The concept of culture has been on my mind a lot recently. I have, over this past semester, been attempting to define culture in my own terms. What I have learned, however, is that culture can hardly be confined by one definition. Culture should not and cannot be considered generally. It is by its very nature an ever changing concept based upon the human capital of the moment and what exactly this particular group of humans consider to be physically, morally, psychologically, and spiritually valuable. Culture does have a strong base in tradition, but when it comes down to defining the culture of the moment, both the individuals and communities of that particular moment must be taken into consideration.
Back in January, a friend of mine from Loyola who is studying abroad for the year in Belgium posed this question to me: “What is American culture?” After exploring small communities and vast countries with deep rooted distinct histories and traditions, she had a difficult time of identifying the culture of the country she has called home for the past twenty years. In a similar way to Bryson, she felt a little disconnected from this culture that she finally realized she never truly understood. Jenn especially struggled when she came to the bleak conclusion that American culture is simply another way to say ‘pop culture.’ Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but I doubt she was ready to leave behind Michelangelo and Botticelli for Miley Cyrus and Ludacris.
Jenn’s concern began to concern me as well. The more I have thought about it though, the more I have realized that we do, in fact of a deep history. Our country is indeed full of traditions that are absent from the rest of the world. We may not be a people connected by a single ethnic ancestry, but that is exactly what makes us to interesting and unique; that is the source of our connection. I also came to realize that culture is not based solely in the ancient traditions of a nation. It is based, as I mentioned earlier, within the towns, the neighborhoods, the friendships, the families, and even the individuals of the moment. It is based upon their perceptions and reactions to others and to the world around them. Our American culture does entail a tradition, in fact, it entails a multitude of traditions throughout each state in our giant country, but the culture itself is influenced wholly by none other than us.
A couple weeks ago at Cristo Rey, I was working with Christina, a freshman, on a writing assignment for her Theology class. Her assignment was to write three paragraphs: the first about a human right of her choice, the second about a duty every person should do, and the third about something everyone should not do. She had already brainstormed her three words for the assignment and hand wrote a first draft of the paragraphs. As a right for all people, Christina chose respect. “Nice choice,” I said as I read through her explanation. As a duty, she chose forgiveness. “Great ideas,” I told her as she typed away. Finally I turned to her third page and discovered that the one thing she recommended people not to do in their life to be sharing. I was at first confused, so I asked her why she chose sharing. Christina said, “Because Miss Kate, people never give my pens back when they say they’re just gonna borrow them.” I smiled and thought to myself, “true enough my friend,” but attempted to convince her that sharing is not really the root of the problem, but more so dishonesty and stealing. Looking back on this experience, I can see the clash of cultures. Although I know that you do not always get your pens back, I learned at Christina’s age to reinterpret the word “borrow” instead of eradicating the concept of sharing altogether. This distinction has to do with our experiences, our families, our friends and our neighborhoods; in other words, our cultures.
For Bryson, culture is defined by humor. Since he feels like a stranger no matter where he is, Bryson lacks a permanent connection to the traditions of a single nation or community. Instead, Bryson has discovered and defined his own culture based upon the humorous ways he has chosen to interpret and understand his surroundings.