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March 28, 2016

Circumventing the Hills and Valleys of Cultural Differences - Guest Post by Jennifer M. Eaton

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We at Teenreads believe that cultural differences should be celebrated, especially in literature, but that doesn't mean they're always easy to get around. Even in our own world, things like race, gender and religion can divide us. But imagine living in a world where aliens were also part of the equation --- what if something as simple as shaking hands could be misconstrued by an alien with a totally different culture? In this blog, Jennifer M. Eaton explains how her science fiction series, Fire in the Woods, aims to transcend cultural differences and teach us something about our own perspectives.

Cultural differences fascinate me. How do they come to be?

For instance, we are all human, and we have basic human traits. We walk, we talk. If we are angry we yell. If we are sad, we cry. If we are happy, we laugh. All these things transcend culture and gender.

So how, if we are all the same, do we end up culturally different?

My earliest memory of awareness to cultural differences came in middle school. My history teacher --- “Hi, Mr. Hoffmaster!” --- broke us into groups of two: one boy, one girl, and made us stare at each other’s chins. At that age, this left us giggling as it was, but then he made it worse by telling us to imagine that we found the other person’s chin alluring.

As you can imagine, the entire class fell into hysterical laughter. I mean, a chin isn’t sexy, is it? Well, he explained, we don’t find the chin attractive in the USA, but that doesn’t mean it is not attractive in another part of the world.

Yes, this was a very silly exercise, but it has stuck with me through the years. Although we are all basically the same in so many ways, our culture has influenced certain aspects of our everyday lives to the point where it seems like “human nature” --- but this might not be true.

Cultural differences are a continuing theme in my young adult series Fire in the Woods. I draw on the basic idea that everyone is the same, no matter their skin color… but at the same time, they might be very, very different.

Imagine being a teenage girl, and suddenly developing feelings for a boy from another planet. You don’t want to have these feelings, but hey, there they are.

What do you do about it?  Well, you flirt, right? And when the time seems right, you move a little closer. Maybe even try a kiss.

But what if that boy has no idea what you are doing? What if he is totally confused because a few days ago, he tried to show his interest in you by touching cheeks, but this made you uncomfortable, so you moved away… inadvertently telling him you were not interested (from his culture’s perspective.)

Do you see how things can get messy, just from misunderstanding another culture’s norms?  

Misinterpretation is a problem not only for my characters in FIRE IN THE WOODS, but also between people of different backgrounds from our own world. But like Jess and David from my story, if we can look beyond what we don’t understand, we may be able to overcome our differences to achieve the impossible.

And hey, come to think of it, my husband does kinda have a sexy chin, now that I’ve taken the time to notice.