I've been in Australia for more than two years now, and each day I feel more American. At other times in life, I've responded to cultural difference with a scrambling desire to learn the local codes, to fit in. Now, I'm more likely to treasure my incomprehension.
Cricket, for example. Not the insect but the bat-and-ball game whose cultural role in most Commonwealth countries roughly aligns with that of baseball in America. Just a few months after moving here in 2006, I was hiking near Berrima in what I thought was wilderness, and came upon this:
A single precise strip of very old pavement, obviously the remains of an ancient airport for centimeter-high aliens.
When my Australian companion explained that this had been a cricket pitch, I decided I never wanted to understand cricket, and I never have. The alienness of this game -- a game you can play for an entire day and still not know who's winning -- was just too rich to surrender in return for mere cultural belonging.
Dan Hill over at City of Sound has a marvelous post about the 1932 telegraphed narrative of an England-Australia match played in Melbourne. Telegraphs required extreme brevity, but a radio broadcaster back in England could read this text and constitute the game for his listeners, rather as one adds water to freeze-dried foods to reconstitute them. Dan observes that the raw telegraph text, with its extreme compression, takes on some of the qualities of poetry, though maybe not quite in our language:
“Fine warm 50000 before toss wicket good larwood voce fastest making ball fly adopted leg theory attack virulent batsmen ultra cautious"
It goes on, rendering hours of play in a few hundred words. Reading, I was reminded of various times that I've read ancient or non-western narratives, translated into English but still barely comprehensible. Narratives designed for oral transmission, such as the Buddhist sutras or the Upanishads, are intensely repetitive, seemingly the opposite of a telegraph cable. But if you take out the repetition, there's a similar half-opacity to them, a sense that to read them in full you'd need to add not just language, but an entire culture. They also seem to lack emotion as they describe momentous events, as though this too could be supplied entirely by the listener.
If I shared the culture of cricket, and could reconstitute the game from this text the way water reconstitutes freeze-dried food, all I'd have would be a cricket game. Without that cultural knowledge, I can rest in the puzzle itself, drawn into interest by glittering shards of the familiar. Reading the text this way, I can savor the cultural vastness of a not-yet-shrunken earth, one that still has room for the heroic.
I like it that way. If I ever figure out cricket, just shoot me.