

There's this idea that nothing can be right or wrong, good or bad, etc.--that everything has subjective value according to our context. An offshoot of this concept seems to have embedded the idea that you can't say anything about another culture is better, worse, good, bad, etc. because it's their culture and you just don't understand. I agree that we should seek to understand and respect other cultures and appreciate what they have to offer, but I think this is going too far. It's essentially saying you can't have a negative opinion about anything foreign. And that's just not true.

Of course you can have an opinion and make judgments. The trick is opening yourself to experiencing or understanding something new before you make a determination. If you do that and don't like something, that's fine. If you're uncomfortable with something, even before or while you try it, that's fine, too. If you refuse to try certain things, it's okay. There's nothing that says you have to act exactly like a local or you're evil. Even when you are a local, there's nothing that says you have to love everything about where you live. Looking at you, South Jersey. ;)

On the other hand, I think we can all agree there's a difference between having a negative opinion of something and being rude. Several reviewers thought Grace was rude and put down everything. I sympathize with that assessment, provided its two elements are not considered synonymous. I have no problem with (random example) Grace not liking kimchi, or not wanting to watch Korean dramas. I think there are polite and rude ways to convey these opinions, and Grace, partly because she's a teenager, doesn't always stick to more polite pastures (though neither does the love interest); but if I happen to visit Disney World and hate everything about it, the substance of my opinions does not dictate the worth of those opinions. We're all entitled to think what we want and, theoretically, we can respectfully disagree.

What do you guys think? Does this ring any bells, strike any chords? Does it sound completely off the deep end? Is it way too serious (and long) for a book blog post? ;)

4 comments :

  1. So totally not too long for a book blog post. ;) Actually, it's a really interesting topic, for me, because it's completely relatable to real life experiences. This is something that can totally happen to anyone. I think a lot of people make the mistake that just because something isn't "for" someone, it means that they are totally prejudice against it. Like I'm not a big fan of fast-paced city life or the enclosed feel of cities. I like my trees and open roads. I've gotten accused of hating cities and everyone in them because of this. Nope; I don't hate it. City life just isn't for me. Everyone moves at a different pace in life and therefore they all have different tastes. Don't know why people can't just respect the variety. :)

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    1. Aww, thank you! Though I'm surprised you didn't fall asleep midway through all that rambling. ;) I totally sympathize with those reviewers who hated Grace; I'm not always as gracious as I should be when, say, one of my friends isn't feeling adventurous about food. (I'm trying to be better about that.) Perhaps that's why these ideas stuck with me and I needed to process the underlying expectations, societal conventions and mores. Or maybe we all just need permission to say "I don't like this" and not feel bad about it. :)

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  2. Hmmm, interesting. I think I see what you're saying. I've never studied abroad and probably won't (boooo), but my parents are from another country and we go often. I've not read this book but I had already had it in my head that I wasn't going to - despite seeming some pretty great reviews for this book. I'm going to check out your review :D

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

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    1. I can't recommend the book at all (unless you're just in it for the few, brief scenes of touring Korea), but I find the fact that it features an MC who's the opposite of the typical study abroad student--and the reactions that elicited--very interesting.

      I imagine your crazy course schedule won't allow for a semester abroad, but at least you get to travel with your parents often. That sounds amazing! :)

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