Making a scene…

A word of caution about using the word “scene” to refer to normal action in a foreign context.

Quoted from a store selling papads:

If you have the opportunity to visit a traditional Indian village you may stumble on a scene where some women have got together rolling stiff dough into thin circles (sizes vary) and drying them in the sun.

A scene? A scene is organized action put together with the intention of giving a show to someone. Did those women decide to roll dough for the benefit of giving a show to visitors? I doubt it. Maybe for a tourist normal daily behavior on the part of the natives is always a scene. Here’s a nice reversal:

If you have the opportunity to visit New York you may stumble on a scene where a man comes out of the subway.

It seems to me that to a New Yorker there is no “scene” there. Yet coming out of the subway in New York is just as natural as rolling stiff dough in the traditional village. No, it is the eye of a foreigner that those actions turn into scenes.

I am reminded of a class at Penn in which one author we read cautioned his readers against the use of the word “costume” to talk about the clothing of ethnic groups being studied. A costume is something worn usually temporarily for a specific occasion. What people wear all day long are not costumes, yet there is a tendency in academic (and para-academic) literature to label the clothing of other ethnic groups as “costumes”.

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