The Words of the Schell Family

Koreans Leading Americans

Ralph Schell
May 11, 1999

I read a book some time ago called "Beyond Culture". It talked of context within cultures and the results thereof upon relationships and language (or expressions thereof). The author rated cultures from low-context to high-context, giving a few examples to clarify. American culture is thus an example of a low-context culture, basically everything is pretty much self-explanatory from the wording or expressions. Thus English in daily life is very concise and exact and at times fairly detailed, so that the correct meaning comes across to the person on the receiving end. The English language has a great scala of verb forms so there also the time scale of action is pretty much defined by the choice of words. Many times people in Holland complain when I switch to English to speak to my wife, but it serves me well as I can choose words which in themselves have very little ambiguity.

The Orient, however, is said to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. The languages themselves have little or no differing verb forms at all, one word could have any number of meanings, even the placement of the word in a sentence can, albeit slightly, nevertheless alter the meaning of that word just enough to warrant a different choice of wording on translation to another language. In many cases their are almost innumerable forms denoting relative positions within relationships, a finesse not at all replicated in the English language, which has a minimum of the honorific terms used by Oriental languages and peoples. Basically everything to be understood is inferred by the situation at hand, thus little or no explanation is required or given, even the spoken word falls under this criteria. I noticed that when my wife had to translate for me when I spoke with my sister-in-law. Some sentences were short on my side and got lengthy translations, others were quite long but all of a sudden were transmitted with a minimum of effort on the part of the translator. It was from the responses I learned how well everything was being relayed, which in itself went quite well. Sometimes my wife did have to fill in some background information, but basically she translated fairly directly. My father was born and bred in Indonesia, that language has a similar structure to many of the other languages in the region.

Europe however is regarded by the author (I believe it was an American who'd lived in varying parts of the world for substantial lengths of time) as a medium context culture, not all can be gleaned from the wording but not so must everything be gained from the situation (the context of the whole proceedings). Words have varying meaning, in my language sometimes noun and verb forms sound alike, I got flamed once for getting the wrong meaning from something relayed to me by telephone concerning an accident my daughter had at Phys. Ed. classes at school.

There are more verb forms dealing with time, though not as many as English with the heavy influence of Greek and especially Latin syntax (gerunds, noun clauses, verb clauses etc.). Also there are more honorific terms going around in varying degrees, ranging from those denoting just rank (Du and Sie in German, similar in Dutch) to complete titular honorific expressions (Herr Professor - hard to translate, Herr meaning something like Sir in English). German has an awful lot of those titles, and they'd better be used or people will be extremely offended and just cut you and leave you standing there holding the bag. This is especially so with the older generations, maybe the younger ones don't mind so much. I'm sure they do get taught about it at school, though.

So I've lived in three different continents (Australia, Europe, the US) and my wife is from yet another (Asia), each having their own culture and language. What I've learnt so far is that culture is a tool of reference defining how people relate to one another and that language is a tool for communication in order to verify these references. I understood English *very* well before I came to the US, but I did *not* understand American English or American culture. Words sometimes had a completely different connotation. It took me three months to acclimatize. I like American humor very much, it's short and snappy. I used to watch Jay Leno a lot.

European humor takes a while getting used to, the humor is not so apparent at first glance. I'll give you an example of this. At one time I was with a team down in Arkansas and I'd placed a call to my (then) fiancée in Iowa. After the conversation I hung up and turned around to the others and called out: "Hey guys, guess what? Richard Buessing just had a baby!" There was a Jewish brother there, Steve Feld. He instantly replied "Oh yeah? That's amazing!" Well of course all the Europeans and the Japanese that were fluent in English were rolling over the floor laughing, the Americans couldn't make heads nor tails of it. They just looked at us, as if they were saying "So? so he just had a baby, so what???" It took some time for it to sink in, but they got the joke as well. We all had a good laugh after that....

As for remarks about good Christians in Japan and Korea: Completely true. I met one of those myself, the old Rev. Kamiyama (father of Rev. Takeru Kamiyama) who was a Christian even during the war, and survived to tell the tale (what a wise man!). Hearing his testimony showed me that even in such circumstances Christianity could prosper. Many of us on MFT at the time sometimes thought more highly of him than of his son, for certain we knew that his life-and-death struggle (spiritually) with the Japanese authorities was the foundation for his child to join the church (and through him later on even himself). But there is good and bad everywhere, one time I heard a Japanese sister say to me "Oriental culture is closer to Father than Western culture!" (Now where did I hear that one before?) To which I quickly replied "That's true, but that doesn't mean that *all* Orientals are closer to Father than *all* Westerners". Which completely silenced her... that probably never crossed her mind.

The same goes for Koreans, they do not mind you disagree with them as long as it makes perfect sense to them as well. I've had several run-ins with Korean regional leaders and, although my answers lacked finesse at times, I always answered them to the best of my abilities, using all the common sense I could muster. One even remembered me years later when he visited Holland from Germany. Yep, you guessed it, the Rev Ahn! He came to the business where I was working to visit and later on to spirit away my CF who was going to 40-day WS with him. He saw me and his eyes lit up, but he could exactly put his finger on me. I said "1983, Texas, South-West region." "Ahh" he replied "YOU should go to workshop!" To which I replied "No, Rev. Ahn, I cannot. My central figure is already going to workshop. The work here cannot be done without me now he is gone. I am really needed here in the warehouse." His reply then "Then another time you come!" "Yes," was my reply, "Another time." He seemed satisfied by my replies and pursued the matter no further.

So I agree we should always give a person (especially a leader) the benefit of the doubt when innocent mistakes are made. But when it becomes a pattern (of abuse) we should definitely stand our ground and fight for what's right, whatever the cost. The guiding factor being whether we in our conscience would see ourselves doing the same to the other party. Do unto others, says Jesus....

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