Cultural lessons of Avatar

avatarComing from a place of meritocracy that values achievement, paraplegic former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes on an assignment of reconnaissance and mediation with the Na'vi people of Pandora. His world is that of technology, corporations, money, and military, not to mention physical alter-ability. The viewer can easily imagine what it means to Sully taking part in this Avatar (second life) experiment: going to sleep in the transformational sarcophagus-like machine in his world and waking up to inhabit and discover the wonders of his genetically engineered lithe, fit, light-blue body of a Na'vi on their magical planet. The two worlds couldn't be further apart, beginning with external observations. The corporate military American world is clean, sterile, gray, the prevailing element is metal. The Pandora we see is a jungle, woods, populated with both flora and fauna of lush greens and vibrant colors that come to sparkle even at night, as the ground highlights where Na'vi feet tread ever so lightly.

We learn that the Americans have unsuccessfully tried to establish an economic relationship with the Na'vi in exchange for a valuable natural resource to be extracted from underneath their place of living. Short of Sully and the "tree-hugging limp-dicked scientist" Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) managing to find what the Americans could offer in exchange and trade with, the security chief Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is prepared to go in full blast and bomb the indigenous to smithereens. Remnants of "you're either with us or against us" come to mind, and I was wondering how the movie's message would be received by the American audience. Were there corporate suits, soldiers, or scientists in the audience, and did they recognize themselves in the portrayed characters? How do they walk the fine line in their everyday life between what the company wants (money to satisfy the shareholders), what the army wants (control? safety? and at what price?), and how does the scientist feel about the sacrifices he and his objects of study make in order to further his research? Alas, the analysis of political undertones and the relationship between what's in a corporation's, a nation's and the army's best interest shall be left for another blogger to pursue.

Wearing my 3-d pair of cross-cultural goggles, I couldn't help but marvel at the obvious discrepancies between people's values and cultural preferences. The American characters in the movie value wealth and achievement, as evidenced by their quest to amass more money through the exploitation of said resource and the respect they show higher-ranked personnel - as long as those don't rub your face in their abilities, mind you. After all, America is still the country of the self-made man and equal opportunities, which is why the first-name basis is common practice. We're all the same, we're equals, but the winners and hard workers are rewarded most generously.

Note also how the American characters are quite short-term oriented in their activities. Time is, as they say, money, and Sully's character gets all of three months to immerse himself in the Na'vi's culture, to learn their ways, find a solution, convince the tribe's chief, and bring back intelligence that - failing a favorable negotiation - will allow for swift but hostile take-over. Learning the language alone took another character about five years, but who's counting, so having a personal coach and teacher in the tribe's experienced hunter, warrior, and future spiritual leader Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) made all the difference.

Last but not least, there's the lone star element: The head of the corporation, Mr. Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), doesn't really listen to his group of advisers, and the chief of security is rarely seen in conversation, but mostly either giving orders or lectures. Sully never asks for help (until near the end of the movie, and even then in his Avatar form), he can manage his life, everything, alone. "God helps those who help themselves," seems to be the underlying belief, and self-reliance is paramount. (Side note: since I'm not in a wheelchair nor know many people who are, I can't tell how much of his insistence to manage is culturally based, and how much is based on his notion of self-esteem and ability though.)

Another intriguing aspect: Americans appear to think that you are what you do. The viewer maybe got a glimpse of the Biologist's interest in Na'vi's history and culture, but they appear to be merely from a scientific point of view, as she keeps talking about taking samples. The characters thus aren't really developed in 3-d, as in, what else do they like apart from their jobs, but for the purpose of the movie this made sense.

Now, the Na'vi on the other hand. Wealth doesn't matter, as there doesn't seem to be money in the society at all. Everybody shares the same living space, and social differentiators can be seen in varying head gear and ritualistic markings. Yes, achievement is valued, as hunters and warriors have to go through tasks and passing rites in order to obtain their status, but not so much as a competition or at the cost of another. Other than that, few external displays of wealth are made, and food is hunted and killed swiftly, and only in amounts necessary for immediate satisfaction. Since there is no need to display status by hoarding artifacts, there is little clutter. I might even go as far as saying that their slim, elongated and muscular bodies are another indication to that fact: nobody carries any excess around, and since the group provides for food, nobody goes hungry, either.

The time orientation is more long-term and past generations are heavily included. Maturity and experience are valued as highly if not higher than youthful promise (take that, anti-aging cremes!). We see no clocks or technology in the Na'vi world, instead there's an adherence to natural cycles of night and day and tools and weapons are rudimentary. Knowing that the Americans value progress and change, we can imagine how they see the Na'vi as a less developed and less evolved society.

These differences are striking on their own, but paired with the group orientation and the connection the Na'vi experience not only with their planet, their deity, but their animals slash modes of transportation, director James Cameron could hardly have painted a more different world. Oh, the deity. That was an interesting piece of the puzzle - on Pandora, there's no need for faith because the deity is real, and everyone is part of it. Fascinating paradigm.

Let's look at a couple of those cultural differences in action. There is a scene, for example, where our hero Sully's Avatar gets attacked in the Pandora forest at night by a pack of what could be compared to wild dogs. In fact, this is where he and Neytiri meet, as she comes to his aid and helps kill at least one of the dogs. While Sully is proud of the achievement and happy to still be alive, no doubt, Neytiri considers the wider ramifications and makes Sully aware that a life was taken, and that there can be no joy about that situation.

Another example would be the greeting ceremony. It is an American habit to shake hands, most likely based on the notion of demonstrating that one doesn't carry a weapon. The Na'vi greet each other by tipping their foreheads and saying, "I see you." When Neytiri introduces Sully to her elders and he steps forward to shake hands, his actions are prone to be misunderstood as an act of aggression. This is what happens when you enter a different world: the behavior that usually gets you what you want or need doesn't work anymore. Anyone who's ever been surprised by receiving French or Spanish greeting kisses knows what I'm talking about - they're not coming on to you, they're really only saying hello.

Keeping these cultural differences in mind, the mountain of misunderstandings and the unfolding hostility of conquering expat over defensive indigenous might be understandable. Still sad though, and it makes me wonder about alternative approaches, or applications in real life. If you are, for example, an American organization and want to open a business or a subsidiary in China, you better be prepared to wait. Relationships aren't established over the course of two phone calls and a one-hour lunch. They. may. take. months. Years, even. Or if you have a new colleague coming in from Mexico, please make sure someone goes to lunch with them, who welcomes and shows them around on their first day. Not everybody is raised to do everything themselves, many cultures value belonging to a team or a group, and that group has a responsibility towards each individual, to take care of its members.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, I recommend it. The 3-d version adds a nice touch, and I didn't even get dizzy. From the cross-cultural perspective, the biologist had the best line in the movie, and I encourage you to keep it in mind as you cross cultures: "Try to see the forest through (their) eyes."

What I'm left wondering is if the Americans ever even asked the chief if they could drill for that mineral. To assume they'd need to find something to exchange forgoes the possibility of generosity. I know, I know, that would have made a much shorter movie though. ;-)