Fresh Eyes that Love and Fear

Today I listened to a podcast (ABC again) about culture. Not the specifics of culture but the overall kind of groove of it… no, of them. Anyway, all I really want to say about it is that at the beginning the interviewee (Professor of Psychology Michele Gelfand) told this little story about a couple of fish swimming along. And an octopus calls out to them “How nice is the water today?”. The fish keep swimming and then after a bit, one says to the other: “What the hell is water?”

That’s culture. We’re so deep in it we don’t even know it’s there. That’s the point of the story. And it’s so true.

I remember my first morning of my year in China. ZL took me out to breakfast as a kind of welcome. She bought me a soup with noodles and vegetables and meat and wontons. Bang. Culture Shock. (After further travel I have since concluded that breakfast is one of the first noticeable cultural differences when you travel.)

When you go overseas, people warn you about culture shock so I expected it and I don’t remember a great wad of culture shock in my first weeks in China. Things happened throughout the year which surprised or discomforted me. But it wasn’t a graph that peaked and then plateaued. It was a flattish line with some big and small wobbles in it.

But when I came home again, that was the real culture shock. I was no longer oddly tall. I no longer stood out in the street. I remember one day (in China) I went for a walk and forgot my sunglasses. The glare was bothering me and I pulled my jumper up over my head to be like a hat brim. A good friend was cycling the other way on the other side of the road and spotted me and came to join me. “How did you recognize me with my face and hair hidden?” I asked. He just laughed. It was a stupid question. I stood out like a sore thumb. For a start, most Chinese people don’t walk around wearing their jumper like a bonnet.

Back in Australia I could read every single sign (information overload!). I didn’t have a close-knit group of friends living all around me, available just by going up or downstairs. I wasn’t a foreign expert. And, perhaps most surprising, I was shocked by how much skin women show here and by how big people are. We Aussies are tall and confident in a way I would’ve never noticed if I hadn’t gone away.

Climate Change is like culture. We’re so deep in it, we can’t see it. The scientists see it in graphs and tables and core samples. But we ordinary folk have to grasp it in news bites and collective memories. It’s not easy. Should we watch the shell patterns along the shoreline and see if they creep higher up the beach? Are we trained to notice how the frosts come later and later every year. Can we perceive bushfires as a growing album rather than as one scary summer at a time?

We didn’t notice until our cat was skin and bone how sick she was.

It’s so bloody easy to miss the changes. If only we could leave Earth for a while and come back to see our world with fresh eyes. Fresh eyes that love and fear.

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