For the first time in my life, I am making a sketch in print of a problem that has been on my mind for quite some time now. It is a problem that I can’t avoid just because of the circumstances of my life. The only credentials I have to reflect on the subject at all come through those circumstances, through nothing more than a set of chances; my very own experiences.
Each part of my life is unique in and of itself and has influenced me in a different way. In having grown up as a product of a cross-cultural marriage and then a member of one as well, I can reflect and state with confidence that the society in which people grow up greatly influences their mindset in adulthood.
Each of the cultures that I have experienced has expanded on my peripheral vision and contributed to my outlook on life. When an individual is temporarily placed inside a dominant culture that is not one’s own, although there are temporary cultural assimilation issues to work with, one can always have the comfort of knowing that the situation is only temporary and that they will be returning to a more familiar setting in the near future. The situation is very different when balancing two different cultures has become and will remain the reality of one’s whole life.
Therefore, the world that I come from is a combination of my ever-changing surroundings. But what happens in a situation where the individual, such as myself, finds themselves relating to one culture through one aspect of themselves and to the other culture on another level? When I limit myself to my Egyptian half, I find that I am violently missing aspects of the American culture, and vice versa. Do I then belong to both cultures? Or do I belong to neither?
Or do I have a culture of my own, created from the recombination of two ideas into a new idea involving elements of each parent idea? I am at a turning point in my life, where I am forced to stop and reflect on my situation, only to realize that I do not completely fit in my own culture anymore and I will always be seen as a ‘foreigner’ through the eyes of my American friends.
“Where do I belong and do I belong anywhere? That is the question. ”
What is the stronger influence on ones sense of self-identity – country or culture? Where and what is home? Is it the place in which you were born, raised and live, or is it a space that gives you a feeling of belonging? What happens when the two are different?
These questions rise to the surface at some point for most people who have a culture in their blood that is different to the country in which they reside.
The situation of belonging to nowhere is frightening.
How do you maintain your heritage while rejecting its cultural base? How do you balance two parts of your own world that don’t seem to understand each other? This is the dilemma of a bicultural bilingual such as myself living in a cosmopolitan society. I feel trapped at these crossroads because these two worlds, which are mixed up within me, move in opposite directions.
Culture gives rise to a number of such paradoxes, such as the fact that it is precisely our exceptional ability to co-operate that makes us the most divided species on the planet. Put a Neanderthal in a time machine and take her to another Neanderthal culture 1.5m years later, and she would not notice the difference. Take a gorilla and put it in another troop, and it would know exactly what to do. On the other hand, if you took an inhabitant of Milan and put him in a mountain village in next-door Francophone Switzerland, the poor devil would be at quite a loss.
Culture clashes have existed for as long as human history has been around. They are regular features on the evening news and hot topics of debate all over the world. We can see examples of culture clashes turned terribly violent on a daily basis: Middle East, Rahwanda, X-Yugoslavia, Ireland, and the list is never-ending. There are less violent, but equally meaningful, culture clashes that happen daily in schools, work places, and within individuals.
Be it in a war zone or a schoolyard, culture clashes are not easy to deal with. Now imagine if those clashes follow you home. What do you do when the cultural landscape of your family is at odds? When you realize that you are a part of both ways of life, the result is a sharing of the two societies, and an internal feeling of cultural “limbo.”
We are born within a culture, and during the first stages of life we learn our culture. This process is sometimes referred to as our socialisation. Each society transfers to its members the value system underlying its culture. Children learn how to understand and use signs and symbols whose meanings change arbitrary from one culture to another. Without this process the child would be unable to exist within a given culture.
To take a banal example, imagine what would happen if your children could not understand the meaning of a red traffic light. There is no objective reason for red to mean ‘stop’, or green to mean ‘go’. Parents and family, school, friends and the mass media, particularly television – all of them contribute to the socialization of children and, often, we are not even aware that we are part of this process.
Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people. It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does, and makes – its system of attitudes and feelings.
Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation. Everyone looks at the world and processes experiences through their own cultural lens.
In biological evolution, the evolving patterns of information are genes encoded as sequences of nucleotides. Variations arise through mutation and recombination and natural selection eliminates the maladaptive variations. In cultural evolution, memes are the unit of evolving patterns. Memes are mental representations of ideas, behaviors, or other theoretical or imagined constructs, perhaps encoded as patterns of neuron activation. Ideas can evolve in a pattern analogous to biological evolution. Ideas can mutate, through for example misunderstandings, and some ideas survive better than others.
Variations are created by combining, transforming, and reorganizing representations and through errors in transmission, weather they be conscious or unconscious.
Western culture sees itself as more enlightened and this is often mistaken for better; but what is ‘better’ is always in the eye of the beholder.
Culture is made possible by social learning. We can imitate and copy others to an extraordinary degree – no other creature comes close. Once homo sapiens learned this trick, all sorts of innovations could be passed on from person to person, group to group, meaning culture could change and diversify at a rate that far exceeds the glacial progress of biological evolution. Interestingly, there are more languages (around 7,000 in total) spoken by just one species of mammal than there are species of mammal.
Cultures are more than language, dress, and food customs. Cultural groups may share race, ethnicity, or nationality, but they also arise from cleavages of generation, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ability and disability, political and religious affiliation, language, and gender — to name only a few.
Two things are essential to remember about cultures: they are always changing, and they relate to the symbolic dimension of life.
Men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read and the God they believed in.
Cultural messages, simply, are what everyone in a group knows that outsiders do not know. They are the water fish swim in, unaware of its effect on their vision. They are a series of lenses that shape what we see and don’t see, how we perceive and interpret, and where we draw boundaries.
The existing differences between cultures reflect the effort each society has had to make in order to survive within a particular reality. This reality is made up of: a) the geographical background, b) the social background, that is to say, the other human groups with which it has had contact and exchange; and c) the “metaphysical” background, looking for a sense to life.
Culture and society are not the same thing.
People often speak of culture in the plural (“cultures”) because they believe that there are many different cultures in the world. At one level, this is of course true; the American culture is different from the Chinese culture, both of which are different from the Egyptian culture, and so on. However, all the cultural differences are on the surface; deep down, at the most fundamental level, all human cultures are essentially the same.
The same drive that pulls people together can also make them turn on anyone different they perceive as a threat. Hence the alarming rapidity and viciousness with which it was possible to make Hutus massacre Tutsis in Rwanda, or for Jews in Germany to be identified as the enemy under the Third Reich. So too can the value of reputation. This is so important for securing trust, but can quickly damage us. Massacres and dictatorships are chilling examples of when culture comes to “exercise a form of mind control over us”.
Cultural pluralism is a challenge to the arrogance of any one human community.
Pierre van den Berghe, a pioneer sociobiologist at the University of Washington, puts it best when he says:
Certainly we are unique, but we are not unique in being unique. Every species is unique and evolved its uniqueness in adaptation to its environment. Culture is the uniquely human way of adapting.
Biologically, human beings are very weak and fragile; we do not have fangs to fight predators and catch prey or fur to protect us from extreme cold. Culture is the defense mechanism with which evolution equipped us to protect ourselves, so that we can inherit and then pass on our knowledge of manufacturing weapons (to fight predators and catch prey) or clothing and shelter (to protect us from extreme cold).
We don’t need fangs or fur, because we have culture. And just like — despite some minor individual differences — all tigers have more or less the same fangs and all polar bears have more or less the same fur, all human societies have more or less the same culture. Fangs are a universal trait of all tigers; fur is a universal trait of all polar bears. So culture is a universal trait of all human societies. Yes, culture is a cultural universal.
Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon. It is constantly changing and easily lost because it exists only in our minds. Our written languages, governments, buildings, and other man-made things are merely the products of culture. They are not culture in themselves.
I’ve learned that culture is lived in a different way by each of us. Each person is a mixture of their culture, their own individual characteristics and their experience. This process is further enriched if you are living with two or more cultures at the same time.
Our accumulated life experiences make us who we are and shape how we view the world. When we are confronted with conflicting values or views of the world we must either accept or reject what we are seeing. This process of cognitive development is exactly what we experience on a daily basis when we learn to live in another culture.
If something does not match what we know, we must evaluate it, and either accommodate the information or reject it. We must choose the aspects of each culture that are important to us. When we are able to do this, culture no longer stands for adherence to a past. Instead, it comes to us from the future, fully oriented towards change and uniqueness and is completely beyond prediction.
Cultures are like underground rivers that run through our lives and relationships, giving us messages that shape our perceptions, attributions, judgments, and ideas of self and other. Though cultures are powerful, they are often unconscious, influencing conflict and attempts to resolve conflict in imperceptible ways.
Our different ways of life—our cultural differences—are part of God’s creative plan for the world.
But more than that, our diversity is a God-given means by which human communities correct and enrich one another.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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