The cross of cultures

By on January 27, 2016

Born and raised in America, I always thought what we see, do and observe on a day-to-day basis was considered to be normal. Like most Americans, I’ve established a routine and am always on the go.

Studying abroad in Italy in the fall semester, I became aware of cultural differences. Italians perceive “normal” in a different way. Living in Italy provides a relaxed culture. If you’re a few minutes late or need a day off, there are no worries. Italians believe there is always time for conversation and family.

To get a point across, Italians believe the “more descriptive, the better,” according to Professor Andrea Di Robilant of the American University of Rome.

This led to some controversy in one of my classes last semester. Di Robilant asked Lee Cheung, a Korean student who studies in America and was studying in Rome in the fall, to describe her experience of making pasta.

Cheung said each lever to chop the pasta looked like guitar frets on a guitar board.

Di Robilant said, “It amazes me what your Korean brain can describe.”

Viola Brown, a student from New Jersey, started laughing.

“I can’t help but laugh– it’s ridiculous how you can make the connection of her descriptions to discriminating her for being Korean,” Brown said, “It makes no sense.”

“How is my description of her being Korean ridiculous?” Di Robilant asked.

Student Dominique Fairley jumped into the conversation.

“You shouldn’t over-emphasize a passage and then talk about her ‘Korean-ness,’” she said, “We don’t hear you talking about our ‘American-ness.’”

Di Robilant began to get frustrated.

“I’m not over-emphasizing it! I’m emphasizing it!!!” he yelled. “I am NOT discriminating anyone– I am being descriptive!”

Fairley said what Di Robilant had said was wrong and told him to calm down before Di Robilant continued.

“It’s a very interesting trait for being Korean and you all need to be more aware of these descriptions and take them to heart,” he said.

Di Robilant believes if you never describe anything, you will never know.

“The only person who has been accused here today is me,” he said.

Brown ran out to cry.

The class was left in silence. Di Robilant sat down and thought. He stood back up.

“You know, I believe we have touched upon a very important subject that hasn’t crossed my mind until now,” he said before adding he was sorry if he offended anyone.

Ever since Brown spoke up, I couldn’t concentrate. I was lost in my thoughts, puzzled by the differences of cultures coming together.

After some thinking, I could understand. Di Robilant described Cheung not to be discriminatory, but because that’s how Italians ARE. They freely describe people for who they are. It’s part of their culture.

American discrimination goes way back. One will always have roots and memories from the Civil War. We learned it in history and it affects us every day. As an American, you will always remember.

After class, I spoke to Di Robilant.

“I think you worded it wrong.” I told him. “There’s something deeper—the offensiveness goes back.”

“I know– 20 years ago, America has not been the same,” he said. Di Robilant hopes Americans learn to describe things for how they see them.

“If not from the heart, they are not descriptions,” he said.

Since Di Robilant’s description, my cultural awareness increased. Despite such differences, we are connected with others more than we know.

History repeats itself, time after time. This time, there’s nothing more that you can do but to be accepting of others. At the end of the day, we are only human.

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About Katherine Hansford Arce