Sunday, October 16, 2005

Culture Clash

Hello, Zinnia here. While Birdy is off cavorting around the hillsides of Albion, I, in my alternative persona of Ethics Girl, will be standing in for her on Doing The Right Thing. And I have a few ethical dilemmas I’ve encountered recently on which I’d value the ethically tuned views of Birdy's readers. All were encountered while I was doing my own cavorting, a couple of months ago, around a capital city in eastern Europe.

This capital city, let’s call it Klezmer, has a chequered history, most recently communist-run. The communist regime fell at the end of the 1980s and then people from Klezmer were able to travel to the West with no restrictions. Two of them, let’s call them Stanislav and Ludmila, visited me that first year, stayed for a summer, then disappeared back into their own lives. They came via my parents who had met Stan on a tour of eastern Europe in the mid-1980s. I hadn’t seen them since, but when I’d mentioned to my parents that I was going to Klezmer for a weekend, they’d said ‘why don’t you look up Stan?’ so I had, and he’d put me in touch with Ludmila, and we’d met up with both of them (separately – they were only ever friends).

So, here’s Dilemma The First. When we met up with Stan, his great red beard had gone but otherwise he seemed little different. A highly intelligent man, speaking five and a half languages, he was proud of the status he had achieved: a senior banking position, a fine ‘stand-alone’ house with swimming pool in the countryside, two bright healthy children and a wife who doesn’t work outside the home. He is not as unreconstructed as many men in Klezmer: he adores his children and changed a number of his habits and attitudes after they were born (“I cannot eat sucklings now”, he told us, meaning veal, poussin etc), frequently cooks at home, listens to his wife and takes her opinions seriously. But he is unashamedly racist.

Klezmer was always predominantly white. There was a big Jewish quarter – not a ghetto – with good integration, but no African, Caribbean, south American or Asian people at all. Now a few come as tourists, and even fewer as refugees. So he has grown up in a very different culture from me.

On my first night in Klezmer, a very foreign-seeming place, he told some racist jokes: the ‘black men have big willies’ variety. I laughed dutifully – something I would never do in England. I didn’t feel able to challenge him at the time, I think because it felt like part of the foreignness. My laughter was expected and I was trying to fit into a new and unfamiliar environment as best I could. But it doesn’t sit well with me, and if I find myself in that situation again, I think I would at least like to make it clear that such jokes would not be acceptable to me on my home turf. However, I’m very unsure of the best way to do that. So I’d appreciate any advice you may have for me.

Thank you!
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