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Perception is Everything

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Grades: 9th - 12th


The purpose of this lesson is to introduce the idea that a person's perception of a place and its culture is greatly influenced by their own life experiences and culture. Goals of the class include:

1. Encouraging objective and sensitive analyses of the cultures studied
2. Understanding the influences that affect perceptions of people and cultures
3.Comparing and analyzing differences in perceptions between Western and Eastern cultures

Central Themes:

In studying foreign cultures it is important to be aware of how personal points of view affect our perception of those cultures. Every place we visit has certain personal meanings attached to it. A place that one individual views as paradise might be seen by another as dull or uninspiring. It seems that humans' perceptions of a place or culture are always influenced by their own experiences, own culture, momentary frame of mind, or point of view. For example, a traveler to Barcelona, Spain who had their passport and money stolen might perceive the city very differently than another traveler to Barcelona. In the same light, certain places such as Mecca, Ho Chi Minh City, or Auschwitz might hold a very different significance to different people based on their beliefs, experiences, etc. Consider the following quote from Pico Iyer's book, Video Night in Kathmandu:

"For often the denizens of the place we call paradise long for nothing so much as news of that 'real paradise' across the seas- the concrete metropolis of skyscrapers and burger joints. And often what we call corruption, they might be inclined to call progress or profit. . . Indeed, a kind of imperial arrogance underlies the very assumption that the people of the developing world should be happier without the TVs and the motorbikes that we find so indispensable ourselves. If money does not buy happiness, neither does poverty." -pg. 14

Western vs. Eastern Perceptions

Pico Iyer's descriptions define how different cultural influences, and life experiences, can lead to opposite ways of thinking. Western cultures vary significantly from Eastern cultures. Persons from each hold certain perceptions of the opposite culture, that may or may not be skewed. Ethnocentrism is often a mistake people make when traveling in or studying another country. Ethnocentrism is when one person views his own culture's way of doing things as the standard, and therefore measures other people and cultures by that standard. Awareness of the influences that affect our perceptions of a culture and greater knowledge about a culture can help us to avoid making ethnocentric assumptions.



1. What is your definition or idea of paradise? In addition, how do you define progress? Does "progress" necessarily lead to "paradise"? What factors might influence differing views of these concepts? What factors would lead an American to answer differently to these questions than an individual from Indonesia or Nepal, for example? Using Pico Iyer's quotes, join the MESSAGE BOARD in discussing these questions.

2. Research places like Mecca, Ho Chi Minh City, or Auschwitz. Consider the many different people who might visit these places. Consider persons of different ages, sexes, religions, life experiences, purposes for travel, etc. Devise a creative paper explaining why these places might hold different meanings to different people.

3. Write a paper on a place you've visited in the past that had special significance to you. Why was it significant to you? How might someone else perceive this place and what might influence that perception?


therewewere CONSIDER THIS: Nepal and the Indonesian island of Bali could be considered as defining "paradise" for some people depending on their different perspectives. Read the therewewere articles about these places, and consider how the writers perceive their surroundings. What influences might affect their perception?

Teachers, enter your password to see the ANSWER KEY:


Lesson designed by Erin Edwards, December 19, 1999.

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