Fish don’t know they’re in water. If you tried to explain it they’d say, “Water? What’s water?” They’re so surrounded by it that it’s impossible to see. They can’t see it until they get outside of it.
This is how I feel about culture. We’re so surrounded by it that it’s impossible to see. What we think is the truth is really just our local culture. We can’t see it until we get outside of it.
I was born in California and grew up with what I felt was a normal upbringing with normal values. I’ve been surrounded by risk-taking artists and entrepreneurs for most of my life.
Last week I was speaking to a business school class in Singapore. I asked, “How many people would like to start their own company some day?” In a room of fifty people, only one hand reluctantly went up. I was shocked and confused. If I would have asked this question to a room of fifty business school students in California, every hand would have gone up. I thought maybe they were just being shy, so I asked individual students in the room, “Really!? Why not?” Some of their answers were:
- “Why take the risk? I just want security.”
- “I spent all this money on school, and need to make it back.”
- “If I fail, it would be a huge embarassment to my family.”
Then I remembered I was seeing it through my local American culture: the land of entrepreneurs and over-confidence. I had heard this before, but I hadn’t really felt it until I could see it from a distance.
All of my Singaporean friends live with their parents. Even pretty successful ones, even married ones, even up to age 35, live at their parents’ home. When I told a friend that I left home at 17, she was horrified. She said, “Isn’t that horribly insulting to your parents? Weren’t they devastated?”
Then I noticed my local American culture again: the emphasis on individualism, rebellion, and personal expression. I had heard this before, but I hadn’t really felt it until I could see it from a distance.
My culture isn’t in the center. It’s off on the edge, like one petal in a flower, like they all are. Not right or wrong — just one of many options.
Yes, the rest of you can enjoy a good laugh at me being a stereotypical American — just now realizing my culture not the center of the universe.
I’m just a fish who didn’t know he was in water.