This guest post was brought to you by Shoham Drori. She has travelled extensively in India and is the mother of two boys. Her love of cross-cultural storytelling led her to found PlaneTree Family Productions and create the app, The Magnificent Travelling Palace. You can also find her on Facebook.
During the last decade, social and technological changes turned our world into a global village. People now change places constantly, and international trans-atlantic communication has become a trivial and easy thing to maintain.
App developers work within this context. Nowadays, you can hire freelancers who not only live faraway (not in a neighboring city like the old model) but can live outside your country or even your continent. Once your product is done, in one ‘click’ people all over the world can see, enjoy and learn from something that you created in your small private world.
However, this international, intercultural cooperation can confuse us. Being comfortable with the idea of being a global citizen does not necessarily mean we speak the same language, see things the same way, or connect to the same symbols.
In this post I want to share with you my own experience of creating my app through a cross cultural collaboration and how the lessons I learned from this collaboration are entwined with my goal to teach kids about cultural differences.
Cross-culture Collaboration and Ethnocentrism
A few months ago Oprah Winfrey spurred a media storm as she disparaged the Indian tradition of eating with the hands ( http://asiasociety.org/blog/asia/while-india-oprah-eats-her-hands-and-media-strike-back). Some defined her as racist, ignorant, insensitive etc. but I want to believe that Opera is not a racist, nor ignorant, she just sees the world through her narrow point of view, as an American woman, an ethnocentric vision which most of us (including our children) tend to fall into. Ethnocentrism is defined as judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture.
Jumping for a minute into my experience, the app I created is an outcome of experiences, smells and colors I discovered and absorbed during my many visits to India, and which I wished to endow to my children and to kids all over the world. I wanted to introduce them to the wonders of India and, simultaneously, to the variety of cultures and societies in the world. Creating my app, it was clear to me that in order to get the most accurate illustrations that will authentically express the exciting adventure described in the story; the illustrator must be someone who was born and raised in India. I was lucky enough to work with Rakesh Nanda, an amazing artist from India. Our collaborative work on the project included endless correspondence by e-mail and live internet chats. I wrote a storyboard into which Rakesh poured life, fulfilling my aspirations regarding the storybook app. However, my vision of different scenes was derived from my own personal experience in India, which can not be separated from my cultural point of view and perceptions of things.
A good example for this is a specific scene in which Rajiv and Lalita (the main characters in the story, brother and sister) lay in bed and daydream of a magical train. Composing the scene I specifically asked Rakesh to illustrate a children’s room with two beds, one for each child, however, Rakesh sent me the following sketch:
Of course, as I saw the sketch I did not understand Rakesh’s decision, since I specifically described a children’s room with two beds. In my perspective this is how a children’s room looks like (universal?). Only after repeated discussions (and a lot of frustration from what seemed to be a mutual misunderstanding), I understood that I failed exactly in the point I wanted to make, seeing the scene through my own ethnocentric view. Undoubtedly, even if the kids weren’t village kids, for Rakesh, illustrating a single bed for siblings is obvious. Rakesh defined it simply as a “social habit” . Although joint sleeping arrangements do not necessarily exist in every Indian family, they are not merely a matter of familial socio-economic status. The resulting illustration turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations in the storybook:
Another example of such mutual misunderstanding was the creation of the breakfast scene. In the storyboard I described a scene in which children sit with their parents surrounding a table eating breakfast. However, Rakesh illustrated the family sitting on the floor.
“Why on the floor?” I turned to Rakesh, asking for at least a low table to sit around. I love India with all my heart; I visited India several times and even got married there. My M.A thesis in sociology examines certain aspects of integration of Indian characteristics into different societies and cultures. Still, in my own house, far from India I examined the scene through my personal narrow cultural glasses. From Rakesh’s point of view, it was obvious that there would be no table. Our points of view on this scene were by product of each of our own culture. For Rakesh, this family custom is not necessarily related to a socio-economic status. In his own family, occasional gatherings are sometimes accompanied by a shared meal in which family members sit on the floor and enjoy each other’s company, feeling close, without the dividing table and disturbing chairs between them.
Of course this does not apply to all Indian families. India is a sub-continent with a huge diversity in religions and customs.
Working with Rakesh on this app was a fascinating experience. And yet, reaching the perfect, most appropriate illustration for each and every scene may have taken longer then expected, accompanied with frustrating moments due to our cultural differences. This dynamic interaction was necessary for me to achieve a product I am proud of and which expresses exactly the diversity and values I wanted the app to reflect.
Cultural diversity and apps localization
Since the app store is available to most of the countries throughout the world, Apple enables its developers to localize their apps. This originated from the understanding that an app is more appealing when it speaks the language of its audience. But in the app world, localization is usually referred to in the narrow meaning of translating a product into different languages. In some cases it is indeed sufficient in order to create the required demand. However, sometimes we tend to forget the actual complexity of localization. For example, an app dealing with allowance will not be relevant in countries in which this cultural act is not accepted. Moreover, in this case changing the actual language of the app will not help in introducing the app to a new local audience. The same holds for an app presenting foods which do not exist in a certain culture, and so on.
In my book app, Rakesh Nanda succeeded in his exceptional illustrations to express the Indian street atmosphere. Rakesh said “ I researched a great deal before creating each illustration, trying to bring in as much honesty into each visual as I could. The results are the small details specific to India in each image which bring a sense of authenticity to each image”.
Despite our mutual desire (Rakesh and myself) to remain loyal to the Indian culture as reflected in every day’s life, I occasionally had to adjust my storyline to fit the audience of other cultures, as in the next illustration:
On the sign pointing towards the store, a very common Indian (and British) term is written, STD/ISD (Subscribed trunk dialing) which are telephone codes assigned to each city/town/village in India and can be found all over India. When I showed this illustration to an American friend of mine (who is a medical doctor) he was shocked asking: “How can you present a sign like this in a children’s story?! When you know the meaning of STD is sexually transmitted disease!”. So what was I to do? In this case the localization may compromise the authenticity of the illustration. However, leaving the original illustration as is might harm the potential audience the app is aimed at. As a developer I had to make a decision. Presenting an app in the global app store, it is not always easy to localize it, especially when dealing with 26 illustrated and animated pages of a storybook app for kids. However, I decided in this case to modify the sign displayed in the illustration, making sure that it carries a more neutral meaning.
Kids, cultural relativism, similarity, and diversity
The “Magnificent Travelling Palace”, as I see it, brings a new narrative into the genre of cultural book apps for children. It introduces the cultural experience through the eyes of children in the related culture. This perception which creates empathy in the readers towards the heroes of the story, simplifies the ability to deliver to our kids the understanding that, despite cultural diversity, children in different places are all curious, mischievous, honest, sad, happy and sometimes even afraid. Understanding this can dissolve stereotypes that easily go together with the one who is different from you.
When it comes to my children, I teach them about cultural diversity in small steps, according to their ability to comprehend. Through guiding questions such as “in which country do you live?”, “What is your native spoken language?”, “What is your favorite food? Which other countries do you know and which languages are spoken there? What do you think kids in other countries do every morning? What do you have in common with kids from other countries and other cultures? What are the differences between kids around the world?” Form this point, depending on the age and understanding, a discussion on what is a culture and what are cultural symbols can evolve.
As parents, we have the ability to endow our children with the perception that culture is a product of human beings, not an axiom. There is no such thing as a right or better culture. There are different ways of living in our world. We must respect them and accept the diversity among us. In order to describe what an ethnocentric perception is, I always give my kids the example of the peanut-butter and jam sandwich they like to eat. Since the sandwich they consider tasty can be regarded as a very odd combination in different countries. In other cultures they might be thought as strange, weird and funny kids for eating this sandwich which for my kids is quite normal.
So although “a smile means Friendship to everyone” there are still many differences between us all (luckily!!!), think of how boring our world would be if we were all the same…
Shoham Drori is a mother for two boys and the founder of PlaneTree Family Productions. Fulfilling her dream to be creative in her everyday life, Shoham develops unique and quality apps for kids that educate as well as entertain. You can find her on Twitter & Facebook.
The Magnificent Travelling Palace is currently available for iPad.