Why an Elevator Made Me Want to Watch a Movie and 2 Words That Explain a Lot

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What made me want to see the movie was the elevators. In the trailer for Million Dollar Arm, one of the Indian brothers finds out that if you put your hand out, the elevator doors will open up. So, he does it again and again with a look of both confusion and wonderment on his face. I wanted to see the movie then because I got it. I understood both why he would have that reaction and what it is like to be in a place that feels like another planet because the rules and the customs and the whole way that place operates are so different from anything you’ve experienced before. I connect with confusion and wonderment.

Justin got off a little early from work the other day, so he took me into town. We grabbed some soup and Pad Thai, and then he saw that Million Dollar Arm was playing in the theatre and, since we’d been talking about going to it for awhile, he brought me to see it:) From the opening credits I was captivated. This film brought back so much of India – the streets, the smells, the flavors, the illness, the traffic, the colours, but most of all the values and the clash of cultures when Americans find themselves in India and when Indians find themselves in America.

This was all especially interesting in the light of two new words I learned from Katie recently. For those of you who are new to my blog, Katie is the awesometastic girl I travelled to India with. We were roomies for almost three months while we worked at the same ministry in South India – a home for deaf, blind, and disabled orphans. She is one of my best friends and one of the strongest, kindest, and bravest people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. Above all, she has a remarkable walk with God and such a fiercely tender heart for people. I cherish her. Anyway, she called me up on the phone a bit ago and told me about these two words she learned, in a cross-cultural communications class or something, that wonderfully capture two things we observed and experienced very acutely during our time in India: enculturation and ethnocentricism.

Enculturation is when a person enters a culture fully – open to learning from it, seeing and acknowledging its views and perspectives, being sensitive to it, letting it influence and even change them.

Ethnocentricism is the opposite. Ethnocentricism is when a person is so centered around their own culture and its customs, values, view points etc that that person views the culture it has entered only through the lens of the culture that person came from. This person is often not only unwilling to be sensitive to it and let it influence them but even tries to impose that person’s cultural customs, values, view points etc on the culture they are now in.

Katie and I saw real illustrations of this throughout our time in India, and I saw them again in the movie Million Dollar Arm. The Americans who go to India in the movie are ethnocentric. They barge into India expecting and demanding things to run there like they would in America. At one point, one of the leads says that he doesn’t want things to run Indian smoothly; he wants it to run American smoothly. I think that’s ethnocentricism in a nutshell. A whole culture runs on a different time schedule and one man comes in and expects an entire country to change to what he’s used to.

Don’t get me wrong – not every culture clash is rooted in ethnocentricism. When the two Indian brothers stare at the pizza delivery man at the door wondering why he is holding two boxes and asking for money in a language they don’t know, that’s not ethnocentricism. Neither is sticking your hand in the elevator door several times in amazement that it magically opens up. That’s just the confusion and exploration that comes with entering a new society, a different world. It’s also a phase in enculturation – that fully entering into a culture and letting it influence and change you. We must learn about and explore a place before we can follow its customs and let it alter the way we think and feel and do.

The Indian brothers are enculturated into America as one of them learns to appreciate pizza and both of them learn English and learn to cook mexican food with the woman who lives next door. Katie and I were enculturated when we wore Indian clothes, spoke bits of Telugu, wobbled our heads, ate with our hands. I was enculturated when a rug salesman looked at me as I sat there on the floor, wrapped in a red and gold head covering and a Salwar Kamis, my right leg tucked under me and my arms casually wrapped around my left knee that came up to my chest, when he said with a considerable amount of bewilderment, “You look like a Kashmiri girl.”

And that enculturation made all the difference for us. See, ethnocentricism is closed-off. It creates distance. It’s a kind of cultural self-centeredness. Meanwhile enculturation is a kind of self-sacrifice – laying down your own customs and your own viewpoints in an attempt to love someone else. It creates closeness because it’s open – not open to everything, mind you. True love doesn’t assume the sins of another culture, but it also doesn’t label a difference as a sin. It distinguishes between the two. Healthy enculturation is learning to love in a new context and from a new perspective. And whether we’re doing deaf missions in India, meeting someone from another culture, reading the news, or watching Million Dollar Arm, isn’t that what we need?

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