Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Whose Version of Culture?

Last month I had the unique and quite pleasant experience of seeing multiple performances at the Kennedy Center. They were hosting a month long series entitled "China: The Art of a Nation." For most of September and October the Kennedy center invited performers from throughout the People's Republic of China to come and show their art. Music, theater, opera, dance, comedy - you name it and they had a show for you.

I was quite pleased to see two shows: Romance of the West Chamber by Wang Shipu, and Two Dogs' Opinions on Life, by Meng Jinghui. Even despite my cultured backgrounds, I never imagined quite how enjoyable both performances were - and how uniquely different they were and still Chinese!

Before I go any further, I must confess that I came to love all things China through a course I took in undergrad, called "Chinese Transnationalism in Theater and Film." The course was taught by Professor Claire Conceison of Duke University, who studies Chinese Theater and also has published an amazing book about Chinese actor Ying RuoCheng (American audiences know him as the prison guard in 'The Last Emperor.'). Anyways Professor Conceison's class taught me much about how my perceptions of what is 'authentic' Chinese culture sways how I then perceive Chinese art - be it theater, film, etc. In the class we studied many of the types of Chinese art and how it is portrayed in American society. Take, for instance, the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That film was seen as so amazing in the United States but was somewhat perceived as old hat among Chinese audiences worldwide. The special effects used were nothing new to enthusiasts of Kungfu Genre movies. Yet, there was something so distinctly other about the movie that entranced Western audiences (myself included). In this class, we learned how to examine representations of China in art forms and how our own perceptions of 'What is Chinese' sway how we view art from that country. The same can be applied to really any culture that is not our own.

So back at the Kennedy Center - here I saw this unique dialogue play out right in front of my eyes. Romance of the West Chamber was a kunqu style opera performance, complete with costumes and music that I argue, are what a typical American would expect. Different, other, unique, beautiful, old. And Two Dogs' Opinion on Life was anything but. It was set in modern day Beijing, it was as a play form very modern in how the actors interacted and joked with the audience (often breaking the fourth wall and using the audience to help make the play move along). The actors were young and edgy - using minimal props and costuming to tell their story about life in the city - inconsistencies and all. The jokes and poking fun even bordered on quiet pokes at the CCP - never quite crossing the line yet venturing ever so close.

I found myself amazed at how just these two performances of many shown that month showed such different views of one country. Young, old, edgy, traditional, respectful, crude, funny, sad! In my own mind the idea of what I 'expected' to see of Chinese theater was completely blown away by the variety of all I saw. The whole experience just proved to me that we are constantly in a state of retrospection, in which we have to be aware of how our perceptions color what we observe around us.

The whole production on the part of the Kennedy Center and the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China also demonstrates a high level of cultural maturity. In highlighting what types of performances to bring, the Ministry of Culture did not bring just what Western audiences wanted to see. They also brought things that were very popular among Chinese diaspora populations (the audiences in both shows were majority of Chinese-speakers). And the shows also illustrated the great variety of thought and art that is present in a culture as varied as that found in China. On the Kennedy Center's Part, I believe that this allowed Western audiences a rare glimpse into the complexity of another culture without leaving the confines of their own home-town. Definitely a smart business move in terms of exposing people to new ways of thinking and opportunities for connection and cross-cultural learning.

All in all a delightful experience - and one that left me thinking.