"Wading neck deep in a swamp, your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it" Mary H. Kingsley (1897)

Redefining the Question

I receive the New Yorker regularly.

It is a kind gift from my younger son.

This month I particularly enjoyed a writer’s account of his return to the USA after many years abroad.

The following section was especially intriguing.

Most Chinese were intensely curious about foreign life, and they liked to ask certain questions. What time is it there? How many children are you allowed to have? How much is a plane ticket back?

People tended to have extreme views of the U.S., both positive and negative, and they became fixated on fantastic details that they had heard. Are American farmers so rich that they use airplanes to plant their crops? Is it true that when elderly parents eat with their adult children the kids give them a bill for the meal, because they aren’t as close as Chinese families? When I taught at a college, a student names Sean wrote in an essay:

I know that persons in America can possess guns from some books and films. I don’t know whether it is true….I know that beggars must have bulletproof vest from a book. Is it true? There is a saying about America. If you want to go to heaven, go to America; if you want to go to hell, go to America.

It was hard to respond to such combinations of truth and exaggeration. In the early years, it frustrated me, because without any context I couldn’t convey a more nuanced perspective. But eventually I realised that the conversations weren’t strictly about me, or even about my home country. In China, I came to think of the United States as essentially imaginary: it was being created in people’s minds, and in that sense it was more personal for them than it was for me. The questions reflected Chinese interests, dreams, and fears – even when people discussed America, the conversation was partly about their own home.

Go West, Scenes from an American homecoming.

Peter Hessler, The New Yorker. April 19, 2010.*

My recent trip to the USA, despite many previous visits, reflected this pattern of being conditioned by what was familiar, rather than objectively seeing a different society and culture.

As Vedic Hindu philosophy first suggested and modern physics agrees:

The observer, the observed and the process of observation are intimately bound.

When we think of, or question, the unfamiliar what we articulate is based on what we have seen before.

But our questions have value.

They provide insight into what motivates or worries the observer.

When ever we examine national character, religion, history or even alien life forms, we project our fears or required certainties, often attempting to reinforce existing judgements.

We rarely wish to explore beyond this safety zone.

Like a newspaper with its own agenda, the mind exercises censorship.

By first defining the questions, awkward observations can be kept at bay.

It seems impossible to see beyond the shadows on the wall.

All that catches my eye is conditioned by previous reflections.

My desires and fears are caught in the picture

If  I am a camera,  that camera casts its own shadow.

*Sadly, Peter Hessler’s excellent and entertaining article is only available on-line to subscribers of The New Yorker.

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