In Anthropology 101, you’ll learn in the simplest terms, that culture is a way of life. But it’s also a set of assumptions and living within a new culture is learning a new set of assumptions. I’ll say that again. Being in a new culture is learning a new set of assumptions. There is a quality of life we buy into when we travel or move abroad that we don’t know is part of the bargain until after the purchase.
Something as seemingly simple as a greeting becomes a journey to the center of the earth. To ask, “How are you?” is not something Thais normally say. Westerners learn how to say this in Thai (Sabai dee mai?) because this is what we do, this is what we say. Instead we need to ask, “What do Thais say?” If we did, we’d learn: “Where have you been?” (Bai nai maa?) “Have you eaten yet?” (Kuhn gin laeow reu yang?) or “What’s up?” (Waa ngai?). This is everyday spoken Thai.
Back when my ex- and I are both part of the International Program at Payap University we meet and greet on a regular basis people from Korea, Japan, Canada, Australia, Burma, China, Western Europe, Bhutan, New Zealand and the United States. An American referred to this cultural clash as “the tower of Babel”. And while I understand how overwhelming the different accents and languages can be I think it is amazing how much we do understand one another. Communicating with classmates, teachers, let alone with folks outside the college moat, is a linguistic exercise in speaking and listening, hearing and talking, body language and facial expressions, smiles and nods, in fact, a lot of smiles and nods.
Because so much of what we do is unconsciously learned through our passport country, most Westerners appear to miss the way things are done back home. Classes are not what we expected. The grading system is elusive and varied. Immigration rules are confusing and cumbersome. Answers take time to hunt down and the Internet is finicky. We’re spoiled, especially in America where learning another language like Spanish is frowned upon. It’s changing, but it seems slowly. Especially if English is your second language. There is an antipathy that contradicts our diverse roots. The reason why Americans are considered dumb is because we don’t use the metric system, we don’t teach geography, we don’t care about other languages, and we think we’re better than everyone else, so we’re culturally deficient.
But maybe culture is nothing, but the very idea of being in possession of a culture. Is culture like government, do we need it? Sometimes culture feels like nationalism or patriotic pride. We don’t live in a bubble, but by believing we have this elastic, invisible ball around us we create this identity of separateness. On the other hand, there is this mono-culture phenomenon where cities start to look the same and I’m not sure if that is just the mind searching for similarities or if Starbucks has truly taken over every street corner.
I don’t watch an old man feeding his ducks in the village or a little girl crying in her mother’s arms at the market and think ‘me’ but there is a part of me that does. I guess that is what I am identifying with, the people. Not my people, but people in general. Culture, I think, can get in the way.