Guest Post: The Cultures Of Others

It is getting close to the end of the year and the dramas and variety shows that normally dominate the Japanese airwaves have ceded their time to television specials. Last week it was the Japan-wide standup comedy competition known as the K1 Grand Prix. Tonight it is the “FNS Music Festival” and, at the moment, some of our “favorite” J-Pop idols are wearing ridiculous costumes and singing rather poor renditions of the themes to various anime cartoons. Once, I’d have called the whole thing bizarre but today it seems so “normal.”

It has taken me years of hard work to achieve this feat of cultural fluency and I’ve found the process of achieving it quite similar to the process of learning the Japanese language itself. I know what you are thinking but, while language and culture are closely tied to one another, my experience has been that the study of one does not naturally lead to an understanding of the other. Words, they say, will only get a person so far.

To go above and beyond, it helps to know when and how to apply your words and that, my friends, requires the extra work of cultural study. I sometimes think that Americans are unclear on the concept of culture. We recognize, of course, that culture is a thing, but have difficulty ascribing it to ourselves. We know that other countries have it, as do recent immigrants and ethnic minorities, but the vast majority of us cannot, beyond listing our history or detailing our specific place in the political spectrum, describe what it is that makes us uniquely American. If pressed on the issue, many people will simply list off our ancestors’ countries of origin and explain who we are through our affiliation to that place.

This idea of “cultural affiliation” fascinates me. Because we lack a real understanding of our own culture, we are free to put on the cloak of virtually any culture that strikes our fancy. Given my last name, for example, I grew up asserting to everyone that would listen that I was a German. Later, I realized that I am also 50% Irish but, since Braveheart had just hit the theaters, I blew that off and decided that I was actually Scottish. At some point, I reasoned, my ancestors had migrated to Ireland from Scotland so I was fine going against the “known facts” to choose something I liked better. A couple of years later, Dances With Wolves came out and, wouldn’t you know it, like a lot of people whose family history involves Oklahoma, there is an old family legend that we may have some American Indian ancestry as well!

It’s a great trick that I think many of us will recognize. Thanks to our muddled lineage, we can be whatever our imaginations want us to be. There are a few rules, of course. For example, you shouldn’t try become another race. If you are a person of color you aren’t allowed to pretend to be anything other than what you are. People of Asian descent are forever Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Filipino or whatever without regard for the fact that, like virtually every other American who is more than a generation removed from their “homeland,” they would wander around as clueless as anyone else who was suddenly picked up and plunked down in their “country of origin.” African Americans must be from, ultimately from Africa, although they may have come to America by way of any number of other countries while Caucasians, meanwhile, should stick to Europe lest they risk drawing the ire of both other races and their own.

The tendency to shift our cultural affiliation within the aforementioned rules is, I think, a uniquely American quality. Unlike those our forefathers left behind , many of whom still reside in the very houses of their ancestors today, we are a people in search of ourselves. The melting pot has stripped away our innate “otherness” and left only a few tenuous connections to the past – the shade of our skin, the shape of an eye, or that family recipe that has been so carefully passed down through the generations. Our forefathers came from everywhere and while we strive for that connection, the truth is that we are from nowhere. Which is to say that we are from here, and that we are together, today. All of us together in this one boat. We should look inward with at least as much interest as we look outward. It would, I think, help us understand who we really are a nation of artists, engineers and builders and that our greatest project is ourselves.

10 Replies to “Guest Post: The Cultures Of Others”

  1. rwb

    America is the least mature culture in the world, in simple terms of age. Most are formed over long periods by those present, while on this piece of earth, our great- and great-great-grandparents just kinda showed up and made this thing happen, arguably at the expense of a culture that probably wouldn’t have made skyscrapers, for better or for worse.

    Again, I know nothing, but it seems America didn’t so much develop as it exploded, covering much of the world in its ideals. Unfortunately, about the star that burns twice as bright…

    • nightfly

      Additionally, America has come of age in a world that is much more portable and interchangeable. Nearly every other culture developed its distinctiveness in part by being isolated. Even after cities grew into connected nations, drumming up trade with others, those regional traditions and norms were quite strong. Folks from Cardiff weren’t going to behave quite the same way as those from Canterbury, much less from Calais or Catalan. (This isn’t Spain, you know!) And such influences were often suspect.

      America had those same regional struggles between the Colonies, in part because the cultures that established them were often at odds back in Europe. The Industrial Revolution and the railroads made travel much quicker and brought it to the masses, and sudden mass migration to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries turned all of that on its ear. There was pretty much no template to follow on this – most mass migrations of this nature in history were the result of outright conquest, or occasionally caused by refugees from natural disaster. One of the few that wasn’t, in fact, was America’s founding, as people fled religious persecution.

      All told, the melting pot approach was probably the best, letting enclaves form and then interact naturally at their edges, gaining trust over time. People could still be proud of their heritage and traditions without insisting that they were the only ones, and could admire certain parts of other people’s cultures even if they didn’t adopt them. The kind of immediate interaction made possible by modern life (on and off line) makes all that much more difficult. It certainly doesn’t help that we are all being fed so many conflicting messages about culture – they’re all wonderful, yay; but NOT YOURS RAYCISS; but you can’t enjoy other wonderful cultures because that’s appropriation (you rayciss); and you can’t enjoy your own because that’s privilege… etc etc and all broadcast at us 24/7 through almost every medium we have, including those that we used to enjoy together as a refuge from such questions.

      Think of sports – they became a culture unto themselves, melting pot and meeting place, a crossroads for many different regions to come together and enjoy a common competition played by agreed rules, arbited as impartially as possible, with results everyone chose beforehand to respect and abide by. Your teammates could be a mix of choir boys, hellraisers, funkadelics, and farmer’s sons, but a curveball’s a curveball, and if one of them knew how to handle Luis Tiant or Catfish Hunter or Bill “Spaceman” Lee better than you did, you listened.

  2. -Nate

    Well said I think .

    Me, I’m 100 % American born and bred .

    Yes, my people came from Scotland via Ireland but I don’t play the bag pipes or wear a kilt, why the hell should I learn to speak Gaelic ? .


    • Dirty Dingus McGee

      As rwb pointed out, this is a very young country. As recently as 1959 it was still growing.Beyond that there are 2 states, New Mexico and Arizona, that are only 105 years in the union. Based on that, there are people whose grandparents, as immigrants, that have been citizens longer.

      I would have to say that the culture most countries associate with the US, is the cowboy culture.

      • -Nate

        Could be ~

        I know lots of immigrants, most thought ” freedom to succeed !”, came here and followed the rules, made very good indeed .


  3. Bigtruckseriesreview

    If I wanted answers on my ancestry, I’d be forced to do DNA tests in hopes of locating some part of Africa where my progenitors hailed from. And that’s ultimately the evil of America’s chattel slavery – the reason there will ALWAYS be resentment felt by some.

    I’m not as concerned with where my ancestry is from as much as I am with where I’m going.

    • tmkreutzertmkreutzer

      I think your attitude is the right one. I think finding one’s roots is a thing that people do when they are young and still looking for themselves. They are trying to gather the pieces of their personal past as a way of helping them establish a foundation for the future. As I have aged, however. I have become much less concerned about my roots and, like you, much more concerned about going forward. That’s how you build a country and a society.

      What was done to slaves was especially heinous and in no way do I want to equate what happened to the slaves and the ways in which other ethnicities’ cultures have been stripped away over the years. The net effect, however, is the same. I too would require a DNA test to know where I really come from and, even if I did locate the exact spot, wouldn’t be hard pressed to find any sort of connection with the people there now – hell, unless they spoke English I couldn’t even speak with them.

  4. Disinterested-Observer

    Africa is a continent, as is Euroasia or America. DNA tests are at least 95% bullshit, according to a statistic I just made up. I am everyday people, in that I hate everybody that I don’t know and like or love 99% of the people I do know, according to another statistic that I just made up.

  5. Don Curton

    This is a subject that has bugged me for some time. Lots of people say that Americans don’t have a culture, but we do. I’ve lived in Texas (native-born), Louisiana, and West Virginia. Each place had a distinct culture in comparison to the others. How people act, dress, talk (Who Dat?, Howdy, and the infamous Appalachian mumble). Specific foods and drinks, customs, etc. But somehow people don’t think that applies unless they see it somewhere else. Oh well, keeps the tourists away I guess.

  6. Rick T.

    Being an American is a state of mind. We take from other cultures what is attractive to us and discard the rest. (Or at least we used to.) It doesn’t have anything to do with your ancestry or color or race. I find myself almost always in agree with BTSR, yet we likely have virtually nothing in common besides citizenship from what I know about him.


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