Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Unimportant Anthropological Rant

It is exhausting to realize that the culture you spent your formative years in was different from the culture you grew up in and different from the culture your friends spent their formative years in and also different from the cultures you went through some huge life events in (near death, first major love) and all of these cultures are different from the culture you now live in. And your old friends and family don't understand the multiple cultures you have journeyed through since you left your Growing Up culture and even though all the cultural differences may seem small they still add up to misunderstandings and changes in world-view and you end up sitting all alone on your mish-mash cultural island clutching your old anthropology text books.

And it's very lonely.

Being an anthropologist means being a bridge between cultures, sometimes in a very small way, sometimes as a mediator for huge influxes of cultural change. Either way, you're a bridge. Being a thoughtful and immersive traveler often means the same thing. People talk about "Third Culture Kids", such as the children of missionaries who no longer are a part of their sending culture, but aren't a part of the culture they live in- they have created their own culture. Or the children of immigrants, constantly serving as go-between from their parents' culture and the culture they live in. But even if you haven't traveled or been raised in a different country or by immigrant parents there are often many cultural forces at play in your life. The difference is, most people decide on one culture, settle in one place, accept the values as their own, and go about their life. Even the Third Culture Kids have that Third Culture Club to embrace and be a part of.

But what about the bridges? The missionaries or anthropologists or travelers who go back and forth and back and forth and don't settle in just one? Does the tension tear them apart?

I think it's even worse when the different cultures you are trying to bridge seem so similar on the surface, so that even explaining confusion and misunderstandings is hard. If I was trying to bridge rural Peruvian culture and suburban American culture during some version of an afternoon break, when Americans have coffee and Peruvians chew coca leaves, it would be very obvious by dress, language, location that these are different cultures. I would tell the Americans of the kintu, the blowing of the essence of the coca leaves to the mountain apus (spirits). I would tell the Peruvians of office culture, of 9 - 5 work and coffee breaks for rejuvenation.

It's harder when trying to explain the differences in groups that aren't so far apart, groups that might dress or look the same. Say a group from a city in the northeast and a group from a suburb in the midwest. They like the same music and movies and food, but there are underlying perspectives that pop up in how they speak and the jokes they share and assumptions they make.

 It's difficult to explain world views between the groups I worked and lived with during the formative years of college and travel and the friends from back home. Often, both groups immediately think they know exactly what those differences are and that they are bad. No one wants to hear about the reasons or thought processes behind the differences. Each side speaks condescendingly about the other while being unwilling to try a new perspective.   I love and am frustrated by my friends from each group. Both groups have made me who I am, and I refuse to claim only one of the cultures and settle down forever as that person.  I often agree and disagree with both, depending on the issue, the lifestyle, the belief.

And it's weird when everyone you speak to assumes you are from their cultural group and do everything the same way.

I think most Americans have a little cultural island to an extent, from the migratory lives we live. You find all the transplants in DC, NYC, New Orleans discussing the differences in their accents or pizza preferences.  I guess when you've studied anthropology too much you think about it a lot though, and you notice when you accidentally use the wrong vocabulary in a situation and someone's face squinches at you, or when you make a reference in the crowd that doesn't get it,  you over think why and you want to discuss it and sit everyone down to hash out a working theory on subtle mainstream American code-switching.

Maybe if we just keep sharing Buzzfeed articles about "43 Things Only a Michigander/Biology Major/Short person/Tea Drinking Yellow Pants Wearing Lover of Cats Will Understand" complete with hilarious .gif sets, we'll all be experts on the small cultural differences within our nation and no one will be surprised when we constantly hop cultural fences, build or burn bridges, and keep our bags packed for the move.

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