Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The King and I

Watching the TGRC's production of The King and I was a fun experience.  I shed tears watching my daughter play the part of Eliza, the lead role in the play within the play. 

I also found myself shedding tears for the king.  He has invited an English school teacher to come to Siam and teach his 67 children.  Set in the early 1860s, the story shares the difficulties of Eastern culture meeting Western culture. 

The king longs to bring his country into the modern era, and he sees the value of the "scientific" ways of the West.  But the culture shock is more than he expects.  Anna, the teacher, respectfully presses him without hesitation about traditions and culture she finds offensive.

She particularly hammers him about his promise to provide a house for her and her young son.  The king claims not to remember such a promise, and as king, he says that only his memory matters. 

The East/West tensions mount over issues such as slavery, women's roles, polygamy, and justice.  His view of a strong king includes ruling his people with fear.  The breaking moment for him comes when he is ready to whip a runaway slave girl.  The king wants to show that he is a strong king by whipping this teenage girl, held down by two grown men.  The irony is more than he can bear, and he becomes a broken man.

Prevailing wisdom teaches that all cultures are equally valid and good.  But is that true?  Is a culture with slavery just as good as one that emphasizes freedom?  Is ruling with fear as good as ruling with law?  When promises mean nothing, is society better?

And finally, why was the Eastern king seeking a teacher from the West, instead of vice versa?

Western culture has its flaws, to be certain, and I think we can learn a lot from Eastern cultures.  But every culture benefits when it recognizes truth and adjusts to truth.  The real rub is not the clash of cultures, but the battle between truth and man-made traditions.