Building a Bridge Between Cultures in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

In previous columns, I’ve explored how intercultural communication works in the first and second trilogies of CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series. In the third trilogy (Destroyer, Pretender, Deliverer), the focus is mostly on politics, and there’s not a whole lot of linguistic content to comment on. Bren spends the first book on the run, the second getting to Shejidan, and the third chasing a missing person. And somehow, all of this takes place in about a week! But we get our first real atevi POV: Cajeiri, Tabini’s 8-year-old son, and through him, we gain a lot of insight into atevi culture and man’chi.

This set of books starts out with Phoenix returning from Reunion with a number of refugees, but rather than the bustling station they expect to return to, they find dead quiet. The shuttles aren’t running because Murini (who we met earlier as an adversary) has overthrown the government and ousted Tabini. There’s no communication between station and planet, at least on the atevi side. They can get some news from Mospheira through satellite links that the ship set up.

But before they arrived at home, Cajeiri wanted to have a birthday party, because his human associates had them, and he thought it was a wonderful practice . So, grudgingly, Ilisidi agrees to let her grandson have his party—which he doesn’t get to enjoy, unfortunately, because the day it was scheduled turned out to be the day they arrived back in system. Because eight is a very infelicitous number in their culture, atevi use various circumventions to avoid saying he’s eight, and Bren has to explain to the parents of Cajeiri’s human associates that, no, it’s not a joke that you don’t say he’s eight; you say he’s “completely seven.” 

This highlights one of the recurring themes in this series very nicely: People who have never interacted with people who aren’t *exactly like them* are incapable of imagining that people can have other ways of being. This is obviously a huge obstacle to successful intercultural communication, whether it results from well-meaning naïveté or from outright malice (“the only right way to be is the way I am, and they’re Wrong and need to change.”)

On the ship, as they returned from Reunion, Cajeiri was bored and lonely—there were no atevi of his own age group with them—and he started playing or spending time with a small group of humans. The human kids, according to Bren, secretly think of young Jeiri as a “friend” because they don’t understand about the War of the Landing, and this could eventually pose a problem as big as that war, eventually. But the kids are also better able to grasp the cross-cultural differences, because they’ve spent so much time with atevi and are trying to learn Ragi, so they see these differences in action: “They want to learn why Cajeiri frowned at them, and he doesn’t understand why they’re so bad at math.”

Ilisidi says only that Cajieri will learn why this sort of association is a problem, and when he gets back to the planet and among his people, he’ll understand properly and start feeling appropriate things for atevi, rather than humans. Eight is a difficult year for atevi, not only numerologically. It’s the time when they enter their puberty analogue, during which phase they start feeling man’chi and developing bonds with people.

Bren is the first paidhi to have such a close view of atevi society and culture, and he is able to make a lot of observations that his predecessors couldn’t, because they didn’t have access to the atevi at an emotional level. One of these observations is that the words atevi use for emotions should have separate meanings (dictionary entries) for use inside and outside one’s man’chi.

He also makes other notes on Ragi, as we’re used to. One part I thought was really cute was how Banichi translated “through appropriate channels” as “accomplished down appropriate and secretive waterways.” This gets the connotational aspect so nicely, I think. 

We don’t get a Cajeiri POV scene until Deliverer, and it has a link (in the epub version; it may just be a footnote in print) to a footnote from Bren’s dictionary about atevi terms in Mosphei’. They have to create specific terms like “familial respect” and “aiji-respect” when using Mosphei’ to convey the shades of meaning of the word and to imbue it with the emotional resonance a human might feel.

Cajeiri has spent two of his formative years on a starship, where he was around mostly other atevi until he made his little aishi with the human kids. He’s conversant in Mosphei’ and ship-speak, and he can use kyo as well as possible under the circumstances. He can easily switch between the languages, and, because he’s so young and has been in an extremely sheltered environment, he doesn’t fully understand why it’s so hard for other people to make associations with humans. Ilisidi and Tabini have an association with Bren, so why shouldn’t he have an association with his humans? He also has to learn the critical distinction between what Bren feels and man’chi. Isn’t what Bren feels similar to man’chi? Isn’t it close enough?

This isolation from his peers (remember, the only atevi on the ship are his great-grandmother, her bodyguards, household staff, and Banichi and Jago, who aren’t the right age for association forming, plus their man’chi is already directed elsewhere) makes him worry that he won’t ever feel the right way toward his own people, even though Ilisidi tells him that he will. Cajeiri is further isolated because he can’t explain to people how he feels about his human aishi. He thinks about the word aishimuta, which means “breach of association,” and says, “There should be a worse word for losing someone you could never explain to anyone.”

He is capable of making the mental transition between atevi and human societies, even if he doesn’t want to do it. He knows, because Ilisidi taught him, that there are proper ways for atevi to do things, so he replies to her very formally on paper to accept the invitation to a dinner he doesn’t want to attend. He understands numerical significance, and we get to learn more about that from Cajeiri’s POV. He doesn’t understand, however, why atevi don’t have connected computers like the ship so they can message each other quickly. Bren does, however—it would be disruptive to proper atevi society, something Tabini also understands. The reasoning for this is explained more deeply in the next set of books.

Cajeiri also makes metalinguistic comments, mostly about idioms from Mosphei’/ship that he particularly likes: he’s not going to sit on his hands, they shoved it right in their faces. He also says that he thinks sometimes in a mishmash of Ragi and Mosphei’.

It will be interesting to see where this goes later in the books (I’ve read the first five trilogies for sure; not the seventh, I’m not sure about the sixth, and I’ve forgotten a lot of what happens) and whether Cajeiri and his posse eventually form a bridge between human and atevi society that was previously believed to be impossible. Discuss theories and predictions in the comments, but please don’t give any spoilers!

CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke. You can find her current project, a book on practical linguistics for writers, on Patreon.


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