Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What is Culture?

This was the overarching question of our “Intro to cross-cultural experience” session today. The quotes they gave us were:

“Culture is a shared set of assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people by which they organize their common life” –Gary Wederspahn

“Culture is an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristics of the members of any given society. Culture refers to the total way of life for a particular group of people. It includes [what] a group of people thinks, says, does and makes; its customs, language, material artifacts, and shared systems of attitudes and feelings” –Robert Kohls

I thought this was a particularly interesting question and I found myself thinking back to when INVST had its discussion of culture in Mexico. We decided that it was important to be informed of our own culture because our own culture is akin to “the water we swim in” – we don’t know it’s there because it’s always been there. It is important to take a step back and examine your own culture because then you understand how it informs your choices, behavior, attitude, and overall perspective.

Personally, I feel that culture could be defined as an identity based loosely on behaviors, beliefs, and traditions that unites a group of people. There is a lot of wiggle room in that, but as always, I have a hard time pinning things down to something specific.

And as always, I found myself at a loss as to specify what American culture is. On one hand, I have my own values, beliefs, and traditions (both personal and family), and on the other hand I have the stereotype of a materialistic, pop-culture-centered superficial person from which I always distinguish myself (and which actually only describes a very small amount of people I know). I have all these ideas of what it means to be an American, “but I’m not like that.” However, I also make a distinction between “American,” which tends to incorporate all the aspects of our society that I dislike, and “US,” which is the more positive side of things. So if anyone wants to try to answer the question of “What is American culture?” then be my guest.

As the discussion went on, I found myself strongly disagreeing with what some of the other people were saying. I would counter their points in my head, and then thought, “Well, they can believe whatever they want to believe, but I’m going to believe what I believe because that’s what feels right to me.” And then I thought about that. Hello ego, you need to leave. Rather than truly considering their perspective, I just disregarded it, which also disregards the entire purpose of a cross-cultural experience. I am going to need to genuinely attempt to understand and participate in Samoan culture instead of superficially brushing it off as “different” and “their way of doing things.” One of my main goals in doing the Peace Corps is to learn enough about another culture to be able to integrate into that lifestyle. I always have that goal in the front of my mind, but it’s sneaky how that disregard shows up in other ways. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that.

On a different note about culture, they have begun to introduce to Samoan culture by giving us all lavalavas (a wrap-around skirt that works a lot like a towel. It’s just a large piece of cloth, but I really like it) and Samoan names. My Samoan name is Tali. They also say that Samoans generally shower at least once a day because of the humidity. That will be a big change from camp, where two showers a week is normal. But I don’t have to wash my hair everyday, and as long as I keep them short, hopefully I will get used to it.
My lavalava

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