January 18, 2013



I’m in the third grade, and the teacher has just introduced the concept of “culture.”  I am at a loss.

Our elementary school was built in the 60s, and so it introduced the open color-coded pod system ~ four classrooms in a block without walls, each with its own color.  Second and third grades were in the blue pod, I think.  Or was it yellow?

You know what I’m going to say next ~ a thoroughly impractical scheme by  architect who must have been childless, as nothing distracts a gang of third-graders more than another gang of third graders.  So in desperation the teachers immediately rummaged every chalkboard and divider they could find to create WALLS, for God’s sake.

I was sitting at my desk facing north (don’t ask me why I always know which cardinal direction I’m facing, even in my dreams, but that’s a story for another day). Young neatly bearded Mr. Harris had just had us open our books to a page with a colorful illustration of a Mexican fiesta at the top.

“Culture is the art and language and practices of a group of people,” Mr. Harris said.

I searched the picture and the words in the paragraphs below for some grasp of the concept, while Mr. Harris went on. Culture? Was it the colorful blankets?  Was it the hats?  Was it Spanish?  How could it be both a thing like a hat but also a non-thing like language?

I was mystified.  I raised my hand, and Mr. Harris called on me.  “I don’t understand,” I tell him.

So he tried again.  “It’s everything that makes a group of people unique.  Mexican people have their fiestas and their Day of the Dead, while Europeans have liver dumpling soup or pasta.”

I’m paraphrasing here for affect.  I have no memory of the actual conversation, but I do remember sitting at my desk and staring at that page with the Mexican fiesta.

I didn’t get it.  In fact, I don’t think I got it for years.

I was reminded of this this morning as I heard NPR’s report on culture references and how they’ve become splintered.  Back in the bad old days of the monopoly of network TV, everyone watched pretty much the same things, and so everyone had similar pop culture references (never mind that if you were a black person you hardly ever saw yourself on TV).  If you were a comedian and made a joke about Don Johnson and Miami Vice, you could count on people getting it because they probably had watched that episode too.  Now, with streaming and the internet, you can watch whatever the heck you want ~ the democratization and individuation of content ~ and so there isn’t the commonality there once was. 

I’m of a mixed mind on this.  My first reaction is, Yay!  We get to follow our inclinations and see ourselves mirrored back to us in so many ways ~ something I didn’t feel I got as a child.  Democracy at its finest! The acceptance of difference and diversity and everyone is exposed to all sorts of things and so hopefully more accepting.

But then I mourn the loss of common ground. For some, these differences cause nothing but more fear and so they want to clamp down even more.  Difference doesn’t make them celebrate; it makes them want to bring out the guns.

What I get now, though, that I didn’t get all those years ago is that culture is to life what a dictionary is to language.  It’s a common agreed upon meaning of sign and signal and artifact and speech.  It’s all of us trying to agree on meaning and signifier.  It’s us trying to define our identity.  And it is and should be hard to define ~ because everyone is trying to pull it this way or that way and to pin it down.  One person’s gang sign is another person’s handkerchief.

That’s what makes the world so wondrous.


bookspersonally said...

I caught part of that story on NPR the other day - so interesting. Love this thoughtful reflection - it is a fascinating world, with endless possibilities now, so creative and yet in other ways completely overwhelming, and I agree, we do seem to fall into cultural niches now that often don't even have opportunity or need to meet or interact.

Tamara said...

Thank you so much! You are so right - about the creative AND the overwhelming. We are global and local at the same time. :-)