baseball, poetry, and kim chi

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
* Here I believe “customary” to mean “usual”.

I live in Korea, so maybe that is why this feels relevant. Since I left the States for the first time a few years back, taught in Changsha, and had most every assumption I’d ever held about China and the Chinese thrown into doubt, I’ve begun to believe that there is no culture (as in American culture, Chinese culture, Japanese culture. I only see individuals acting. Or, as in the statement, “all beings tremble before danger”, I can see a fair grouping. I also see culture as different from tradition and ritual. Both of which give us an idea about history and the ways not to offend, eat, etc., yet neither of them claim to tell us about the individual. None of them say, “This is a Chinese” or “This is what makes a Korean tick” as I believe culture does).

Today, because it was relevant to the discussion, my class and I (mostly my class) were talking about culture. One young woman said she understood American Culture. I told her gently that I didn’t believe that she did. the reason? Because I don’t understand American culture, and how can a Korean understand American culture when I, as an American (USA. Big difference, I know. I am an American, as in North American. Folks from Canada, Brazil, and Panama are also Americans), don’t understand it? Culture is created every day, always in flux, and exists in very small portions. Two people can create a culture. And it can’t be learned from pop television and music.

Later, during a discussion I was having with another teacher, a guy from Ireland, a few of my thoughts might have shifted. He said that culture is what is exported. it has nothing to do with facts on the ground (so, for example, a woman from Korea might have a better understanding of American culture than someone from the States.). “Friends” is American culture; it is not a warped view of American culture. Just because people and lifestyles like this do not exist, that makes no difference. Culture is only what is perceived. It is only what is exported and consumed. He listed Ten things that are American culture: Harley, Hollywood, McDonalds, Big (as in large. huge.), West Wing (TV show), etc. I listed 10 Irish: Guinness, the English, IRA, leprechaun and Keith (the teacher I was having the talk with) etc.

I am not completely happy with this idea. There is nothing gained from these perceptions (which if looked at in this way allow for American culture in Germany to be different than American culture in China and different from American culture in the USA. Not to mention the difference between assumptions held by individuals in those countries.). All they seem to be are beliefs, as often as not based on ignorance, that tell us nothing about an individual. The only one I find at all useful is Keith being Irish culture (but I would rather see Keith as Keith or Keith and Jim’s discussion as our culture. I’d rather not draw any big picture assumptions).

If someone says to me, “that is American culture.” they seem to be saying that (they believe) more people in American are/act/live/believe like this than are not/do not act/live/believe like this. It seems to me what has been created is the average man. I don’t believe in this average man. I don’t believe they exist. I do believe that people are much too complex for that. And this complexity deserves to be respected. We should not expect someone to act in a certain way because of the area in which they were born and raised. I am often times told (and this is supposed to be a complement), “you don’t act like an American.” So how does an American act?

I guess in the end if we realize that culture is only our fantasy about a place and people, the idea of culture causes no harm. only when we think we can apply these generalities to a person does a problem occur. So what is culture? Do any of you have a grip on it?

Maybe the woman in my class does know American Culture. Will have to talk with her again tomorrow and see what information can be gained.

Figure this post should make Anthony happy. Compared to his post, this is a bunch of half baked ideas. Curiosity, but not much rigor.


Blogger Sean Mac said...

this is fascinating Jim. i dont see why it cant be like in the dictionary, and we have two distinct definitions of culture - i dont think they need to fight, they complement each other nicely - one is materialist - aculutral artifacts, and the other a sort of analysis of culture as a momentary bond, a constant process of creation of "we". it s atough one, i give you that.

6:03 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home