The Intercultural Conflict Between Walt and His Neighbors in Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski, a disgruntled, grumpy, and prejudiced widower holds contempt for his children as well as for his neighbors. After Thao tries to steal Walt’s mint-condition 1972 Gran Torino as a way of being initiated into his cousin’s gang, Walt finds himself on the path to cleaning up the neighborhood as well as its youth. Gran Torino exemplifies intercultural conflict, the development of empathy between Walt and his neighbors, as well as great differences in the sociorelational context of Walt and his family versus his neighbors’ relationships.

According to Neuliep, intercultural conflict is defined as the implicit or explicit emotional struggle between persons of different cultural communities over perceived or actual incompatibility of cultural ideologies and values, situational norms, goals, face-orientations, scarce resources, styles/processes, and/or outcomes in a face-to-face (or mediated) context within a sociohistorical embedded system. Gran Torino would be a prime example of intercultural conflict exhibited by one cultural group to another. Since Walt despises his neighbors only due to their race, it shows how intercultural conflict is still relevant today. I believe the type of conflict would be the intermediary level of intercultural conflict because there are observable differences between Walt’s family culture and the Hmong culture. One major difference is the language barrier between the older Hmong members and Walt. Sue and Thao have to act as a translator between Walt and their older relatives. Walt also doesn’t understand the Hmong tradition of bringing food and gifts as a thank you for protection of their friends and family members. Although Walt does finally accept the gifts and friendship of his neighbors, the relationship we see between them in the beginning of the movie is a prime example of intermediary intercultural conflict.

When we first see Walt in Gran Torino, there is no way we would every associate him with a term like empathy. Quite frankly, the amount of racial slurs and derogatory language he uses in the beginning of the movie made me loathe his character. However, this changed once he finally saw the light, no pun intended. During the exposition of the movie we see Walt as being a very unhappy elderly man. He is not close with his kids or their families and he hates the way the neighborhood is falling to shambles. His family seems to cause him much more pain than any sort of satisfaction, and they seem to be waiting on him to die so they can have his things. When Thao tries to steal his car, to Walt this is a prime example of how his neighborhood has turned upside down. Once Walt sees how kind and accepting his Hmong neighbors are, he finally realizes that they are more of a family than his own. Once Sue is beaten, Walt gives his life so that Thao and Sue can grow up without the fear of the lurking gang members. Walt also gives Thao the tools and the opportunity to learn the construction ins and outs so that he has a skill set he can grow to get a job. These means will provide Thao a way to support himself as well as his family so that he can make a better life for them in the future. From Walt hating everything about his neighbors, to giving his life for them truly shows the progression of empathy that he has in his heart.

With the Hmong people being a collectivist culture and Walt’s family being more individualistic, we see a great difference in sociorelational context. Since the Hmong people live in close proximity to one another and are close with each other, they are much more supportive and caring. This is shown with the gifts and food that collectively show up at someone’s doorstep. They also have large family gatherings with lots of food and conversation. This is the antithesis of the Kowalski family. Walt avoids his family and finally musters up courage to tell his son he’s sick, but then is told by his son that he is very busy. This forces Walt to just say goodbye and not tell him of his illness. The American family, in this case it is Walt’s, just look for material things instead of emotional support. Walt has kept his 1972 Gran Torino is prime the condition, exhibiting the fact that he cares more for his car than for mending the strained relationships he has with his family. Walt’s granddaughter wants the car when Walt passes away, but doesn’t care about spending time with him while he still is alive. It pains me to see their relationships the way they are. I love my grandparents dearly and cannot wait to see them this summer. I love hearing the family stories and history of my ancestors. Never would I think of them for their material items, that just sickens me.

All in all, I thought Gran Torino was a very interesting movie that shows how people can change over time. When we first meet Walt, he is such a bitter and cynical man that I honestly have no sympathy for. After he starts helping Thao and Sue, we start to see that Mr. Kowalski can actually be a decent human being. Then at the end of the movie when Walt gives his life to try and give them a better future, we conclude Walt’s empathetic journey. Over the course of the movie, Gran Torino, we see Walt complete a 180 degree turn from miserable, crotchety old man to compassionate and understanding human being. I believe this movie showed a lot of intercultural communication examples but my favorites that it exhibited were intercultural conflict, empathy, and sociorelational context.

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