I’m thinking a lot this morning about cultural stuff: proverbs, values, identities, invisibilities… Many things that I realized I wanted to share with you and get your take on – or at the very least, help us to think about together. The key concept through it all is very straightforward: we cannot help seeing the world through our own lens of experience, and, in the world of language, that experience comes not only from what we say to ourselves, but what those around us – our culture – say to us in language, in practices, in objects, and in attitudes and approaches.
When I was very young, I didn’t know I had a culture at all. In this, my experience was like many human beings: inside the family structure, however that is defined for a child, the actions of the family are the world and reality by definition. Then, as we grow, we come across situations and settings where others – shockingly! — do not have the same foods we do, celebrate what we celebrate, assume what we do about education, politics, spirituality, even the nature of humans and our value.
I read an essay many years ago that was titled something like “the tuna fish salad problem.” In it, the author made this point with humor: when we first come across the peer whose tuna salad sandwich is very, very wrong to us (pickles but no onions, mayo but no mustard!) but very right to the peer, there’s an awakening, even a sense of “uh oh, my world is quaking.” For that author, the moment was usually college – being away on one’s own (and, presumably, making one’s own sandwiches, finally).
LJ Randolph (It’s About Language Episode 15) noted clearly to me that for young people in social “minority” roles, this cultural awareness comes early, as they are confronted by the dominant culture. I am grateful for both his important insight/reminder and his gentle but firm approach in correcting me.
So when did YOU discover that you in fact have a culture, and not just “fact about how the world works”?
For me it was 8th grade, my first summer with my family in Dalmatia, Croatia (then, Yugoslavia). I got off the ferry and opened with language blockage. (I tried Russian with my cousin – that’s Slavic, right??) The world smelled of goat milk, fresh bread, outdoor market fish, cold stone rooms, and the figs and liquor the fishermen shared for breakfast. There was the silence of the night without electricity, the shouting of political and religious arguments over Turkish coffee in the port’s café, the old toothless woman with her donkey on the sea path, stopping to repeatedly caress my face.
I remembered how I thought my world was reality, and it turned out I had a culture, when I taught high school languages. Our work together included observation, confrontation, and reflection to build awareness. Again, had I done a better job then, I would have asked for help among students to reflect on their own domestic cultural identity.
However, when you and I look out into the culture around us we can see evidence, can we not, of adults who have not had the opportunities to be confronted with alternative tuna fish salad? Whose lives can feel upended or disrespected when others’ products, perspectives, and practices are placed before them and they may not have the time, guidance, or emotional support system around them to define the differences as culture and not threats?
Part of the role of my podcast is to create a place of reflection and, for those who already know and celebrate diversity of cultures, a reminder: what we see as life-giving others may see as life-threatening. Let’s reframe as we can some of this struggle as the natural diversity of the cultures all around us. It’s not all as simple as tuna salad, of course – but maybe that’s a place for us to start.