EN384D: Travel Lit
23 October 2013
Perception: A View From A Different Lens
In “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body” Albert Wendt discusses the importance of perspective. Wendt explains that despite conventional perspectives of tattoos, that they are actually more than just a way of “prettying yourself”(400). More specifically, the art of tattoo holds a greater cultural significance, while also working to establish individual identity in relation to a larger context. For example, Wendt writes about the first South Pacific Arts Festival in which he discusses a group of men called the “Nambas of the New Hebrides” who performed essentially “naked”—only covering their genitals. During their performance, “… the majority of the missionary-converted Pacific Islands audience laughed at them for being ‘naked savages’ (400). Amidst the audience’s laughter, Wendt reminds these audience members that, “in many Pacific cultures, body decoration and adornment is considered clothing”(400) and that at one point tattoos were “the most desired and highest-status clothing anyone could wear”(400). While people who are unfamiliar or foreign to the cultural nuances of the “Nambas of the New Hebrides” view these men as being “naked”, the indigenous men perceive their “elaborate body decorations,” or tattoos (400) as clothing; their tattoos are interchangeable with our conventional idea of clothing. These men genuinely “believe” that their tattoos are their clothes and that they are fully dressed. Here we notice the power of perspective and the importance of understanding that difference does not necessarily mean bad. Rather, Wendt is suggesting that the difference we often encounter may just be a result of viewing something through an inappropriate lens. More specifically, when analyzing or observing an unfamiliar culture, it is essential that we view that culture from the correct cultural lens: from the perspective of that culture.
Although I would have never thought I would be able to relate to Wendt’s example of cultural difference (perceptions defining “nakedness”) I realized that I actually could. While volunteering at Tunbridge, I work with a particularly foreign culture: a group of four –year- old nudists. Similar to South Pacific men and women, these children feel comfortable showing some skin (showing all of their skin) and even taking it a step further, my four-year-olds do not see any purpose or need for formal clothing. Although I realize these children differ in that they do not supplement their “nakedness” with tattoos, these children feel comfortable strutting around without clothing. Just earlier today, one of the boys in the class (Leo) left the bathroom without any pants on. I immediately assumed that he had had an accident or that perhaps he was struggling to redress himself; however, I quickly realized that my assumptions were entirely incorrect. Instead of seeking help, Leo proceeded to confidently strut around the classroom with not a worry in the world. He even approached several of his other classmates, interacting with them as if it was completely normal that he was pantless. Similarly, Leo’s classmates appeared unfazed by his nakedness. I feel that in this moment Wendt’s attitude towards perception becomes particularly relevant. Yes, as adults we view this behavior of Leo running around the classroom flaunting his tiny male parts as unacceptable, inappropriate and quite embarrassing, but (according to Wendt) our view may not be entirely accurate. This is because we are viewing this scenario through our “adult lens”, through a mature perspective. It is then important to realize that in order to truly understand a situation like this that we must remove our adult lens and swap it out for a lens that caters to the group or culture that we are dealing with. As a result, a situation that was previously deemed as “inappropriate” or “problematic” suddenly becomes rather trivial. Similarly, Wendt offers his audience with advice to avoid potential cultural misperceptions, he explains: “you have to be bilingual to better understand post-colonial literature. You have to know the indigenous language and culture of the writer producing that literature in English” (402). In more general terms, Wendt is suggesting that in order to understand and to accept difference that we need to adopt a new approach in how we perceive. I feel that Wendt is urging us to be open and to be willing to “swap out” or shift our familiar lenses for foreign lenses. It is only once we challenge ourselves to understand difference that we are granted the ability to perceive through a different lens: a lens that often reveals hidden logic and beauty.