I’ve often wondered, what would be the most powerful cross-cultural immersion situation one could ask for? What daily life activity could give you a taste of another culture – and a jolt of culture clash – in the most effective experiential way? Shopping in a foreign country? Sharing a meal with strangers? Falling in love? What could be the single most important step you could recommend to someone to get acquainted with a culture?
While I was reading the absolutely delicious Diamonds in My Pocket by Amanda Kovattana I finally realized what this activity most certainly is. Yes, living with a family with a different cultural background, but more specifically having someone from a different culture have a say in organizing your personal space: tidying your room putting everything in order; with a concept coming from a different culture. But who publishes guides detailing how space is organized in foreign countries? You have to either experience it or decipher it in literary texts, to find those hidden diamonds where they are least expected to be. Diamonds in My Pocket is one of the most honest and culturally illuminating books I’ve read recently and I firmly believe the most powerful reason for that are the rich descriptions of interiors loaded with cultural revelations.
The author, Amanda Kovattana, is herself the product of an intercultural relationship. Her mother a beautiful English woman, her father the descendant of an aristocratic Thai family, we find her growing up in high-class Bangkok. In fact, it’s her mom experiencing the culture clash of having the family servants cleaning their house.
Here is my favorite paragraph:
The maids had a certain style to their arrangements. After dusting each item on the dressing table, they would place the [cosmetic] bottles in perfect lines with the product labels facing front. It drove my mother crazy. “Why must they arrange everything in ramrod straight lines like little soldiers,” she complained after many years of this aesthetic torture.
Mummy asked me to tell Pryoon to discontinue the straight lines. The comparison to little soldiers amused me and I dutifully translated to Pryoon my mother’s remark, proceeding to instruct her in the art of random arrangement. Pryoon gave this Western style a studious effort and complied with my mother’s wishes. From then on the items on mummy’s dressing table were arranged in a cluster according to height, tall ones in back, short ones down front. All with their labels turned to precise forty-five degree angle.
I’ve experiences something like that and know that the way you can control your personal environment tells probably the most about your culture, especially because it’s a private – so honest – way to express yourself.
After reading this book I happened upon the work of a photographer who documents the lives of Jews in Eastern Europe today and noticed how many of her photos are just pictures of family living rooms. After my initial reaction to the banal obviousness of these images, I was struck by the familiarity of these domestic arrangements: what I had assumed was an ordinary everyday setting of my childhood that everybody had at home was actually a culture-specific, artificial environment found only in my culture. I realized the salient differences of this kind of personal space with what I’ve found in other places and embarked on a new line personal research. I started looking at old family albums, paying attention to how things were arranged and displayed and how people interact with them through their body language.
It’s very telling that, after her family moved from Thailand to California when she was a teen, she is now a professional organizer.