Below the surface

by David Lindes courtesy Yahoo Flickr Editorial Galleries: US Island Paradises

by David Lindes courtesy Yahoo Flickr Editorial Galleries: US Island Paradises

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.” ― humorist, Dave Barry

A favorite phrase I often use goes, “Nothing is as it appears to be, it only appears to be.” I fall back on it when I need to let go of my assessment, or rather, my judgment of a situation. It’s a reminder to look at something as neither good nor bad, but neutral; a forced perspective that helps me keep an open mind so I can see something for what it is, or, for that matter, is not.

But, I’ve literally judged plenty of books by their covers and have found several good reads in the process. The people who draft excellent titles, book jacket descriptions, and design wonderful book covers know what they are about. For example, in an airport on my way to a lazy beach vacation, I looked for an easy escape read. I found “East of the Sun” by Julia Gregson. I bought it purely on its cover appeal and jacket description. It did not disappoint.

Judging a person is trickier by their outer look is trickier, naturally, but I’ve had some success here as well. The way I see it, we are all deliberate in how we present ourselves to the world, both physically and in demeanor. Yes, it’s only one facet of who we are, but it’s a big one. It’s the base element of how we how we wish others to see us. Meeting people on this elemental level will open doors to the more complex and dynamic aspects of who they are. You just need to remember that people are more complicated than their single-dimension front. Not always, of course, but I find it to be the case more often than not.

Like the English language, there are always exceptions to the rules. In my post, Naming Rights of Passage,  I related a story that highlights the pitfalls of judging a person by their “cover”:

“I have a friend who is a Chinese national, born and raised in Hong Kong. There’s a tradition in Hong Kong to give children an English first name. My friend’s name is (I’ve changed it for privacy), Jane Wu. When my friend married an American, she learned after several awkward encounters with clients that it was best not to use her husband’s European surname. Prior to meeting “Jane Anderson,”(again, changed for privacy), clients expected to see a Caucasian woman walk through the door. “I always felt so badly for these poor people; their initial look of surprise at seeing that, not only am I not Caucasian, I speak with a very thick Chinese accent. Their surprise is followed by embarrassment, hoping I didn’t see their surprise, and then the the following awkward moments when they try to cover their embarrassment…so I went back to using my Chinese maiden name. It’s so much easier.”

If we are thinking and compassionate people, we hope to overrule our trepidations when we encounter a book cover that puts us off. The best we can do is confront whatever it was that upset us by looking the offense straight in the eye, and then seeing it as something that is not as it appears to be, but that it only simply appears to be neither good nor bad, but just is.

3 thoughts on “Below the surface

  1. I look at some of this generalizing as a necessary evil (sometimes not evil) for getting through myriad details. When I lived in China in the early 80s I was constantly judged by my appearance and Chinese expectations of white female Americans (back then, not so good). However, I have one feature that many Chinese I encountered had not seen or heard of — green eyes. This broke apart their expectations and generalizations and literally stopped traffic. I did things, too. White people were not supposed to be able to squat on their heels nor were we supposed to ever master the art of eating with chopsticks. I got so I enjoyed waiting for busses in the same posture as the Chinese around me (squatting on my heels) and I enjoyed picking up friend peanuts with chopsticks in public restaurants. I thought I was pretty smart until one day, standing in line for bread, a young mother standing behind me was teaching her little girl (3 years old?) to speak to me. She was teaching her daughter in Chinese (naturally) but somehow that surprised me. Somewhere in my mind was some idea that everyone had to learn Chinese just like I did. But the reverse happened when some of my students came over for supper — we were all cooking and my husband and I were talking. One of my students said, “My goodness! You speak English at home!”


    1. Fabulous stuff! Thanks for sharing. As I understand it from others who have lived abroad, because ours is a pluralistic society, we tend to acknowledge there are others who live differently from ourselves (I’m not talking about acceptance, only acknowledgement), and we anticipate that those who differ from ourselves have habits, routines and customs that are different than our own. But the societies that are more singular are astonished at the differences in other cultures, especially where cliches are challenged. But, I have to tell ya, a pair of green eyes is gonna stop anyone in their tracks, no matter the continent or culture. Lucky you!


      1. Shucks. But in China the old women said, “Look! Like a cat!” I never let on I understood.


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