A recent post, Cultural Osmosis, by WSW, World Surfing Warrior, got me thinking about how people from different cultures connect. Culture consists of so many components, large and small, some so small they may seem insignificant and superficial, but I would advise you not to blink. I have seen very little of this world, having ventured outside of the States only a handful of times. As for my own culture, I am an expert on what it means to be an American of English, Italian, German, Norwegian, Irish ancestry growing up in a densely-populated small city outside of the New York metropolitan area, who marries outside of his race, religion and nationality and adopts a child from yet another country on the far side of the globe.
Beliefs, practices, customs and traditions, these terms are often linked or even interchanged. They may be attributed to a specific society, in a fixed time and place. Does this make culture exclusive? Must I be born into it to understand its subtleties? Have I painted myself into a corner?
My culture is over here, yours over there, but every day we build little bridges and meet somewhere in the middle. This unique shared experience is a sub-culture that may evolve and expand, or simply dissolve in an instant. The catalyst for these connections is the search and discovery of something familiar, and this essential element is often simple, basic, and instinctive.
If music be the food of love, play on.
Musicians speak of a universal language. I can listen to the sounds of an Indian raga played on an oboe or sitar and hear strains of Mississippi Delta blues. You can understand the attraction of a foreign land for the expat musician who’s art is taken for granted at home yet revered in a new world. Count off a few beats, and strangers from the far reaches of the Earth communicate through a collection of notes or dance steps.
Then, there is the quickest way to a man’s heart…
I’m not talking about Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy. Sharing a meal can be a spiritual or sensual experience.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.'”
This is no small thing. Whether it is rolling out dough for pierogies, or roti, or a pie crust, there is a bond formed whenever two people work shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen.
When I traveled to China to adopt my daughter, our group of adoptive parents traveled the country in a little cocoon, led by local and country travel guides. Before embarking on side trips to the individual provinces where our little girls waited, we were given a taste of Chinese culture, visiting several famous sites in and around Beijing, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall, and tourist traps like the pearl and silk factories. We also shared all of our carefully planned meals at local restaurants. Did this experience in any way help us understand what it means to be Chinese?
I had a very different interaction while scaling the stairs on a stretch of the Great Wall. The steps are of varying heights, or rise, making it nearly impossible to find your rhythm or gain momentum. The combination of thin air, warm temperature and pollution soon had me sucking wind. Glancing to my side I noticed a chubby Chinese teenage boy struggling as well. We paused, smiled at each other, then put our arms over each others shoulders and tried to tackle the obstacle together. We laughed and stumbled and spoke in our native tongues, understanding only that we both probably looked hilarious.
Then, there was the confrontation in a Wuhan shopping mall when a group of us parents with children in arms were shouted at by an older women who was obviously expressing her displeasure with the foreign intruders who had come for her native daughters. She said her piece until her nervously smiling daughter managed to pull her away. This was balanced by the kindness of the young women who ran a little shop in Guangzhou and loaned me a stroller for the couple of days I was in their city. Their shop near the White Swan Hotel was aptly nicknamed, “Your home away from home.”
We seek something familiar in the new. In an earlier post, Paris Redux, I expressed the loneliness and sense of isolation I often felt during my stay in a city where I couldn’t speak the language and knew nearly nothing of the culture or customs. Before I set off for Paris, my boss instructed me to “drink a lot of wine.” Others encouraged me to sample the cuisine, and while a few authentic French dishes found their way to my belly, I craved and sought out something that reminded me of home, and in doing so created my own little ad hoc sub-culture.
I didn’t drink much wine; not my thing. I usually had beer or mineral water with my meals. What was I homesick for? A hamburger and fries? Maybe pizza? –Soft, runny cheeses are popular choices on a pizza in France–No, I craved Indian food. I never got completely used to eating alone, but sitting in a quiet Indian restaurant, comfort in the familiar went beyond the menu. Speaking with the owner about home and family, knowing he was from somewhere else, I realized we were both travelers.
I’ve been married to a wonderful Indian woman for over 35 years, having met when we were just teenagers. Love at first sight, but that’s a story for another day. She was born and raised in Guyana, South America. Her family, and others like them, emigrated from India, carrying their culture with them where it blended with those of Africans, indigenous Amerindians, Chinese, and Portuguese to become something new. The story is repeated in Trinidad, Canada, Singapore, the U.K. and in the United States. The Desi experience is so incredibly varied and diverse, yet all share a common bond, mother India.
Culture is Mahatma Gandhi, discovering his destiny in South Africa, leading non-violent protests to fight for the rights of the oppressed. Culture is Kobe Bryant, speaking fluent Italian and playing American basketball as an African separated by generations from his homeland. It is a young Chinese woman, playing American jazz on her saxophone on a bridge over the Île de la Cité. And, it is legendary chef Gaggan Anand, reinventing traditional Indian cuisine in his Bangkok based restaurant, at the same time planning its closure in 2020 to continue his quest with a new venture in Fukuoka, Japan.
So it is that culture is not a fixed thing at all; it is constantly moving and evolving, both exerting its influence and adapting to the unique customs of an adopted home. “Everybody here is from someplace else,” is usually an accurate statement, no matter where you’re standing. Somehow overcoming the obstacles of language, religion and local customs, we manage to connect through our shared love of food, music, art and sports.