Jeannie Lin – Guest Blogger: Deep Culture versus Surface Culture

I feel like I’m introducing a star and am just a wee bit giddy. By now you’re all familiar with “The Taming of Mei Lin.” I’m delighted that the author, Jeannie Lin, has agreed to do a guest blog today!

Victoria and I belong in a group that she started for authors of Asian novels and we often discuss issues specific to writing Asian characters and subject matter for an English language audience. One of the tricky challenges is how to represent the cultural background of the characters authentically.
Something I always keep in mind when writing any character is the idea of deep culture versus surface culture. It was something first pointed out to me in my teaching program and it’s a good way of deconstructing what really makes a culture distinct.
Surface culture refers to the things that are outwardly visible and more easily identified by observing people from the culture. The clothing, the food, and the customs. These are the immediate things that come to mind when we think of other cultures. For Tang Dynasty culture, examples would include the silk clothing and hair styles. It would include etiquette such as bowing. Even folklore and mythology are part of surface culture.
Deep culture is harder to detect. These aspects go down to the belief systems that members of the culture hold common. You may start to get a feel for it after spending an extended period of time within a culture. Examples of this would be ideas about death and family. In Asian culture, it’s not uncommon to speak about previous lives or next lives. We even do this in everyday conversation of a non-spiritual nature. 
It can be as subtle as the concept of time. For example, it’s understood among Asians that if you get invited to a wedding at 5pm, everyone knows not to show up until 7pm and, if lucky, you’ll eat around 8. Westerners have a very different concept of time. In Western culture, it’s respectful to be on time if not early.

Of course there are individuals within each culture. People who go against the grain know they are going against the grain, and it should show in their character. When I got married, my mother specifically told guests to observe “American time”. Mom is a business woman and hates it when people don’t respect schedules, but she also understands this cultural aspect, as shown by how she admonished my wedding guests!

When it comes to writing a historical novel, surface culture is easy to throw out there. We can dress them in embroidered silk robes. Put carvings of dragons in bas relief over temple walls. We can have our characters bow and observe proper status.
Deep culture is how writers truly create authenticity. If we describe these beliefs explicitly, then it feels unnatural, as if the book is lecturing rather than storytelling. The challenge is subtly weaving details of deep culture into the characters’ internal thoughts and emotions as we create their world view. No matter what your character’s ethnic background, this infusion of deep culture is what convinces readers that they are living, breathing people. This is true of Regency England, or the American West, or Tang Dynasty China.
When I’m reading a historical, this infusion of deep culture is more convincing than clothes or dates or facts and ultimately—way more satisfying.
Jeannie Lin writes historical romantic adventures set in Tang Dynasty China. Her short story, The Taming of Mei Lin from Harlequin Historical Undone is available September 1. Her award-winning debut novel, Butterfly Swords, will be released October 1, also from Harlequin Historical. Join the launch celebration at http://www.butterfly-swords.com for giveaways and special features. Visit Jeannie online at: http://www.jeannielin.com

28 Responses to “Jeannie Lin – Guest Blogger: Deep Culture versus Surface Culture”

  1. madisonwoods says:

    Loved your post, especially the bits about deep culture. This is true for a lot of American culture subsets, too. Where I live in the Ozarks, there is deep culture much different than where I lived before in south Louisiana. And you're right, it definitely adds to the authenticity of a story if the culture is woven throughout.

    These are things I hadn't consciously thought of before, so thank you 🙂

  2. Karen Lange says:

    Great post! Thanks to both of you! I'd not fully considered this yet and it will be a big help for an upcoming WIP.
    Have a great week,
    Karen

  3. Sandy Shin says:

    🙂 Thank you for this amazing post! I love your distinction between deep and surface culture — it's very true that deep culture imbues the text with a sense of authenticity that surface culture can't.

  4. Victoria Dixon says:

    Many thanks to Jeannie for this awesome post.

    Madison, this made me do a double think (still working on it) about how much deeper cultural awareness I used. I really thought I'd done a good job but, as you say, I had not necessarily made a conscious effort.

    Good luck with the WIP, Karen! I look forward to hearing about it.

    Thanks, Sandy! I know your time is precious right now, so I appreciate you taking the time to comment. I love this post. It gives some serious food for thought.

  5. Julie says:

    Asian time! It's why I can never get to work exactly at 8 AM. 😡

    The insight into a character's way of thinking and reasoning often propels the storyline along, and to ground it in culture gives it a breath of authenticity. I like having that understanding, whether in print or in person.

  6. Medeia Sharif says:

    This post is very informative.

    When I talk to people from other cultures, I get a glimpse into deep culture. There are beliefs, superstitions, and customs that I never knew about.

    When a writer is only using surface culture, the writing comes across as artificial and stilted. Deep culture adds wonderful layers to a story.

  7. Colleen Ryckert Cook says:

    insight we can use for any culture to deepen our characters. thanks for a great post, Jeannie and Victoria!

  8. Jeannie Lin says:

    Hello! Thanks for the comments. I apologize if I don't respond to every individual post right away, but I'm enjoying the discussion.

    @madisonwoods – Great point that these cultural differences can be very different for regions within a country.

    @Victoria – I think we as authors do this without realizing it. Adding some thought to it just gives us another layer of depth.

    @Medeia – I studied this as part of my teaching program since we were dealing with students from different cultures. The model stuck with me.

  9. Walt M says:

    I've thought about this and wondered if I was going overboard in my book on what might be considered deep culture, but until now I hadn't realized what to call it. I just know that I worry about overexplaining, going to deep, and confusing my readers (who I hope to have someday).

    Already started the book. Love the opening.

  10. Danyelle says:

    Awesome post! I really like the fact that you spelled out the difference between surface and deep culture. I'm working on incorporating some deeper culture in my novels, so this really helped. Thanks!

  11. Rachna Chhabria says:

    Great post, Victoria and Jeannie. Loved the differences between deep and surface cultures. I will keep this in mind whenever I tackle a story about another culture. Thanks for the advice.

  12. Kappa no He says:

    You are so right, deep culture truly enriches a story. I always have to catch myself from over explaining why people do certain actions/behaviors. That weaving part kicks my butt every time.

  13. Janet Johnson says:

    So well said! I hadn't thought about this, but it would definitely hold true, even for a typical American. We just might do it without realizing.

    And Vicki, I actually think you did this very well in your book. Disseminating the deep culture, I mean.

    Great post!

  14. Jeannie Lin says:

    @Walt – I think the beauty of deep culture is if woven in, it actually supports character motivations quite well. Of course, the task as a writer is how to work it in seamlessly so the reader doesn't read it as explanation. Glad you enjoyed the opening!

    @Danyelle – These concepts give me so much food for thought too. Thanks for stopping by.

    @Rachna & @Janet – I think deep culture is something that's important in any portrayal. We don't stop to think about "typical American" culture, but there's a distinct way that Americans think about family, country, life, freedom…and I think great authors dig very deep into those emotions. This is definitely not just something for other cultures.

    @Kappa – Weaving it in kicks my butt too. I'm guilty of being "too subtle", i.e. not explaining things enough!

  15. Cara Lopez Lee says:

    This was a very helpful reminder for me, Jeannie, as I'm working on a historical novel set in 3 cultures: Cantonese, Mexican, and then a combination of the two set in Old El Paso. I'm finding this deep culture you speak of very tricky, but very rewarding when I can capture the essence of it. That's when the characters come alive.

  16. Victoria Dixon says:

    @ Thersa and Walt it kicks my butt every single time, too! How do you describe without beating the reader over the head with a Koi that the character behaves like this because it's rational, expected behavior in his culture. Still rubbing my tired eyes over some of those points. Thersa,I have to say, having read "Robe," I think you must have kicked back and wove well. LOL

    @ Medeia, I've always loved the idea of weaving fantasy from other cultures into a western/other culture rendition of the tale be it East meets west or whatever. It's what I love about so many fairy tale re-tellings. There's something inherent to the culture in those myths, tales and superstitions and starting from that point seemed to give me a cultural advantage, a better perspective into my characters. I understand why now, LOL. Thanks, Jeannie!

    @ Janet I had a really hard time adjusting things and deciding where, when/if I should add in more. I tend to go for too much subtlety, as you know. I'm glad you think it worked well!

    @ Cara I don't know how you do it, but I take my hat off to you. I think my head would explode. Poof.

  17. Vicky says:

    Thanks, Jeannie, for this clarification. It explained to me why some books seem more "authentic" to me than others.

    Victoria, thanks for inviting Jeannie to blog.

  18. Stina Lindenblatt says:

    Brillant advice and makes lots of sense! I moved to the US from England when I was a tween. It was a big culture shock, and that had nothing to do with the clothing and food.

    Writers who write about a culture they don't live are in serious trouble, unless they get feedback from the appropriate sources.

  19. Jeannie Lin says:

    @Victoria – I think it's good that you mentioned fantasy. An author like Guy Gavriel Kay, when creating his "fantasy" culture, spends a lot of time establishing both the surface and deep culture of his world. I think science fiction authors will do this as well; tweak the deep culture just a little bit to create a society that is seemingly very different from ours, but in truth all it took was a small twist. I'm thinking of The Handmaid's Tale or Children of Men where a shift in the birthrate changes the value of children and of fertility and ripples from that on to everything else. But I digress! That can be a whole other topic of discussion!

    @Cara – something that we also discussed quite a lot was code switching. As a person who lives straddling several cultures, you get so good at code switching between different cultures that it because second nature. This can be between ethnic cultures or between social classes as well. It's something that appears in Amy Tan's books again and again. The different faces that one wears.

    Just a note — Please stop me if I get too geeky! I do have a background in cognitive psychology in addition to teaching. The trick to writing is to take these ideas which seem very hard and clinical when we discuss them here, and make them feel organic.

  20. Jeannie Lin says:

    @Stina – I had to smile, because my books are edited out of the UK office of Mills and Boon and even in our e-mail interactions, I can sometimes sense how "British" my editors are. My writer buddies cringe — and I used to cringe as well — when I'd open up revision letters that were literally eight pages long, single spaced. I've since learned that my editor's notes are both politely worded and detailed with special care given to gently guide versus dictating changes. They are also written using the royal "we". 🙂

  21. Amanda Borenstadt says:

    Fascinating post!

  22. Quinn says:

    I followed a link here from Stina Lindenblatt's blog and I'm glad I did. It's great to find a blog tailored to those writing Asian novels.

    Plus, this is a great interview! I write YA paranormal, but my first book is set in Korea and my second book features a Korean character. I live in Korea; so, it's a little easier for me, but reading this really made me think about how I portrayed my characters.

    Great post!

  23. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for commenting, Quinn! Your books sound intriguing. I write fantasy – usually, but not always with a fantasy/paranormal bent – so stuff like that in unusual settings (hence the interest in Asia) always catches my eye.

  24. Christina Farley says:

    This is fantastic. I love her discussion on surface vs deep culture. It can even relate to a character's motivation or challenges.

  25. Victoria Dixon says:

    Excellent point, Christina and I think it SHOULD relate to everything about the character. After all, our culture is a large part of how we define ourselves.

  26. VanillaSeven says:

    It is good to observe different culture deeply when we trading it with people with different country and background.

  27. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for commenting, Vanilla!

  28. eeleenlee says:

    I've encountered errors made by Chinese about their deep culture, and I'm Chinese myself.
    good post!

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