Of unicorns, rhinoceroses and improbable natives: An essay concerning human misunderstanding

Kenn Nakata Steffensen

[Unicorns are] scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead. They have a head like a wild boar’s. They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.

The Travels of Marco Polo. London: Penguin, 1958, p. 253

It shall suffice to my present purpose, to consider the discerning faculties of a man, as they are employed about the objects which they have to do with. And I shall imagine I have not wholly misemployed myself in the thoughts I shall have on this occasion, if, in this historical, plain method, I can give any account of the ways whereby our understandings come to attain those notions of things we have; and can set down any measures of the certainty of our knowledge; or the grounds of those persuasions which are to be found amongst men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory; and yet asserted somewhere or other with such assurance and confidence, that he that shall take a view of the opinions of mankind, observe their opposition, and at the same time consider the fondness and devotion wherewith they are embraced, the resolution and eagerness wherewith they are maintained, may perhaps have reason to suspect, that either there is no such thing as truth at all, or that mankind hath no sufficient means to attain a certain knowledge of it.

John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. [1]

A friend of mine was recently complimented in ungrammatical Spanish for his “nearly perfect” mastery of the language. He is Spanish, or rather a “Spanglishman” – a Spanish-English hybrid. The person congratulating him for almost mastering his mother tongue, and doing it in an eccentrically punctuated e-mail, was Peruvian and thus a fellow member of the Hispanidad. The e-mail began as follows:

Estimado colega XXXX XXXXXXX:

Nos sorprende su excelente escritura del español es casi perfecta, muchas gracias por responder amablemente, le explico brevemente se trata de una investigación que estamos haciendo en Perú sobre la antropología del cerebro

So, one native Spanish-speaker was praising another for almost writing their common language as well as himself, but ironically the text was written in ungrammatical Spanish. He was doing it because he assumed that the other party, unlike himself, was writing Spanish as a foreign language. Like Marco Polo, the Peruvian colleague expected to find a unicorn and interpreted the rhinoceros he saw in light of his expectation, ignoring the signs that the creature before him was something else and previously unimagined. An “improbable native” like my friend is like a Humean black swan and shows us the limits of inductive reasoning that Popper identified. Like in the example with the black swan, it takes one “improbable native” to refute the theoretical proposition that “all native Spanish-speakers have Iberian names”. But in this case, the observer failed to even correctly identify the colour of the swan and kept treating it as white. So with Locke we may suspect that “there is no such thing as truth at all, or that mankind hath no sufficient means to attain a certain knowledge of it.” We can probably never be certain that we have reached the truth because we do not have perfect information. Only an omniscient being can have certain truth.

There is no question that my friend’s written Spanish is fluent, probably more so than most other native Spanish-speakers. He has published academically in both Spanish and English and worked in Spanish journalism before becoming an academic. The e-mail to which the person from Peru was responding did not have any “accent” that would make a native reader think it was the “nearly perfect” work of a foreigner, at least if the text was read “objectively” as text only. The text, however, was read in a context, as is all human linguistic production. We therefore have to turn to this context to understand what caused a Peruvian to praise a Spaniard for writing to him in “nearly perfect” Spanish.

My friend grew up and was educated in the Madrid area, but he has an English-sounding name. He is culturally and legally Spanish, as he spent his formative years in Spain and has Spanish citizenship. He also lives in England and is employed by a British university. This background knowledge is what made the Peruvian draw the false conclusion that he was corresponding with a “pure” British colleague whose Spanish must by necessity be inferior to his own. By his definition of a British academic, Spanish is a foreign language formally learnt in adolescence or adulthood, not a native language “naturally” acquired in childhood from family and the surrounding Spanish-speaking society.

It is a rational extrapolation to assume that a person living and working in Britain and being known by an English name will also be a native of Britain, as my friend also is. The epistemological problem is caused by the fact that he is also simultaneously a native of Spain. His native mastery of Spanish should be empirical proof of that, but this fact was overshadowed by the background assumptions made about him. These assumptions made one native reader of a text classify it as a very good but inferior approximation of “proper” Spanish. It seems that my friend’s Peruvian colleague failed to see what was before his eyes and instead saw what his culturally specific preconceptions about the world made him see. The interpretive scheme that was culturally available to him made him blind to the possibility that a person with a non-Spanish name who lives and works in an English-speaking country could be just as much a native writer of Spanish as he is himself. He saw what he expected to see, not what was. He did not discover through the correspondence that there was some other hybrid identity hiding behind the seemingly English name because the name in itself told him what he would discover. The context of English name and British university led him to interpret the text as that of a foreigner with a “nearly perfect” command of Spanish.

In Shakespeare’s famous tale of “starcross’d lovers” Juliet says:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy. Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose  by any other name would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title. Romeo, doff thy name; And for that name, which is no part of thee, take all myself.[2]

Shakespeare’s Juliet is a better ethnographer than our Peruvian anthropologist. She is able to break free from the dictates of convention and the preconceptions of Veronese society. She sees behind and beyond the name Montague and finds Romeo’s true identity in a Habermasian “ideal speech situation. “[3] But because actually existing speech situations are not ideal, the Peruvian “anthropologist of the brain” read the name and saw only difference, not identity. In this case the English name of the author was what channeled the interpretation in a particular direction, not the Spanish words of the text. His hermeneutic skills were less developed than Juliet’s, and like most or all of us he was unable to set aside or bracket (Husserl) what the thought he knew about the bearer of the name. So it would seem that there is a lot in a name that can lead the ethnocentric observer to misunderstandings. The surface appearance makes us mobilise a whole range of meanings that are not there and to ignore empirical evidence to the contrary.

In connection with our friend’s story of how he had been praised for his Spanish, my wife reminded me of an incident in a station in Tokyo in December 1997 or January 1998. Not speaking Japanese, she had asked me to ask where the toilets were. The man started to answer, then became aware of her racial otherness and that I was repeating to her in English what he was telling me. He seized up and said he spoke “no Engrish.”

When I was interpreting in Århus in Denmark some years ago, one of the Danish engineers I was working with asked me in a lunch break how I had learnt to speak Danish so well. It was apparently inconceivable to him that it could be my native language. He made his judgment based on the fact that I do not look like the typical Viking and that my role in the meetings was to interpret between Japanese and Danish. Hybridity was beyond what he considered possible, so rather than the in-between category that I belong to, he classified me as a Japanese who spoke remarkably good Danish, not as a Dane-ish person whose primary language was the same as his own. As an engineer, he was trained to think logically and sequentially. His reasoning was impeccably logical, but the conclusions drawn were wrong because the starting premiss was that a person who visually (racially) conforms to his idea of a foreigner could not be a native Danish-speaker.

Through my childhood, youth and into my 20s when I left Denmark, I have experienced many incidents similar to the one just mentioned, most recently when having drinks with colleagues after a meeting in London in June 2009. The other Danish person present did not explicitly question that my Danish was native, but she assumed from the way I look that I was a Greenland Inuit. This assumption is often made in Denmark and is problematic because of the many colonial and racist connotations that follow with it. Other ethnic categories that I have been pigeonholed into by my compatriots are Turkish and generically Middle Eastern, Vietnamese and Latin American. Very often the people who assign me to one of those categories will hear a faint, but non-existent, foreign accent and compliment me on my excellent Danish. Because of the way Danish nationalist discourse operates and the socio-economic positions of most non-European migrants to the country and their descendants, assumptions about ethnicity automatically carry with them assumptions about class position and even moral character. This is illustrated by another anecdote from my teenage years in a village in South Jutland. My family had recently moved there from Kenya, and I was questioned by a curious neighbour who gave me a lift in her car. She asked about my parents and their occupations. She assumed that because he had married an Asian woman, my father had to have been a sailor. The stereotypical image is that of a Danish sailor marrying a Yokohama or Kobe barmaid or prostitute. I told her vaguely that my mother worked for a company in the area, and the neighbour went on to ask whether she was a cleaner or factory worker. My mother has degrees from Keio and the University of Hamburg and was at the time responsible for all aspects of the company’s relations with its Japanese subsidiary and clients. But it was inconceivable to the neighbour that a non-Western migrant could be in a managerial position; the only jobs that fitted her template of Oriental woman in Denmark were those of cleaner and unskilled assembly line worker. Similarly, late one night in a bar on Gammel Kongevej in Copenhagen in the early 1990s, a stranger complimented my good Danish and went on to assume that because it was so good I must have grown up in the adjacent working class/immigrant district of Vesterbro. Had he listened carefully, or been able to use his sense of hearing rather than relying on vision and being misled by starting assumptions, he would have noticed that I do not speak with a Copenhagen working class with traces of Arabic or Turkish. The regional and class dialect there may be discernible elements of are Jutland and middle class graduate. But in Denmark a person’s racial features lead others to make assumptions about ethnicity, which in turn are assumptions about social class and education. They may be right in most cases, but often they are not. If, like has happened to me sometimes, you are stopped by the Danish police near the Danish-German border and do not look Caucasian they will automatically aggressively address you in English, because they reason that dark hair + border = illegal immigrant.

Danish and Japanese popular notions about their language and the inability of non-natives to master it are remarkably similar. So are their racial/ethnic exclusivist nationalisms. They both take for granted that one of their own can become competent in a foreign language, but many people believe that their language cannot be mastered by outsiders. So literary phenomena like Hideo Levy are much more unsettling than Joseph Conrad, Nabokov or Rushdie are to English-speakers. There was a Turkish-Norwegian novelist at a conference I went to last year. He had written a book in Norwegian set in Istanbul in the 1980s. Many Norwegian readers automatically assumed that it was a beautifully translated book, not that it was written in Norwegian by a man with a Turkish name. Like my friend’s Peruvian colleague, Marco Polo and Columbus, they added two and two together and got five.

In my experience, the more educated Japanese are not so surprised about foreigners who can speak Japanese or that you can be bilingual from childhood. On the other hand, people can have some bizarre pseudo-biological notions of the boundaries between the native and the non-native. I have often been in situations where it was taken for granted that I can speak Japanese without an accent, because their notion of mother tongue is exactly that – the language your mother taught you. Unlike in Denmark, I cannot recall ever having been told that I had a foreign accent. People can be surprised, or rather offended, that there are half-Japanese and racially Japanese children who grew up abroad and cannot speak Japanese properly. Many people expect children of Japanese mothers to speak the language, regardless of where they grew up. There is sometimes incomprehension that Latin American migrants of Japanese descent speak the language badly or not at all. This probably links with biologised, but much older, Shinto notions of blood, descent, purity. Japanese racism has deep indigenous roots that fused with 19th century evolutionism and sociobiogical nonsense to become modern Nihonjinron. People have expressed surprise that I genuinely like ethnicity-marking foods like sashimi and miso. If I show appreciation for good sashimi or well-cooked rice, the response will often be “sasuga Nihonjin”, something like “you are Japanese at heart after all”. Food seems to be as important as language to some people. Similarly, they find it improbable that a foreigner can learn to cook anything but a parody of Japanese food, perhaps with the partial exception of Koreans. It is not strange to them, though, that a Japanese can go to Europe and master French or Italian cuisine.

I have lived in London for almost 15 years. What is remarkably different in my experience here compared with Denmark, Japan and Germany is that the natives I have come across have never seemed to be unsettled by my competence in English. Rather than making assumptions about my ethnic origin before asking or imagining particular or any foreign accents, they have tended to assume that I was “one of them”. Rather than surprise that I was the same, when I am in fact different, they have been surprised when it has emerged in conversation that I am an outsider. It seems that at least people in the social circles I move in do not automatically ascribe a fixed alterity on the basis on racial grounds. Contemporary London is more tolerant of ethnic diversity and less prejudiced. Why is that? How can we account for this difference? I do not pretend to have all the answers, but part of it must be that it is a more diverse society that has taken a radically different approach to handling ethnic diversity than e.g. Denmark. Another reason may be that English is a globally dominant language and that nobody feels threatened by outsiders speaking it well or offended that they have an accent. It is a more confident culture than Japanese or Danish culture and at the same time, or perhaps therefore, also more self-critical and questioning.

William Connolly writes that:

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Then he discovered America. He did not discover a world as it existed in itself; nor could he have. He discovered a world of otherness, a world of promise and danger, utopian bliss and barbaric cruelty, innocence and corruption, simplicity and mystery, all filtered through a late-medieval culture of perceptions, conceptions, faiths, aspirations and demands. His discovery was an encounter that took the form of clashes between his cultural predisposition and unfamiliar beings – strange words, alien acts, surprising appearances, uncanny responses.[4]

Our cultural predispositions or the theories we apply to understand the empirical world inevitably structure how we perceive things. The encounter with the other is always a clash between unfamiliar and the classifications our cultures predispose us towards. We cannot avoid being culturally blinkered like Marco Polo or Columbus, and sometimes the interpretive schemes we apply to the world we exist in lead us to misunderstand it and ignore signals that could correct our preconceived misunderstandings. Cultural hybrids like my Spanish-English friend, myself and increasingly many people disrupt these established ways of understanding and misunderstanding. They “throw a Spaniard into the works” of the meaning-making machinery we use to make sense of the social world. The challenge for intercultural and transcultural understanding is to unlearn what we think we know about others and to see the rhinoceroses in front of us rather than to keep insisting they are unicorns.


[1] http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/locke/locke1/Book1a.html#INTRODUCTION

[2] Shakespeare, William Romeo and Juliet. Act II, Scene II. http://www.enotes.com/romeo-and-juliet-text/act-ii-scene-ii#rom-2-2-45

[3] Habermas, Jürgen. “Discourse Ethics: Notes on Philosophical Justification.” Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Trans. Christian Lenhart and Shierry Weber Nicholson. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990, p. 86

[4] Connolly, William E Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox. Expanded edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 36


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