Cultural differences have fascinated me ever since my father told us, when I was about six years old, that some Chinese people ate birds’ nests. Why? I wondered. And did the Chinese use catsup on their nests? Did they cook them first?
Over the years I’ve come to understand that cultures don’t just influence our language and food preferences. They can even shape our most fundamental understandings.
Yesterday I realized it even influences our understanding of space.
I’ve been living with my husband for 40 years, and thought I knew him pretty well. But there is still room for surprises. We were discussing the best route to take to a farm shop we wanted to visit. I suggested that we start by going “down Rt. 603.” Yes, he nodded in agreement, and then “down the A-10.”
Down the A-10!? I asked in startled disagreement. “That’s going in exactly the wrong direction.”
Then I remembered.
Here in England one goes “up” to London, whether one is going north or south. So of course, if one is heading away from London, one goes “down,” even if it means heading north.
I asked Google where this conception of Up and Down came from. The most convincing answer I found was that the words are not directional in the sense of space but in the sense of social status. Since London is the capital of the country, it is always “up.” And if one is expelled from Cambridge or Oxford, one is “sent down,” even if one returns to the north.
Fascinating. It’s enough to get a foreigner going in circles sometimes. But we did make it to the farm shop — going “down” the A-10.