Cultural Bias

Forty Years of Cultural Dissonance

Pastrami Sandwich

This May was the fortieth anniversary of my family’s arrival in America. We came as refugees. My husband and I celebrated this momentous event (this marks over two-thirds of my life here) by visiting the Tenement Museum in downtown New York City. The biggest takeaway was the strong sense of “strangers in a strange land” mentality. People arrived not knowing the language or customs, not having a place to sleep or an ability to source work. It was scary. It took a very strong impetus to leave all that one knew and understood behind, to leave family and friends, to leave familiar food and places…to leave behind the mother tongue. (Did you know that the word “cow” is not under K in a dictionary? How are people supposed to find words when they don’t even start with the letter that they sound? Back then, I ended up drawing a cow in the middle of a sentence to finish my homework.) Without a language in common, it is very difficult to forge social ties. It is the main reason people “bunch up” by their cultural heritage into neighborhoods like “Little Italy,” “China Town,” “Little Russia,” “Jewishberg,” “Japantown,” “La Pequeña Habana,” “Little…

The Wheel of Culture

Finding treasure in the sea of content

Societies continuously try to recreate themselves — shared holidays, shared news, shared traditions, shared language, shared music, shared myths, shared victories, and shared griefs. Shared origins… So by telling each other stories, we recreate ourselves over and over again. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Who are our heroes? Who are the villains? These stories pass our values as a society from one generation to the next. It’s how we understand each other. “Rosebud.” There was a time where everyone in America knew exactly what that reference was. Now? Nope. “Remember the Alamo!” People still know the phrase, but its meaning — the short cut to meaning that this phrase used to represent — is no longer widely available. Cultural propagation used to be easy when everyone knew everyone else in the small village they all lived. Strangers were either killed or assimilated. People easily recognized “their own.” Sometimes, it was as simple as the way you’d pronounce a word. Such cultural distinctions to divide between “us” and them” are called Shibboleth. Do you drop your p’s or roll your r’s? Do you wear “snickers” or “runners” or “trainers”? Is it “herbs” with an “h” or without?…

Not So Random Musings

Paper Birds

I’m overdue for an update. Usually, I have ideas and themes all worked out (and ebook giveaways all set), but this time it’s different. I still have books to give out, but the main theme of this “sharing” eludes me. So I’m going to write about a few issues that I found interesting in my last month of reading, editing, and watching the news. Reading Last year, I finally bit the bullet and started reading Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” series. I’m on book 11 now… Robert Jordan (this is a pen name of James Oliver Rigney Jr.) began writing the first book in these series, “The Eye of The World” in 1984 and only published it 1990. Considering just how popular and influential these series were/are, it gives hope for writers like me… I love the world created in these books. It’s very complex and deep (and wide). But I kept finding similarities to other fantasy series I’ve read. Of course, there’s the homage to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series. But I expected that — those were really the founding high fantasy series that gave birth to all the rest. But there was also more than a…

Memory and Storytelling

nerve cell

Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. — Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness, page 121 Our memories are not static. Each time we reach for one, we refresh and form new neuron connections, in fact changing the memory itself via our contemplation of it. Like Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle — we can observe a particle’s momentum or its position but not both simultaneously — each time we recall a particular event, we change it due to that recollection. After the mental touch, the memory is no longer the same. And this is true not just in some metaphorical sense, but in a real, tangible, physical way — the act of recall alters the neuron structures forever! And yet we eagerly recollect our favorite memories, and we just as eagerly try to forget the painful ones (and the very act of thinking of those painful memories makes them that much stronger, that much more connected and integrated into our neural memory networks). Social groups have always been aware of this property of memory. Cultures are molded out of stories, songs, epics, ballads, and now memes that bind us…

Us and Them

Warm versus Competent graph

Of Doctors, Babies, Kings, and Zombies Before starting my journey as science fiction writer, I got a few degrees under my belt — astrophysics, mathematics, cognitive science, education, etc. It took a few decades (I’ve gotten married and had a family in there somewhere), but I got my doctorate and have used and still use it to help people think through complicated problems, mostly in product design. How is this relevant to writing, you might ask? Well, in addition to witnessing and surviving some amazing situations — always a good experience for a writer — I’ve acquired a few tools on how to think about situations and people. I would like to share one such tool with you: Us versus Them, a cognitive perspective. What people (and other animals) are very good at is dividing themselves into Us’es and Them’s. It’s a useful tool when we live in a divided world — how else do we keep clear of our allegiances to countries, sports teams, and political parties? But these divisions have neurological and psychological underpinnings. Consider a four square graph that charts competency versus likability (emotional warmth and approachability): We perceive (our) doctors as warm, personable, and able. We…