Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Cross-Cultural Perspectives
Part 1: Defining Culture
Culture is a term that should be used to describe and define people on both an individual and group level. One should first start by understanding the group dynamic of a given culture, and after that is accomplished, the person should then use that information to understand how the various cultural systems observed work out on the level of the individual. Often times, I think people can forget that several cultural groups can influence a single person’s overall culture. Furthermore, though that individual may be a part of a larger cultural group, he/she may not identify, practice or even believe in all of the values, opinions, activities, etc. of a given culture. This shift in belief from the group dynamic could be due to personal changes in lifestyle, friends, geographical location, etc.
Even though we are generally put off by the generic concepts of culture, we should still consider those aspects of culture as significant (food, traditions, holidays, etc.) if, in fact, these particular aspects of one’s culture prove to be significant to his/her/their overall culture. Meaning, that when we learn about the food, traditions and holidays of cultures, we should try to understand the greater significance of the rituals related to those practices on spiritual, familial and other, deeper levels. However, I know that one’s culture does not stop there. The attitudes one has about family life, gender roles and religious beliefs are also part of culture. The way people in a culture differentiate between people who fit into their culture or do not fit is part of culture. The way people identify and interact with the world around them is part of culture. The way people view the world in comparison to their culture is part of culture. The way people interact with members of other cultures, whether positively or negatively, is part of culture. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of what culture is; I’m sure there are other, equally vital aspects of culture to consider that I have not yet listed or mentioned. There is always something more I can learn about my own culture and about the cultures of those around me.
It is important to look at the whole person and to look at the entirety of the group to determine which aspects of a person’s/group’s culture are the most significant, even when it’s within the same ethnicity group, gender, etc. We should not assume that if a person is a part of a particular cultural group that that is all he or she represents to the world on the individual level. We should also not assume that a cultural group identified in one part of a given country or region to be the same as in any other part, even if they are of the same race/ethnicity. For example, within Spain there are several cultural groups that use different languages. Although the official language recognized in Spain is Castilian or Castellano, many people who speak Basque, Catalan or other languages feel that choosing only Castilian as the national language of Spain misrepresents their cultures within Spain; they feel different to the cultures within Spain that speak Castilian; they feel like their languages, along with the values attached to them, should be recognized as well.
Part 2: Cultural Self-Portrait
My culture is multi-layered. I suppose all cultures can be defined this way, but the significance of this word to me personally relates to being a bi-racial female whose adult life does not always mirror how she was raised. The values, customs, superstitions and language that are a part of who I am of course stemmed from my home life, but they have also grown as I developed in the educational system, lived and worked in different social classes and developed relationships with different people around the world. My freedoms and restraints have also changed as I grew older, which is a great success for someone with my background. Similarly, the freedoms and restraints I have experienced in life have also changed as I grew into adulthood.
I should first identify my culture on its basic level: I am bi-racial. Filipino and African-American to be exact. I grew up in a poor neighborhood, with a single, Filipino mother who worked every day of the week. I learned how to switch between different cultures pretty quickly. At home, Filipino was the dominant culture. Though I didn’t speak Tagalog with my mother (we used non-Standard English), I did understand it and had to adhere to the social expectations of Filipinos which highly valued loyalty to family and saving face with your peers. In contrast, my neighborhood friends were predominantly African- or Hispanic-American who used African-American vernacular to communicate. At school, we used Standard English and it was a mix of lower SES and middle-class children and adults. I never felt conflicted about the differences between the three cultural environments I was in; I only felt embarrassed at times if I used the wrong vernacular or attitude in the wrong context. For example, I remember my friend’s mom calling me a “white girl” because I forgot to switch from Standard to African-American English (“May I speak to Sheena?” versus “Sheena home?”). It may seem petty, but when those kinds of scenarios happened, I did feel shame at misrepresenting myself within a culture I felt was a part of me.
Because my mom was a single, working parent with a limited education, my family’s economic status was low. Growing up, I experienced many limitations when it involved money. Education was probably the most significant limitation for me at the time. I attended a Title 1 school where I received a free breakfast and lunch and a free public education. Getting lunch money from my mom for a snack at school was virtually impossible. I remember feeling jealous of kids who got lunch money or whose parent(s) made them nice lunches – it was so luxurious. My birthdays were also celebrated on a smaller scale at home with family. My mom couldn’t spare money for me to bring cupcakes and party favors to school on my birthday like other kids in my class could. I couldn’t always go to fun places like other people: the movies, the park, Disney World. My mom didn’t have the money or the time to do provide for those things. However, it wasn’t all bad. I had a lot of personal freedoms. My mom would let me go out into the neighborhood and play where I liked as long as I had my homework done and I got back home before dark. That kind of freedom was fantastic for me!
As for values, because we grew up with little money, being able to work was highly esteemed. Complaining about getting up early or working long hours was not acceptable. If you had a job, you were doing well and shouldn’t complain. There was no such thing as a savings account in my family at that time – you made money, used it to pay off bills and buy the essentials, and you were lucky to have a little left over for something fun or special. Additionally, education was highly valued at home. That was the pathway to better jobs. My mom wanted me to work hard in school, so I could get a good job and take care of myself. I did excel academically because my mom pushed me and because I was self- motivated. (Title 1 schools don’t always have the best resources or motivated teachers.) Family values also played a huge role in building my culture, both at home and in the neighborhood. Most families, like mine, were matriarchal in nature. Mom was in charge, and everybody had to do what she told them to do. Family values also meant sticking by your family no matter what. The “no matter what” pertained to things your family got into that weren’t necessarily legal. Within my community, that also meant you
didn’t interfere with other people’s family business. Though school taught me something different in those respects, nothing too dangerous or illegal ever happened, so I didn’t feel too conflicted.
There were no major superstitions I experienced in my culture. However, we did have strong religious beliefs (which I suppose can be the birthplace of certain superstitions). Since I lived in a Filipino- dominated household, we were Catholic. The African-American side of my family are predominantly Baptist, but since they did not have a strong presence in my childhood, I was raised to be Catholic. I do remember one Catholic superstition my mom taught me. I had an object called a Scapular, a necklace with two square pendants on either end. I had to wear it so that one pendant rested on my chest and the other rested on my back. In this way, my mom told me that I was protected by God from both my front and my back. Meaning, no physical harm could come to me when I was wearing it.
My culture from my childhood to now has changed. I was able to rise financially because of my educational achievements. I’m not rich by any means, but I don’t live pay check to pay check anymore. This has not, however, changed the way I was taught to value work. I will always be grateful for having a job. I now experience different family pressures because of my financial growth. I am seen as someone who has to “take care of things” when my family gets into money trouble. It is a difficult position to be in because I was raised as a person who should believe in family loyalty, but I now have other cultural influences that compel me to feel less personal responsibility for every family burden.
Though I am not Catholic anymore, I still believe in God. Before I am stereotyped, I should also say that I am not a radical, right-wing conservative because I believe in God. I am quite liberal in most of my beliefs which can contrast greatly with other members of religious culture. This open-minded thinking and liberal nature I contribute mostly to the friends I made in the various places I’ve lived (Kentucky, Indonesia and China): some of them are believers, some are not; some are straight, some are gay; whatever they may be, I love them all dearly. These relationships have changed my perspective, and I’m sure they’ll continue to change me in the future.
Part 3: Outsider Perspective
One of the best examples of living in a culture different to my own has to be the time I spent living and working in Beijing, China. My boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to move there because we had been dating long-distance at the time, and we didn’t like being apart. A lot of career opportunities opened up for us in China because we both previously worked for a language company in Surabaya, Indonesia that had schools all throughout China. We did a lot of research on what it would be like to live in the various cities where the language company was located and decided on Beijing because we thought that it would be the most dynamic in terms of expat living and overall cultural experience.
I don’t know if I can attest to really having that “honeymoon period” people often refer to when talking about how a person adjusts to new situations. They explain, using this theory, that there is an initial period where everything seems so wonderful and perfect before culture shock hits, making a person feel anger, disbelief or a longing for home when confronting the realities of being in a different culture. I was definitely in awe of my new surroundings in Beijing. However, the culture shock came on pretty quickly for me because of the staring. Where I lived was cosmopolitan enough. There were plenty of expats from different countries living in the general area, so most of the locals were used to seeing faces that were not Chinese. I blended in fairly well in my neighborhood. It didn’t stop locals in my area from being interested in where I was from or what I was doing in Beijing, but it was a pleasant and welcome interest that made me feel accepted, despite the initial language barriers.
The neighborhood where I officially started working was a different story. The school was located on the outskirts of the city center, and mainly local Chinese people lived there. After waking up at an incredibly early hour to make it to the subway station for the two hour ride into this part of Beijing, I subsequently had to face the thirty minute walk that I knew was going to come where I would literally have people stopping in their tracks to stare at me as I walked by. Some, I admit, stared at me in a rather
harmless way, simply showing interest in someone who was caramel-skinned with large amounts of long, thick, curly hair. I admit myself that seeing someone who looked exactly like me in Beijing was a rarity. Those looks didn’t bother me – I expected that. It was the people who stared at me in what appeared to be disgust or anger that bothered me. They looked confused as to why someone like me would ever think to walk through their neighborhood. Not being able to address these issues because of the language barrier added to the feeling that I wasn’t and couldn’t be accepted by them. I want to believe that my experience here was due to lack of understanding, but, recalling the looks I got, some of them still make me feel like people were really trying to make me feel different and unwelcome. To add to that, the job I had in Beijing overworked their teachers and offered little support. I had to go from feeling unwelcome on my way to work to unsupported, overworked and angry about the irrational demands Chinese parents would sometimes make which were fully supported by my managers.
It was a difficult period. I didn’t feel accepted, I didn’t feel supported at my workplace, I didn’t have many friends at the time, and I didn’t have much time to process my experiences with my boyfriend because we worked long and exhausting hours. After a while, I did adapt which, in turn, made me feel more a part of the culture. I learned to adjust my thinking and approaches to problem solving in order to work more cohesively with the Chinese staff at school. I made friends who were a great support to me. I also made Chinese friends who helped me better understand Chinese perspectives and customs, and I immersed myself more into the culture by taking Mandarin classes, frequenting local places and talking to people, etc. (Probably one of the best ways to endear yourself to Chinese people – which my Chinese friends advised me to do – is to praise their food, and I had no problem doing that!) I believe that was what I had to go through and what I will have to go through in any culture different to mine: I will always experience culture shock at some point in any new place, but if I try to connect to the culture I’m in by adapting my thinking, adapting my approaches to communicating and finding common ground, I’m sure I could be happy almost anywhere.