Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

The Danger of the Lens

Published Date : Dec 20, 2017

The Danger of the Lens
By Roma Sonik
2017 English Teaching Assistant Fellow

It was my second day of teaching. The windows in the classroom were opened wide, but I was sweating through my black dress. Some of it was due, no doubt, to the Bangkok heat—but the remaining ninety-nine percent was the result of nervous energy. It was the final week of orientation month, and we were teaching an English camp for a week as a way to prepare for the year ahead.

I ignored my palpating heart (was it possible that 20 eager high school children could make me so nervous?), and, together with my co-teacher, instructed the class to gather in a circle, preparing them to play a reinvented version of hot-potato.

I set up my speakers, and Beyoncé blared in the classroom. We strategically stopped the music on the most talkative boy, certain that his excitable persona would encourage his classmates to participate.

“What is your favorite food?” I ask him, slowly, deliberately.

The boy, named Toon (I later found, is short for “Cartoon”) exclaimed without hesitation, “KFC! My favorite food is KFC!”

I was taken aback. KFC? As in, Kentucky Fried Chicken? What?

But trying not to skip a beat, I responded- “Yes, KFC! Very nice, Toon.”

As I thought about it later, I realized that the visceral reaction I felt was a kind of an “Oh no!”, a concern that Toon’s preferences evidenced the muddying of Thai culture by some Other influence. “Is nowhere sacred?” I remember thinking. I was here to learn about Thai food—kao soi, tom yum, and som tam. But KFC? KFC? What kind of a cultural exchange was that?

Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche, a feminist icon perhaps best known for her novel Americanah, gave a famous Ted talk in 2009, titled “The Danger of a Single Story.”

In the piece, she explains how the single narrative of Africa has dispossessed Africans of their identity, by perpetuating stereotypes and creating monoliths out of complex stories. She warned of the dangers of equating a single experience with an entire group.

As I mulled over my issues with KFC, I realized that I had fallen in the trap of a single story.

This is a guilty admission, for me. It is not my first rendezvous with international cultures and their nuanced complexities– my parents, though Indian by origin, were born and raised in Kenya. I, in turn, was born and raised in the United States. The threads of history, sacrifice, privilege, and culture that overlap in the story of my family history alone should have reminded me that each unit, whether family or nation, contains multitudes and contradictions.

Unknowingly, I had become complicit in buying into the ‘single story’ in a way that was shaping my reality. I had absorbed a preconception about Thailand, and it had morphed into a lens through which I was reading my experiences.

Lenses encourage us to seek out experiences that fit our distorted preconceptions of what something is, should be, or should become. As a result, we build a bias: we only continue to notice and act on things that support our single-storied narratives. We dismiss things that are “not Thai enough” or mentally emphasize our predeterminations. The real danger seems to be that these “single stories” are a lens that we do not even realize we are wearing. If left unchecked, we turn a three-dimensional world into a single story, able to be stuffed into a box of things we Already Knew, things we have read about online—“Mai Bpen Rai” and “Thai time” boxes. The danger is this: if we do not question our own lenses, we may well find that we see the same stories everywhere we look.

All the while, we remain convinced that we are seeing things as they truly are. We pass judgments—as I did to Toon—on what is or is not “authentic” and find a compulsion to assess our experiences as “good” or “bad” at every turn. What does not fit our paradigm of the Vision that we have built, we choose to reject as contrived, inauthentic, or, worst, “touristy.”

As educators, appointed change makers, it is quite easy to see why many of us could fall into this practice; we seek out anecdotes that fit our notions of what is wrong with the way things are, because we are so eager to fix them. Fulfilling the single story narrative placated the problem-solver in me, allowing me point to a simple solution that followed from the lenses that I had built. “See?” I found myself thinking, after spending hours learning about Thai time. “Things aren’t punctual! If only it were punctual, my students would learn faster!” Such “ruminations,” of course, fail to recognize all the other impacts at play.

What I have learned during orientation month in Thailand is the following: Fulbrighters are a zany, unconventional bunch. We have come from many different walks of life. If you corner any one of the twenty-two of us, and ask, “Why did you choose Thailand, of all places?” the range of answers will startle you: cultural identities, academic interests, friends’ experiences.

But what is more startling than the diversity of answers is the glimpse that each line of reasoning provides into the Big Experience that is Thailand. Each of us are convinced of something about Thailand. While this means that we bring a range of experiences to the table, it also means means we are all particularly vulnerable to miss the complexities of its culture. If left unexamined, these tendencies become realities that we then pass on to our families, careers, and communities. This practice results in, at best, a reduction of a culture into a caricature of its reality; at worst, it results in a warped daguerreotype that goes on to inform policy, exchange, and culture.

The opportunity to be equipped with weeks of jumpstart language training, robust international networks, and sensitivity towards Thai history has been an exceptional step in the direction of combatting such ills. The month-long process of orientation has made it possible for us to wrestle with expectations and realities, with cynical thoughts and idealistic plans. A month of introduction has made it possible for our cohort to engage in and agonize over conversations like the dialogue I offer here.

The Danger of the Lens is, in fact, the following: although each lens forces distortions on its viewer, it is the lens in our eyes that allows us to see. While we may never be able to truly remove our lenses, we can learn to minimize its illusive effects—we can meditate both the shadows on the cave wall and the shortcomings of our own implicit readings. I trust that the strength of the relationships we build in our respective communities and the constant, exhausting work of remaining self-critical will push our Fulbright cohort in becoming better purveyors our future journeys. I trust that visits to KFC will inform, not mar, our understanding of Thailand, and that we will one day look back at our complex experiences and use them to power better policies, intentional education, and inclusive innovation. After all, isn’t 20/20 just a few years away?