Thursday, April 10, 2014

Worldbuilding: Culture and Rituals of Class Difference

A few months ago I witnessed something that is an uncommon occurrence in the States.  I was waiting in our favorite local Thai restaurant for our take-out order to be ready, when a young woman walked in the door.  This woman wasn't particularly remarkable: dressed in jeans and T-shirt, she looked like a fairly typical Asian-American college student.

But upon seeing her, the woman behind the counter bowed to her.  Almost immediately, one of the waiters did the same.  They stayed bowed until she acknowledged: a polite, even friendly wave that let them know, yes, they could get back to what they were doing.  Then she went on to join friends at a table. 

Now, being a writer, I immediately began to speculate on what I just witnessed.  It could have been as mundane as a sign of respect for the boss's daughter, or as elaborate as her being a minor member of the Thai royal family.  I had no clue.

But what was clear was that this was an overt display of class distinction, where two people showed reverence for a member of the higher class, and that person showed acknowledgment of that reverence.  Both sides followed the rules of what was expected of them upon meeting.

We don't see that in the States much, partly because our class distinctions are fuzzy, fluid and ill-defined.   As such, there are no hard-and-fast rules of protocol.  But that's a quirk of our culture.  Many cultures do have class distinctions where the lines are very strictly defined, as are the rules for interaction between classes.

So, how do your characters show that, especially in a way that shows that both sides of the table have rules and expectations.  Or, how do your characters subvert the expectations? 


Jules said...

From the POV of a 2nd Generation Chinese American who grew up in a multi-ethnic Asian community (San Gabriel Valley, CA)...

What you observed isn't necessarily a ritual of class distinction, per se. It's a sign of respect and/or a customary greeting between a servant (a server of goods/services) and a customer. They may not bow to non-Asians because of an unconscious assumption that non-Asians would not take the lack of bowing as a form of disrespect or a snub.

The student, if she were an immigrant or even second generation who has a deep connection with her culture would have bowed back, as a way to show respect to those who are older.

But many small business/authentic restaurants that are run by immigrant/traditional families would show that sign of respect as a way to welcome customers. In many traditional Japanese restaurants in LA, the chefs/wait staff would shout out a greeting (when they aren't in the middle of a lunch/dinner rush) - "irasshaimase" as a general greeting to welcome customers. Most of the traditional Asian places would greet people with a slight bow (or a nod of the head as a modified bow) as a sign of respect.

There are a lot of cultural nuances at play here, including the culture of a sub-community, ideas/philosophies of acculturation and assimilation, complicated by a generational/immigration gap.

If you want to know more/discuss, please feel free to PM me.

Jules said...

Oh... and in response to your supposition that there are no hard and fast rules of class distinction, I would disagree. As someone who had to navigate 2 worlds/cultures, I am very meta-aware of American rules of etiquette and culture that denote class - from the way one dresses to the way we address each other. Propriety, formality, the diction we use in our speech all make a distinction of class.

When world building, I think it's important to study the nuances and subtleties of those distinctions.