Friday, April 4, 2014

We might have the waving cat syndrome

Have you seen those colourful ceramic cats which sit at the door or near the entrance of some Asian food outlets? I guess they're pretty hard to miss. Sometimes they sit on the counter, just where you order or pay, and they seem to wave their paws back and forth at you. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a quirky little statue for that particular restaurant. Then they started popping up more often.

Not long ago, I was sitting at a food court down in the city with my husband, and saw one at a noodle bar. 'Hey, let's look up those waving cats. They are so common these days, there must be some significance to them.' So Andrew found a long article about them. They are known as 'lucky cats' and one thing I remember learning is that they are actually meant to be beckoning. The movement of the paw is supposed to be tempting us to come inside and taste their cuisine. The article said something like, "Although this is immediately evident to people of Asian descent, westerners often get the picture entirely wrong and think they are waving." Well, needless to say, I was one of those clueless westerners.

It's a pretty crucial mistake, when you think about it. Those cats are inviting me to come in and enjoy some hospitality, yet I breeze past, thinking they are giving me a friendly wave goodbye. What if the food vendors are crestfallen, wondering why so many of us heartlessly walk past, unaware that we simply haven't twigged what the cats are all about. I'm sure we've all heard stories of somebody from one culture bitterly offending somebody from another, with no idea they've done so. It probably happens more often than we think. I'm sure this must stem from what I now think of as the waving cat syndrome. We don't set out to deliberately upset anybody or miss the point, yet we can't help it that we are totally oblivious.

When I read reviews of my novels written by people from America or other international countries, I often come across something like, "It was great fun trying to figure out Australian slang terms which went way over my head." I get amazed because I have no idea that I've included anything like that. Occasionally, I'm told by an editor that words which seem innocent to me may horrify some international readers, because they mean something completely different over there.

The more I think about it, I'm sure this waving cat syndrome spreads even further than cultural differences. It applies to brain or gender differences too. My husband sometimes says things or behaves a  certain way which is not intended to be belligerent, yet I've assumed that he's having a go at me, or vice versa.

But the waving cat syndrome could really become a stumbling block when it comes to our personal study of great texts such as the Bible. My son, Blake, and I have been learning about the Reformation period, when the world was virtually turned upside down. Because of the invention of printing presses, and the evolution of new ideas such as those put forward by Martin Luther, people were given Bibles of their own and permitted to study them instead of turning to their priests. This was absolutely unprecedented. I found a quote by William Tyndale in another book. Getting excited about his vision of producing Bibles, he said, "Soon, the ordinary ploughboy will be able to read the scriptures for himself." It sounds awesome on the surface, but sometimes, having access to the great texts (which I've tried to fathom since I was really small) has frustrated me because there are parts I just don't get. Being able to read the Bible for ourselves instead of relying on others to interpret it for us is fantastic, but we shouldn't forget we can fall prone to waving cat syndrome.

For example, there's that anecdote in Genesis about what happened when Noah got drunk. This is how it appears when we read it. He was lying there stark naked, and instead of covering him up, his son, Ham, went and told his brothers. Shem and Japheth did the decent thing and put a blanket over their father. When Noah woke up, he went berserk and cursed Ham's family line, through Ham's son, Canaan. That always seemed mental and mean to me. What a massive over-reaction to a little lapse of judgment. Why would Noah want to curse an entire line of his family tree just because his son saw him naked?  Yet recently, I read a theologian's theory that the term 'saw his father naked' was, in fact, an ancient Hebrew euphemism for incest between a son and his mother. Well, if that's true, it would make more sense of the story for sure. If the interpretation is accurate, I assume ancient folk at the time of writing would have instantly twigged, while we clueless modern people with waving cat syndrome, may scratch our heads, saying, "What a fuss about nothing? What a nasty old coot."

 I can think of many other examples of waving cat syndrome when it comes to interpreting the Bible. When I was a kid, I never knew why Abraham had his servant place his hand under his thigh, before he sent him off to find a wife for his son. Nor did I understand why God made Abraham tear a couple of animals and birds in half and make some sort of weird symmetrical pattern on the ground. It all seemed random, and often tasteless, to me, before I learned about covenants. And now, I wonder about the rich symbolism which probably still goes over my head, and those of many others too. I won't even begin to get into such books as Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation.

So what can we do about waving cat syndrome? Well, probably not a lot about individual cases, since we don't realise when we're ignorant. Maybe if we soften our general attitudes toward others, we can help to absorb the impact when it has the potential to get nasty. Instead of getting hurt feelings or indignant, we could cut others some slack. We could choose not to assume that apparent slights are intended to be personal. When it comes to personal study, we could refuse to call things stupid and slam the books shut. We could make enquiries, look for other books which may make it clearer, and search the web instead, trying to look for answers.

And maybe when I see those cats in the future, I may well take up their invitation and pop in for something to eat.


  1. Hi Paula, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. This was a great post. I really appreciated what you said about the many misunderstandings that can occur in so many situations. It's always wise to remember that we filter everything through a lens that is uniquely ours.
    I have often lamented my lack of understanding of the Bible and like you said those stories that 'I just don't get.' Will I ever fully understand the Bible with all it's depth? I guess it will take a lifetime and even then I probably won't get it all.
    Thanks for sharing your thought provoking posts.

  2. Hi Linsey,
    Thanks for stopping by. You're right, there are as many filters as there are humans walking around. You've reminded me that, rather than just hundreds, there are potentially millions. No wonder there are so many misunderstandings. In fact, it's probably a wonder there aren't even more.
    About the Bible, I'm sure many, many people would agree with us.

  3. That is so interesting, I had never heard that interpretation of Noah. You are right of course, which is why it can be such a hard lot for creative types. No matter what we write (or draw, or create), once our creation is out in the world it becomes subject to the interpretations of others, no matter how far off those interpretations are. I've heard that Dr. Seuss denied that Horton Hears a Who had anything to do with Right to Life, but it touched something for those who believe "a person's a person, no matter how small." Isn't it amazing how our work can touch others in ways we can't imagine? I think that is part of what keeps me from trying to publish, that fear of being misinterpreted (which I've experienced in blogging.)

    Wonderful food for thought, Paula!
    Peace and Laughter!

    1. Hi Cristina,
      Yes, reading down a list of reviews of any particular book shows that you are spot on here. I wouldn't be surprised if the Horton case wasn't the only thing that ever surprised Dr Seuss. It is interesting, to see what people come up with when left to their own devices (about any book).

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  4. Good thoughts, Paula. And it's the things we assume we understand that get us in trouble. Thanks for the reminder to wonder if there's more than what we first think.

    I haven't seen any waving cats here in Atlantic Canada, but if I do, I'll know they're beckoning.

    1. Hi Janet,
      Yes, and when we think we understand something a lot, that's when warning bells should ring sometimes.
      If you every see one of those cats, you'll probably start noticing them everywhere. It seems to be their nature.

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