where the writers are
"Apologies Forthcoming" Triggers Discussion on Cultural Differences

Last December I met with the director of our town library and set up a reading from my new book Apologies Forthcoming. She was happy to accommodate me but warned that it was hard to draw a crowd, that even well-known authors have shown up to empty rooms. She was, thus, pleasantly surprised when a roomful of people showed up and, she told me afterwards, very impressed with the animated discussion.

The event took place this week. I ended up not doing a reading, instead giving a short description of my motivation for writing the book, and some history on a couple of the stories, before opening up the room for questions and discussion. The conversation that followed ranged from questions like what the Dalai Lama would think of the book to whether Chinese or Americans are more judgmental and one-sided.

An important theme that emerged was the value of fiction in keeping social and cultural knowledge available to outsiders and new generations, and whether my stories would make such readers understand the cause of the Cultural Revolution. My take was that, as fiction, the stories depict human nature across cultures and times rather than providing an analysis of events. In general, fiction is more engaging, thus can reach a broader audience than scholarly nonfiction, and helps to increase inter-cultural understanding in a perceptual way; though in order to thoroughly understand an historical event, a reader would need to look at other research on the subject.

We also spent a good deal of time on trying to explain cross-cultural differences. Many of the people in attendance were Chinese immigrants who moved to the US as adults. One difficulty they face is having to explain to their friends in China why Americans behave the way they do. One example given for this was a woman who had been asked “Why on earth would Americans elect Bush twice?” (The question triggered uproarious laughter from both Americans and Chinese.) Her answer was that "it's too complicated to explain." That question, it seems, is an epitome for the assumption that people in a foreign country are homogeneous in their beliefs, one of the cornerstones of cultural misunderstanding.

After the discussion I signed books – delighted to see so many people were interested in reading Apologies Forthcoming.