What is our objective when we teach about Asian history and culture in our classrooms? One goal is to help students understand other cultures, to appreciate other ways of worldmaking.1 There is an obvious payoff to this, quite apart from the joy of peddling our own academic wares. As Clifford Geertz points out, the greater the reach of our minds—that is, the broader the “range of signs we can manage somehow to interpret” in our effort to understand the cultural ways of “other” people—the more expansive and rich our own “intellectual, emotional, and moral space” will become.”2 At the same time, a sympathetic engagement with the “other” defamiliarizes what may appear to be normative. In other words, a sincere effort to appreciate the way “alien” cultures see the world provides our students with fresh perspectives on their own ways of worldmaking.3
In The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (1998), the ever provocative Wendy Doniger argues that the first step on the road to cross-cultural understanding is to assume “the self in the Other,” to look, in other words, for fundamental similarities and affinities. But then, she says, we should “go over to the other side,” ending up with difference. The key point, Doniger emphasizes, is that “similarity must not be allowed to become normative.” She writes:
The challenge [of meaningful cross-cultural comparisons] lies in choosing as the Other in whom we assume an initial likeness an Other as other as possible, as different from us as possible, perhaps one we don’t like or understand at all at first and have to work hard to like or understand. The comparison that chooses an Other in which the initial likeness is more immediately apparent is more ethnocentric; it is easier, and ultimately it proves less.4
In the notes below, TOB refers to the word-searchable “Topically Organized Bibliography” at http://www.aasianst.org/eaa/ smith.htm#one.
1. I have discussed a few ways to do this in R. J. Smith (2001), 8–10. For the full reference, see TOB, Section IX. By “ways of worldmaking” I mean the social construction of reality—how groups of people (“cultures”) arrange things, ideas, and activities into coherent systems of meaning.
2. Geertz (1986), 113. TOB, Section IX.
3. See R. J. Smith (1986), 113–126 and (1987), 6–11. TOB, Section IX.
4. Doniger (1998), 34. TOB, Section IX.