An International Dilemma

Sipping on a coffee at the Costa Coffee shop during a six hour transit at Doha Airport, I had an epiphany as I hazily gazed at the menu board before me.  On the left side, the English menu board was written in the same style as Nero, Starbucks and Coffee Republic; with the coffee names, sizes and prices going from left to right.   However, on the other side of the coffee machine, the Arabic menu board acted as a mirrored reflection of the English menu; prices and sizes came first on the left hand side, then the names of the coffees on the right.   This is because Arabic is read from right to left.


Why is this important, do you ask? Well, as the world faces a battle between the seemingly staunch principles of both the eastern and western worlds, this coffee board expressed the fundamental and most basic difference between these two cultures; language and how to process it.


I assure you, keep reading.  It is I, now, who am treading on rocky waters.   Perhaps now I should reveal to you that I am of mixed race; Chinese and British.   Thus, I feel that I can safely say that being half of two completely contrasting cultures, my understanding of cultural symmetry and distance has been an integral part of my existence.


In China, words are traditionally read from right to left, as in Arabic. I remember asking my mother when I was old enough to read, why on earth the Chinese read in this seemingly illogical direction, no doubt a prejudice based on my English education   In response, my dear mother smiled and told me that this was just the way it was.  From that day it didn’t seem strange at all and I enjoyed flipping through magazines in a seemingly disordered fashion


Now.  I remember reading two very relevant articles in the New Scientist some years ago.   One talked about how language affects our perspective on the world.  For example; most Europeans, besides the English, view objects with genders.   This means when a French child views a table, they don’t merely see ‘a table.’  They see a ‘she table’.  How this effects a sense of reality may explain why speakers of romantic languages seem more sensitive, passionate and intense than the British….




Or what of syntax and the construction of a sentence? In Greece, the way you construct a sentence can have numerous combinations.   ‘I ate a souvlaki,’ ‘A souvlaki I ate.’  There is a flexibility in Greek that seems to reflect the very nature of the Greeks themselves.


And what about meaning?  In Chinese, the literal translation of the word ‘enter’ is ‘enter the mouth.’   What kind of visual image does this create in a Chinese child’s brain?  In fact, the term ‘dim sum’ is actually literally translated into ‘touch the heart,’ based on the fact that small rich tastes are shared between family and friends, reflecting a deeper relationship with the ritual of eating that is ingrained in the language.


Moving on to article number two, about Eastern and Western perspectives.   This article described a simple experiment that had been conducted in America.  A group of scientists assembled a Chinese group and a Western group and showed them one photo of a couple at Niagra falls.   The scientists asked the groups to comment on what they saw. What the scientists discovered, was that the western group commented on the couple first; their sex, their appearance and their relationship together.   The Chinese group, commented on their surroundings first. 


So what can be drawn from this?   I now bring in an experiment carried out by Gereon Fink and John Marshall on the different uses of the left and right sides of the brain.   Their conclusion, which was swiftly accepted by the scientific community, was that the left side of the brain focused on details, whilst the right side focused on the broader picture.  


If we apply this to the use of written language, then could this explain why we face a battle between an ideology that is deemed worthy to die for, in the name of that higher moral principle, and an ideology that focuses on the efforts of an individual in order to gain capital?  


Either way, this article is too short and too general in order to gain a conclusion.   But in a predominately globalised world, these questions are becoming all too necessary to ask.


Most neurologists, when asked whether certain people use their right brain more than their left, at best, see it as a simplistic idea that over-generalises the perspectives of a human being.   Instead, perhaps we must all learn to accept both sides.  After all, At the end of the day, we’re all thirsty for something; and from what I see at the Costa Coffee menu board at Doha Airport, the coffee machine is right smack bang in the middle.