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Writing Other Cultures – Don’t Assume, Ask


Write what you know.  That’s the advice, right?  They (whoever the they are, I don’t know, there’s always a they though) say this because if you write what you don’t know, you’re going to get stuff wrong.  Usually I focus on what people get wrong in professions, like law, because that’s what I know.

My boyfriend points out historical inaccuracies (I don’t mean just technology anachronisms, I mean, he’ll know social mores of certain time periods and point out when a book gets those wrong) and inaccuracies when depicting weapons.  He’s a weapons photographer, I don’t know where the memory for historical stuff comes from, I can’t even remember an example of what he’s pointed out to tell it to you guys.

This is why I don’t write high fantasy or historical.  And why I write fluffy, cozy mysteries instead of procedurals because I’m not a forensic scientist (I do get bits from scientists and books I can throw in though).

What about other cultures though?  Modern day person from China getting their degree in the US?  Or someone who moved here and stayed?  (Immigration laws are a horror, so I don’t recommend going into detail on those unless you actually have been through that process of getting a visa and greencard.)  How are you supposed to write them?

Even if it’s someone from a western culture, like Germany, there’s still going to be differences in how they think, approach problems, and morals.

I think of a lot of north/eastern Europeans as slutty.  They have a culture that’s a lot looser (pun intended!) on sex than what I grew up with (again, grew up in Utah, so mine wasn’t the typical US experience either).  But for some reason, the Germans have that stereotype of Americans.  They’ve been told we’re slutty!

I know.

I get around this problem by having my main characters be American, and then any foreign characters are seen through their eyes, meaning they might have stuff wrong, but I can go off what I perceive from my foreign friends.

Something else you can do though is ask.  There is no shame in asking (I’d recommend asking a good friend because their culture might not be as welcoming of questions as America’s) how their culture/they in particular approach things.  A good friend of mine is from China.  My next book is bringing in the Chinese gods.  My friend’s going to be getting a looooot of questions.  I’ve already asked a ton over the years just out of curiosity so I know some of how their culture approaches problems and specifically how this friend and a few other Chinese ones over the years have approached things.

One example is the Chinese think there’s nothing wrong with telling a friend they’ve put on weight.  They think they are helping you by being honest.  It’s more mean to not tell the person than it is to tell the person they’ve gained weight, because if the person knows, they can work to fix it.

This is possibly a mores in more East Asian countries but I know the Chinese do it.  My old martial arts instructor told me I’d gotten chubby (I’m not actually chubby, people who see my pic and are about to yell at me, I’m just not fit anymore and I have more hips than when I worked out every day 🙂 when I visited home last time.  He’s Korean.  I didn’t ask if it’s part of the Korean culture to tell someone that to help them, so I can’t say for sure.  I can say you don’t say that in polite American culture 🙂  I can portray a Korean martial arts class because I was in one for over 6 years and I just cast my old instructor and voila, realistic 🙂

I have good friends (like good enough to ask inappropriate questions out of the blue over FB or Skype) from Germany, China, Belgium, South Africa, Russia, and Vietnam.  And then I have friendly acquaintances from all over the world I could ask with a little more small talk and a lead in.  My bf’s from the USSR.  And as we established above, he has a fantastic memory, and can still tell me certain details from it I can use in books.

The same goes for languages.  If you don’t speak the language you’re putting into your book here and there (like if the character’s upset so they automatically go to their native Spanish) fluently, then write the sentence you want and ask a friend or post it on a writer’s chatroom and ask.  Don’t trust a translation program, I’ve used them to translate friends’ posts when they post in their native tongue and they’re terrible.  Also, make sure you ask about that language from a certain area, in case there’s big dialogue differences.  In Spanish, there’s a huge difference between Spain and South America, and then there’s differences within those subsections.

The big thing you have to remember is you don’t know what you don’t know.  You won’t know what to ask in general.  So it’s best to ask a friend to read what details you’re going to put in, or to tell you all the social mores/policies they do around a certain thing.  You might assume something is a given (like flowers are pretty and are always considered a gift) whereas another culture might see a type or color of flower as a signal of death or a threat.

I tried to give my Chinese friend a white flower to wear in her hair on Halloween soon after we’d met.  She was really uncomfortable but took it and put it in her hair.  I couldn’t figure out why she seemed so fidgety until someone else explained that they wear white flowers when they’re in mourning in China and asked her if she’d prefer not to wear it.  I also couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just tell me herself and instead stood there.  Because it’s rude to refuse a gift in her culture.  So she was caught between two clashing ideas of her culture, neither one of which I knew, or even thought to ask about.

You can always make stuff up and say in your alternate reality, that’s what’s true for the culture (and yeah, everyone does this), but then you run the risk of the things that are “true” being internally inconsistent.  A little bit’s okay, even good, because real life doesn’t bother to be consistent.  But every detail you get correct, makes your books just that more real to readers.

Happy Writing 🙂

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