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An ‘Ah-ha’ in Bangkok
Exchange visit showed how cultural bias affects our vision


6/1/2006

Courtesy / St. Olaf College, Shaw-Olson Center
Thai and American students assessed each other as "so alike."   (Courtesy / St. Olaf College, Shaw-Olson Center)
Epiphanies come in many forms. One of my most memorable occurred decades ago when I spent a junior year abroad in Bangkok. Composed of students from Carlton and St. Olaf colleges, we were a typically mixed group, at least for the Upper Midwest in the 1960s.

We were an average assortment of sizes and shapes, with hair ranging from short, curly, black to long, straight, blond.

Unlike our Thai counterparts, we were not forced to wear the school uniform, so there also was considerable variety of dress. Our speech, while predominantly Midwestern, exhibited plenty of dialectic difference: In other words, we were, at least to each other, pretty distinguishable. Apparently, however, not to our Thai fellow students, who, to us, looked astoundingly similar in stature, hair and skin color and dress.

One day near the end of our term, one of the Thai girls who had been a regular participant in our gathering called one of us by the name of another. The two people she confused could not, by our standards, have been more dissimilar -- in stature, coloring and all the cues that we use to distinguish one another. It could have been dismissed as a simple spoken error but for the intense embarrassment of the speaker. She could not cover the mistake and, after a series of nervous giggles, apologized by saying that “you all look alike.”

This diverse group of chunky/skinny/blond/brunette/tall/short Americans was stunned by such a statement. Immediately, we asked how this could be. The answer was simple; since Thais do look very similar in many (Western) ways, they look for other traits that differentiate. Hair color doesn’t work even for Thais, but facial structure does. Voice timbre apparently is also in the mix and, by Thai standards, our defining similarity was loudness.

This was a truly “ah-ha” moment for me — and the rest as well. We were being told that all our Western methods of separating folks were not useful for others. Things that we counted as defining were not even noticed, while attributes that we essentially ignored were profound components of another cultural system.

I have never forgotten that moment. Now, almost 40 years later, that one statement reminds me that we see what we are conditioned to see and we classify on the basis of parameters that are determined by our culture and our upbringing.

Obviously, we can all learn to expand our view, as most of the time both the Americans and the Thais got it right. But the default position is to our training and bias. As with computers, changing that default takes time and process.

So we all do look alike — just in very different ways.

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