As I write about my time in Iran at the age of 23 for my new book, I have to accept that I underwent extreme culture shock. It had all the features that are commonly described in the literature except for one crucially important one.
It was about dealing with the very strange and going through various stages of making sense and adapting. But it was not about learning a new national or civilisational culture – i.e. ‘Iranian culture’. I refuse to believe that ‘Iranian culture’ exists as a definable object that explains and predicts the behaviour of all the people who are somehow inside it. It’s instead a powerful figurative idea.
Rather than this essentialist large culture explanation, I’m going to use a small culture frame.
Small culture shock is about what is going on around us. My first memory of small culture shock was going to school for the first time. What was significantly different about going to Iran were the Orientalist grand narratives of national or civilisational culture that I took with me. These were the things that initially got in the way of me seeing people just as people and enabled me to build theories about who they were when things got bad. I had picked these narratives up throughout my childhood and early adulthood from stories, books, radio, television, education, between the lines of everyday language, so on. In the 1950s and 60s the imagery was far less rampant than it is now; but it was still very much there. So many children’s books were full of images of a culturally deficient Other derived from stories of empire.
It is these grand narratives of national or civilisational culture – these blocks – that we have to get past, to put aside to be able to find the threads that bring us together. We will still be different to each other. There was nothing at all that could prevent me from being ‘British’ in Iran – but ‘British’ in some far more intangible way than the equally blocking grand narrative about ‘the West’ that was in the air of my presence there. There was undeniably a powerful global politics going on. The American influence in Iran was huge at that time, even down to the street markings. There were huge civilisational conflicts that eventually led to revolution.
In my small culture approach I am by no means denying cultural difference and conflict. But these are far more diverse, fractured, hybrid, porous, unexpected, shifting and undefinable than the grand narratives of national or civilisational culture lead us to believe. There was indeed a lot of learning to do – but at a small cultural level with manners, language, managing space, taking part, food, washing, sleeping, waking, generally being – but things we all have to work on in different cultural environments as we move through life everywhere – things we are already equipped to recognise and learn ideology the grand narratives don’t get in the way. How to continue to be creatively and genuinely one’s self in new environments – certainly not to pretend or imitate.
It certainly was not the case, and never has been, that we were divided by the silly dimensions of ‘high-‘ or ‘low-context’, ‘individualist’ or ‘collectivist’. These are simply neo-racist categories that are the products of Orientalism under the positivist and methodological nationalist guise of science. It is very easy to find people everywhere claiming them, even, or especially in objectivist research interviews, simply because they are available and easy narratives to speak. We are all all of these things in different ways at different times in particular circumstances.
So, the theory I will stay with for the moment is small culture formation on the go – the everyday process of making sense of the world around us – the constant, daily struggle to put aside the grand narratives of national or civilisational culture that plague us and lead us to awful prejudice.