Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Are you culture bound?

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

It’s so easy to see the flaws in the cultures of other peoples while we’re completely blind to our own.  In this novel set in the time of foot binding in rural China, Lily describes her world from the vantage point of an elderly powerful woman looking back on her vulnerable childhood and years as a daughter-in-law.
She acquiesces to her former powerlessness, viewing herself then as ‘inconsequential’.  She tells her readers, “I was a third child, a second worthless girl, too little to waste time on until it looked like I would survive my milk years… I was five, old enough to know I didn’t deserve her attention, but suddenly I craved it.”  The woman whose attention she craves is her own mother, and it’s not till her mother breaks and binds the narrator’s young feet that she finally begins to feel some motherly love. 

Lisa See seems to enjoy presenting this culture so at odds with our own, especially when she has Lily state: “All people cherish the hair on their moles, but Uncle Lu’s were splendid.  He had at least ten hairs—course in texture, white in color, and a good three centimeters long—sprouting from each mole.”
Although See does create characters who shift their understanding of the world around them, for the most part her characters accept their status quo.  Lily does come to see that the brutality of a butcher who kills pigs on his front doorstep and mercilessly beats his wife is not necessarily his total worth.  He bravely saves the lives of many, so she gains respect for him that her earlier prejudices would never have allowed.  (In their culture, butchers endure a bottom rung of society.) On the other hand, when Lily becomes a wife and mother, she never hesitates to break and then bind her own daughter’s feet, just as her mother had done to her, and her grandmother had done to her mother. 

See doesn’t let us get too complacent about our own culture when she describes “tall, grotesque foreigners with red beards, who had wives with waists so constricted that they couldn’t breathe, and huge feet that flipflopped like just-caught fish.”  And even though the female children and young wives in this novel are treated quite mercilessly by their family members, See introduces us to other formalized female friendships in old China that makes us rethink how little we value our female friends in this culture.
As far as literature therapy goes, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a great novel for reminding the reader that we are blind to our own culture, especially in areas that could stand some improvement.  If you are interested in taking a more direct approach to looking at our North American culture from a different vantage point, you can always look at that old chestnut, BODY RITUAL AMONG THE NACIREMA, by Horace Miner.  But do pick up See's novel, as it’s a fascinating look into an old culture that had both reprehensible and admirable traits.

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