On Writing: The Faces of Other Nations

Writing an isekai (or portal fantasy) based on an alternate version of history means digging into not just past events, but past beliefs. Otherwise the reactions of setting-native characters to your isekai’d guy just won’t ring right. It also means digging into your own culture, so you can accurately depict what happens when modern attitudes clash with something distinctly not.

And there’s one particular aspect of modern United States culture that may be too easily skipped over, if you don’t stop and think about it.

We are, culturally, faceblind.

The first reaction of your average American in the grocery store, on seeing someone of a completely different height, build, skin tone, bearing weird hair accessories or what have you, is not, “What country is he from?” It’s, “what part of my country is he from?”

An accent may or may not affect this reaction. Often not. An American in America lives with the ideal of, assume the person standing next to them is another American, unless they make it very clear that they’re not. And an American outside the United States tends to believe everyone should be treated with the same respect as a fellow citizen – again, unless someone makes it very clear they shouldn’t.

(How much we respect our fellow Americans does vary. Based on many things, including home region and the current proportion of jerks an individual has encountered. Your Mileage May Vary.)

This makes sense to us, because America is based on a creed, not an ethnicity. The Constitution, the Declaration, the belief that all are equal in the eyes of the law, and that the law applies to everyone, regardless of wealth, status, or birth. Believe that, and we likely won’t care if you’re a one-eyed one-horned Flying Purple People Eater… except to note that eating people is illegal, and no one is above the law, so….

Historically speaking, creedal nations are rare. Even when Europe claimed it was a “united Christendom” in the Middle Ages, a Irishman in Venice would have always been other.

Getting this cultural clash across in writing without dropping anvils is likely to be tricky. But I need to try, because when you land in another world you’ve got to get along with other good people around you. Who are so terribly confused when you see a face that’s obviously Not From ‘Round Here and don’t automatically think enemy.

Confusion can lead to conflict, and anger. But it can also lead to thinking. After all, it’s one thing to profess the Confucian belief that all humans matter. It’s another to see someone completely foreign act as though he never believed anything less.

At least everyone agrees the demon tigers are enemies….

32 thoughts on “On Writing: The Faces of Other Nations

    1. Yeah, one of my favorite bits in Polgara the Sorceress book is when they’ve just moved into a small town, and her nephew manages to get them considered ‘one of them’ by his encounter with a particular fish. If he hadn’t, they would have been ‘the newcomers’ until Polgara had to move the family again.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Must have been a place where they had a fair amount of outside contact. There have been lots of small towns where you’re newcomers until you have three generations in the sod.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. While people talk about “still outsiders until you’ve lived there several generations”, many of those places will accept the occasional person as “one of us” even if they’re the first generation… if that person has the right combination of personality, networking, and circumstantial luck. My dad got accepted in multiple places like that, during his missionary work. Some people are just able to do it, when others can’t.

        Liked by 4 people

  1. Unless that Demon Tiger dresses the right way, and says the right thing… and accuses that foreign-looking person of eating those sheep.

    Then things get messy.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ouch, ditto to all this. And where you’re from in the US can exaggerate this even more. I’m from an “everyone and the kitchen sink” area and have had my “otherness” meter thoroughly broken when it comes to accents in particular. If it’s not extreme Deep South or something so thickly foreign I have a hard time understanding what they’re saying I often don’t even notice they have an accent in the first place. Now that I’ve moved to an area that does have a strong regional accent, I’m still getting used to how quickly people pop the “so where are you from?” question. Because I’m just not used to having that on my radar as a detail to track at all.

    …You have given me food for thought for my fantasy, yes…

    (Although can I gripe about this topic and how freaking hard it is to handle well and realistically without pushing the racism mess. I’m so sick of that.)

    Liked by 5 people

    1. There are or were parts of the US where the culture is very much ‘never ask anyone where they are from’. Idaho was apparently originally settled by a population split into thirds, with each third having a reason to very much not want to talk about their background.

      I learned this from a dude who fairly often mentions that he is from Idaho, and that the Idaho of his youth was gone by the time he left. Like, maybe once a year or less?

      As for racism…

      Yeah, I’m pretty fatigued of hot takes on fantasy worlds that are basically a pop culture level understanding of race issues in America.

      Liked by 7 people

  3. Try being an American, who has lived all her life in one state, and even people from that state ask the “Where are you from?”


    Because for reasons known only to Heavenly Father, I spoke with an accent that, depending on the person, made it sound like I was from Boston, or even crazier, England! (It’s gone away a little as I got older, but it’s still around, especially when I get excited.)

    Even my Mom wasn’t immune, as she was asked one time if she had some Asian ancestry! (She recently found out she is .1% Nigerian, Family history is cool like that. You’ll never know what you’ll find out.)

    Liked by 6 people

    1. You’re not alone it that. I’m born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. I’m told I have a German accent, once by a European friend who was familiar with the real deal.

      Liked by 5 people

    2. I was born in a north state, but then we moved to an eastern one a few years later. The strangest thing was a few years ago someone asked me what part of Australia I was from. I had to stop and mentally go back over how I was talking. (It’s weird, but if I’m tired enough and my GAD meter is broken enough, my accent can take a bit of a walkabout. I’ve had English, Deep South, tiny bit French, Canadian, and faint traces of Spanish, all in the same afternoon.) No, I hadn’t been talking any differently than normal.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Lived in Brooklyn NY my entire life and yes I do sound like Joey from Yugi-oh. Not everyone does we have alot of people who are either 1st or second generation American who have accents from anywhere possible. I’ve only had my accent questioned once by the cable guy whose partner replied after I said Broolyn “Yeah thats old school Broolyn”

        Liked by 5 people

    3. :waves: Three generations in NorCal (counting the one that moved there), and I got asked where I was from.

      Eventually I just started giving a polite smile and saying “speech impediment, not accent” and changing the subject.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My family lived overseas 20 years ago (no streaming services) and most media was dubbed. Except for the BBC shows that just had subtitles. I was asked if I was English when I came back home.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I still get people asking about my accent, “you’re from [other end of the country] aren’t you?”, including people from opposite ends of the country each asking if I’m from the other one’s region. Because my accent isn’t any specific regional accent, it’s a “grew up in foreign countries during formative years, with linguists for parents, teaching me english from multiple different sources (including reading old books), and their accents were also from different regions”, so I’ve got ‘generic everywhere USA’ as my accent.

        Liked by 4 people

    4. I get that too. I exaggerate my consonants when I talk because I have a quiet voice and my mom would scold me for mumbling as a kid. Some people in Southern California where I grew up would insist that I must be English or something like that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, part of that is hearing problems, and the other half is Portuguese Accents Are Weird. I took a lot of Spanish, and yet Portuguese just doesn’t compute when I hear it.

        (Written Portuguese, not easy but doable.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This reminds me of a thought I’ve had while reading/watching stories about people from our world in a different one. I’ve noticed something in this kind of story and that is that people always have a certain reaction to modern foods. I can barely stand the texture of tofu and can’t even imagine liking natto (sp?), and it feels like that’s something I would love to have in a story. Where the main character makes a dish they love from their old world and instead of people falling in love with it the reactions are either indifferent or outright negative. It’s another option to make a character strange to those around them.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. I don’t know if Korea had flatbread dishes. Dumplings, yes. Piling things on top of a flatbread? I don’t know. Kinda precarious, although the small chopped ingredients would make sense to them.

        A calzone would probably make sense, minus the cheese.

        The other thing is that Korea has tribal and Mongolian influences on cooking.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. From a quick poke-around, appears they didn’t have bread until very recently. (not surprising, although 19th century is a little surprising-late)

        Could probably make rice-flour and then flatbread, and *then* pizza?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. If you watch things like the Country Living and Big Chef channel, you will see the big round edgeless griddle used in Central Asia for cooking over a fire, and also their fire oven styles. This leads to pies and dumplings, because it is less likely to drop everything into the fire.

        A Roman-style bread/pizza oven had a fire chamber separate from the oven chamber, with flat paddles for drawing out the contents from the oven. So you could put uncontained stuff on top of bread without a mess. (Although that kind of dish still has a lip around the edge, to contain the toppings.)

        Cooking on a wok, where nothing is lost into the fire, is different too. Same thing with a giant paella pan.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah, as Chesterton put it, when he was getting a nice, big set of articles out of complaining about filling out the paperwork to visit the US, and waxed all poetic:
    The missionary can condemn a cannibal, precisely because he cannot condemn a Sandwich Islander. And in something of the same spirit the American may exclude a polygamist, precisely because he cannot exclude a Turk.

    (What I saw in America, for those curious. Helps, in reading, to know that at that time, they’d talk about the “English” or the “French” race.)

    Liked by 6 people

  6. On top of the bit about needing to figure out cultural quirks, there’s needing to figure out the _reason behind_ those quirks, because that’s what’s going to drive the _exceptions_. As you noted after commenting that culturally Americans tend to treat people in other countries (mostly) like fellow US citizens while visiting those countries, that the amount of respect we apply to fellow US citizens may vary, the the background of the rule (“how does this individual treat his fellow US citizens”) is the critical question for figuring out how he treats foreigners.

    Too many people make the mistake of thinking that the rule is “Americans treat foreigners poorly, especially when the American is a tourist in the foreign country”, when it’s actually a case of “when looking at a random sample of Americans in America, the ones that treat fellow Americans respectfully are a high enough proportion to offset the ones that treat eachother disrespectfully, but tourists are not a truly representative random sample, and the factors that make them more likely be tourists in the situations that _could_ be noticed, are also factors that tend to filter for ones that would be jerks to other Americans while still in America. The ones that would be nice and respectful are less likely to be tourists, or at least public tourists (driving around on your own to less tourist-trap-y places is quite different than going on a cruise with lots of other people and with the expectation of being waited on),” so they’re only seeing the symptom not the cause.

    It’s also a key part of understanding things like the difference in how english cultures vs latin cultures treat the concept of “on time” and what counts as polite vs rude in that regard. On the surface, the rules are diametrically opposite (“it’s rude to be late” vs “it’s rude to not be late”), but the core behind the rule is actually similar: “it’s rude to treat yourself as more important than the other person”, just with different applications of “what shows that you are treating yourself as more important” (english has “if you’re late, you’re making the other person wait, so you’re saying your time is more important than theirs”, latin has “everyone has last minute stuff to finish, and if you’re on time you’re saying that your time is more important than letting them have the leeway to finish everything up”). Understanding the (usually unspoken, often not even actually remembered outside of old books) reasons _why_ the cultural quirk is the way it is, are key to understanding both when someone will do something different from what the “normal rule” would seem to say, or when someone will be shocked/upset/etc at a foreigner who actually was trying to “follow the rule” _as_ a hard fast rule without context.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. A lot of “rude American tourists abroad” are experiencing lots of undirected anxiety, and they often think that everyone else is being rude to them. (The idea that people speak in their own language, in their own country, only to say mean things about one.) It is like huddling in fear, except making a point of not looking scared.

      Of course, some rude people are just jerks.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. One thing people often overlook:

    There is a distinct difference in attitude towards newcomers who are there temporarily (for example traders, but also pilgrims and nowadays tourists) and newcomers who are there to stay.

    Refugees straddle the line and often move from one category into the other.

    Temporary newcomers are Guests.
    The level of otherness for traders must be very high (or prejudices and rumors must precede them), before they encounter hostility, at least in places used to trade. Any trade.
    Of course, if they return every year, prejudices have time to build up…

    One striking example is the arab scholar who traveled through europe during the middle ages and wrote about his travels.
    More circumstancial : there are stories of “moorish” (read: black) doctors traveling through europe during the middle ages, who were very good at their profession. To the point that there is a present day pharmacy chain called Mohrenapotheke in Germany.

    All this is to say: a character who is traveling might encounter hostility, but if and how much depends partly on: 1.the reason he gives for traveling
    2. on how much money/skills he has (is this person perceived as a drain on the locals resources?) He/she will be measured more harshly on this metric than a local would
    3. What stories are circulating about his real or perceived ethnicity

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I forgot number 4:
      the local mores about politeness to guests and kindness to strangers

      As Vathara pointed out, they differ! But they are rarely set at zero, at least for temporary newcomers.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. One of the main things would be having different words in different areas, often for essentially the same thing. People like to make up names, or they call it Aunt Mary’s Special Pie, or whatever.

    It’s not usually something standard that you say every day. I mean, the Indo-European words for some things did not sound too much different from the same thing today, in a lot of languages.

    But Spanish has something like 23 regional words for a car’s “muffler”. Because that called out some creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

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