Defining Culture Essay, Research Paper
How to Find Culture
Do you have culture ? I always thought that people act and behave the way they do because they were born that way. It never occurred to me that their beliefs and actions could be caused by an external stimulus that makes them who they are. All this time and it was right under my nose. They were not born this way at all; they were brought up this way. They are all products of this thing called culture. But what is culture? What is this invisible force that has affected every person that has ever lived? Take a step back and look at yourself for a moment. Every little activity you embark on during your life is influenced by this entity named culture. It constantly surrounds you in a silent cloud that does not quit till the day you die. The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the language you speak, the movies you watch, they are all traits of the subject. Your entire lifestyle has formed around a base of a culture that you probably didn t even realize is there, but it is. Wherever you go, it follows. But, again, I ask, what is culture? How do you put a label on something so abstract, without definitive lines to measure? To understand culture, one must learn about his or her past, present, and foresee the future.
The first step in understanding culture, one must flip back through the pages of time, and gaze into the past. This is where it all begins. The day you are born to be exact. You are a blank canvas and are very receptive. Your first relationships are created at this stage, and by the time you are five years of age, you are self-aware. You know you are alive and exist, but only because your parents have told you so. You look up to your
S. Berberian 2
parents and try to mimic their actions. You think that they are perfect and know all. You strive to fit into their image as much as possible, but sometimes it is very difficult. This is shown in M.H Kingston s essay, The Woman Warrior, in which China s cultural norm is to shun daughters. Being a female, the character has great difficulty pleasing her parents no matter what she does. In one instance, the character gets straight A s in class and when she brings home the good news to tell her mom, she replies with, you can t eat straight A s (190), implying that her work is worthless. But as one continues to grow, the parents become less important, and the peer group becomes the primary source of contact. This is one of the most important aspects in understanding ones cultural foundation. At this point, you are picking up talking styles, language, fashion, eating habits, and building upon what the household has already instilled into you. This is where inner conflict can occur within a person, for the newer taught cultural norms might not be the same as to what mom and dad had been preaching a few years earlier. An example of this came about in the short writing by J. O. Cofer, The Myth of the Latin Woman. This story was about a young Puerto Rican girl growing up in the United States. This passage effectively shows the conflicts that can take place:
But it was a conflicting message I received, since the Puerto Rican mothers also encouraged their daughters to look and act like a woman and to dress in clothes our Anglo friends and their mothers found too mature and flashy. The difference was, and is, cultural; yet I often felt humiliated when I appeared at an American friend s party wearing a dress more suitable to a semi-formal than to a playroom birthday celebration. (178)
S. Berberian 3
It s easy to see how one can be torn between the family and the peer group. The character has been taught the ways of presenting ones self as a proper Puerto Rican woman. The environment she lives in, however, has a totally different cultural norm attached to it. This can make growing up a very difficult process. As a person approaches adulthood, he or she is bombarded with many influences from the outside world, and it can be an all out struggle between one s self image and how others perceive them. Many stereotypes float around for just about every type of person on the planet, and for a growing child on the verge of coming of age, not falling into the cultural stereotypes is important. Another example of maturing alongside a cultured environment came, again, in the same writing by Cofer. This time the character describes some of the stereotypes she encountered in her past. She says, Mixed cultural signals have perpetuated certain stereotypes – for example, that of the Hispanic woman as the hot tamale or sexual firebrand. It is a one dimensional view that the media have found easy to promote (178). I m just trying to illustrate that there are many aspects that determine cultural traits in a person. In short, searching into the past is a great way to understand culture because you can learn what attributed to the outcome of ones personal diversity and social background.
The second step in understanding culture is to analyze the present, the here and now. It s important to look at ones self and to see the many cultural traits that lay within. The society you live in molds your thoughts and actions on a daily basis. The career you have or leisure times you spend on the weekend are completely dependent on your social
S. Berberian 4
surrounding. For example, if one lives in a large urban population, he or she may have a job in a large high-rise, or may provide some sort of social service to the public. Also, for leisure, he or she may go out into the countryside and seek recreation in the wilderness.
But if a person lives in the countryside, there would be no high-rises and not that many people to provide service so one may head into the city for some shopping or entertainment not found where he or she lives. Another example of society influencing ones present state arose in the essay The Arab World, written by Edward T. Hall, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology at Columbia University. He states that, Arabs find northern Europeans and Americans pushy (200) , and at the same time Americans and Europeans find Arabs to be the same way. Unless being Arabic yourself or having grown up with someone of Arabic origin, it would be very difficult to understand the reason for this clash. He also writes that this is because Arab nations have totally different cultural guidelines on the topic of privacy and feel that in public settings, there is nothing private. What Hall is getting at is that mores and folkways differ greatly from one country to the next. This also came about in the excerpt by Alexis de Tocqueville, entitled, Some Reflections on American Manners. He discusses the logistics of the American manner system and some of its democratic attributes. Also, he tells how England, makes game (213) of America because of its manner system. This writing shows how societies differ, and, depending on the country, state, or city of one s home, cultural influences can be drastically different. Another point to make in understanding ones present cultural state is, the overpowering effects of the media on one s thought process. For the most
S Berberian 5
part, in all major societies of the world, television, radio, and the press are readily available for digestion by the public. Wherever you turn, there is always a newspaper or TV talking about the newest fashion craze, the top song on the charts, or spewing out biased opinions about a certain controversial topic. It, without a doubt, plays a big part in today s modern culture, and should be understood and accepted. A great point was made in the essay by Margaret Atwood , entitled, Canadians: What Do They Want? The essay is about America and its cultural view on Canada. The following segment is an imaginary scenario depicting Mexico as the U.S. and how strong their media ties are. It writes:
Here is translation: Picture a Mexico with a population ten times larger than that of the United States. That would put it at about two billion. Now suppose that the official American language is Spanish, that 75 percent of the books Americans buy and 90 percent of the movies they see are Mexican, and that the profits flow across the border to Mexico (209).
As you can see media truly is a power not to be forgotten in analyzing the present state of culture within one s life. It is important to add that there are many other aspects that make up a person s cultural disposition. In brief, when analyzing the present, one must realize that external sources, just like in the past, continue to influence the culture within them.
The third step in the understanding of culture is to look ahead into the future and foresee the on going patterns of acculturation. Since the dawn of civilization, culture has played role in making the human race what it is, and its not going to stop now. Many of
S. Berberian 6
the same trends that have been established in the nineteenth century will continue into the twentieth. Media will play an even bigger role, especially with the extremely widespread use of the Internet and other cellular forms of communication. And as the world becomes more populated, new cultures will eventually arise. Author Richard Rodriguez documents a perfect example of evolving culture. In his writing entitled, Children of a Marriage, Rodriguez talks about Hispanic-American culture and how it s evolving into a new hybrid culture. He writes quote, Hispanic-American culture is where the past meets the
future (197). He is talking about how past Spanish customs are being updated in a more modern American culture. Realizing that time changes everything, Rodriguez understands that his Hispanic heritage will not remain the same. When it comes to culture and the future, evolution is the key word. Society trends will change and in turn, change the cultural disposition of all that live in it. Imagine wearing the same types of clothing and listening to the same forms of music for the rest of one s life. It s not very probable. It s going to change due to the simple fact that one s environments will one day eventually change. Some good insight into understanding the future of culture came about in The Cult of Ethnicity, an essay by writer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. He states, Modern communication and transport accelerate mass migrations from continent to another. Ethnic and racial diversity is more than ever a salient fact of age (220). In this quote he writes on how the movement of technology and population growth can bring about the blending of culture. Schlesinger also mentions how ethnocentrism can cause
S. Berberian 7
conflict between fusing cultures. Another point he made was that, it might be a while
before problems between dueling cultures subside. He is positive, however, and writes, I remain optimistic (222), implying that the cycles of culture and society will take its course and everything will turn out to be all right. In a nutshell, foreseeing the future will aid in the understanding of culture because it will give insight into the repeating patterns and evolution of culture.
After digging deep and reading between the timeline of one s life, it s easy to see how the world around us can change the world within us. So many things contribute to making a society of people that think, talk, and act alike. It is imperative to see how a person s past has gotten them into the present and how it will ultimately affect their
future. I feel that culture is at its most complex state than ever before. Never has there been such a vast array of communication, due to the massive advances of technology. This in effect has influenced more lives than previously possible. It s no wonder, such a multitude of different lifestyles exist on this planet today. It is a good thing, however, to be able to be so many people at the same time. One person can be an artist, businessman, parent, and a student all in the same day. A melting pot of culture is what gives life color and excitement, the chance to experience all the joys of a diverse world. I know that understanding one s own cultural background can make it easy to understand one s cultural present, and understanding one s culture present makes it easy to foresee their cultural future, but someone who is not on the inside of a culture will only get lost in stereotypes.