Culture Shock, the Opera

Anne Ku has moved twelve times in her life. She lived in Taiwan, Japan, the US and Great Britain, but she experienced her biggest culture shock in the Netherlands. This inspired her to write Culture Shock, a chamber opera, with which she concluded her studies at Utrecht Conservatory.

"The most difficult thing in the Netherlands is the language. After four years I still don't feel quite comfortable when I'm having an everyday conversation", she says. "I don't understand the subtleties, I'm never quite sure why it is people laugh. Added to which is the huge sense of guilt. My presence forces other people to speak English. That causes me to feel very uncomfortable."

Anne Ku was born in Brunei, moved to Taiwan as a toddler, and in her teens wound up at the American army base on the island of Okinawa, near Japan. There she attended American schools. Culture shock was hardly an issue at the time. "At home I spoke Mandarin and shared in the Chinese rituals, at school I spoke English and in my spare time I played in an Okinawan rock band, all of which just came naturally at that time."

Many years and wanderings later, when she had followed the love of her life to the Netherlands, she found it difficult to get used to the bluntness of her new countrymen. At the Conservatory, where many of her study mates were younger, someone whom she'd never seen before once bluntly asked her how old she was - with the emphasis on old. "I thought that was so rude," she says, "now I feel differently about that. I know that here you only get what you want by literally asking for it. That's why I don't regard a culture shock as a necessarily unpleasant thing. It teaches you to look at things from another perspective."

The opera which she wrote as a result of her own culture shock, is, for that reason, not merely heavy fare. On the contrary, humour is the dominating factor in the piece. She modelled the plot on a story a girlfriend from Taiwan once told her. She and her husband had been invited by a close friend of her husband's in Amsterdam. As they were supposed to be staying the entire afternoon, the girlfriend expected to be treated to an elaborate meal, as she herself was used to offering her guests. Disillusionment hit hard when all she was given were sandwiches. Ham and cheese sandwiches.

In the opera she translates this anecdote into the following duet between the innocent Dutch host and the Taiwanese guest, who is growing more and more frustrated by the minute:

"Ham or cheese?"

"Excuse me please?"

"Ham or cheese?"

"What did you say?"

"Ham or cheese?"

"Is that the ham from the package, cheese from the fridge?

The salty things you put on bread

Thin slice of ham, thin slice of cheese

A single thin slice of something I don't eat

Unless there's nothing left to eat

As a guest to Amsterdam I've been offered cheese and ham!

No! No! No!"