Kuora: At what point does a foreigner ‘really’ understand an adopted country?

This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on June 26, 2015.

Asians love to claim that Westerners don’t “really” understand Asia. How would I know if I had gained a native-level understanding? What is the benchmark for cultural understanding?

Of course there’s no objective benchmark: It’s an entirely subjective claim, and can only be evaluated subjectively. Furthermore, “Asia” is ridiculously huge and altogether too diverse an entity about which to claim understanding, and usually I hear people say this only with respect to individual countries — so that’s what I’ll talk about.

So for any given country, from my entirely subjective viewpoint, short of fluency in at least one major language, I would expect someone who claims to understand an Asian country (say India, or China, or Japan) to be reasonably familiar with:

Geography (both physical and political): To be able to name and place on a blank political map, say, 70 percent of the Indian states or Chinese provinces; to be able to draw in major geographic features, like major mountain ranges, deserts, and river systems.

History, at least since the 18th century: To be able, in any given decade, to describe what major social, political, intellectual, religious, and economic trends were in play, and a good number of major individuals associated with the important trends of the day.

Ethnography: To have some familiarity with the important cultural and social features (in the present day, and to a reasonable point, historically) of the major ethnic groups within the country in question.

Culture: To be familiar with important works of literature, music, theater, and visual arts of that country; and to be reasonably familiar with the cuisine, with customs and traditions, superstitions and etiquette, and with the differences among these in various parts of that country.

Intellectual landscape and psychology: Familiarity with the values, beliefs, and habits of mind of the people — understanding roughly how those are distributed geographically, across classes, between genders if applicable, across educational levels, between rural and urban society, and so on.

This may seem like a pretty tall order, but I wouldn’t say someone “understands India” or “understands China” or “understands Japan” unless they could pass this basic test.

Kuora is a weekly column.