Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Culture

Anyone with a liberal arts degree has heard their fair share of commentary on culture. Culture is the lens through which we view the world, culture is our foundation, culture is what we share. During the course of a higher education cultural identity and cultural diversities are examined, compared, and analyzed to an almost perverse degree, and yet, at the end of it most graduates still struggle to produce an accurate definition of the word.

This is of course because, as most social scientists will delight in explaining, culture is ubiquitous. Ahh yes, Ubiquitous. I remember this $10,000 word being a favorite among my university professors, and I always viewed it as a cop out. Whenever that word was applied they seemed to be defining something so vast and complicated that a simple definition didn’t exist. It seemed counter intuitive that with this one word their problems were solved- What is art? Art is ubiquitous. What is God? God is ubiquitous. What is culture? Culture is ubiquitous.

My semantic frustrations aside, if culture really is ubiquitous then attempting to understand it in a university setting should be nearly impossible. With the vast majority of students pursuing their degrees in the same country, if not the same community where they were raised, how could they possibly be expected to grasp what role culture plays in their lives? It’s UBIQUITOUS after all, there’s no escaping it.

This paradoxical situation is what sends so many students and recent graduates on grand adventures abroad. They leave their communities, their loves ones and their safety zones behind in search of some new experience or culture they can’t even conceive of yet but are sure exists and has something to teach them. Surely this commitment, this bravery will be rewarded with, at the very least, a better understanding of  different cultures. Well….maybe.

The ugly truth is you bring your culture with you wherever you go, and the culturally hungry traveler comes face to face with it in ways they never expected. In my experience my culture usually rears its ugly head on trains. In Bulgaria citizens have a deep seeded fear for something called the “Techene”, which, put quite simply, is a “cross breeze”. This means that if you are ever in a car you can have exactly one window open at a time, and even that is pushing it if there are old people or babies in tow. I’m sure this fear was born in history when rough winds could literally carry disease from one plague torn town to another, but last time I checked, science has come a long way in the last 500 years, I mean we discovered a vaccine for polio for christs sake, but try explaining that to a Bulgarian grandmother and her grandson riding together on a train. One 90 degree day I was stuck in a train compartment with these very two passengers, no air conditioning of course, and I opened our shared window. The grandma stood up and closed it. I stood up and opened it again, and tried to explain that it was too hot for this foolishness.  She looked at me completely bewildered and started screaming and pleading, waving to her grandson. My Bulgarian is awful, but I’m pretty sure she was saying something to the affect of “you are trying to kill my grandson!” Everyone else in the compartment stared at me with disgust. Busted. Culture Fail.

Here in Korea things are a lot more logical, but almost to a disturbing degree, Koreans may be well on their way to taking the humanity out of the daily commute altogether. Recently when someone accidentally bumped into me with great force boarding the metro I let out a little involuntary noise and starred at my assailant, waiting for some sort of apology by way of a word or at least a kind glance. None came. People don’t apologize for such things here. There must be some sort of line, like say if I had been physically knocked down and broken my nose, blood gushing out and pooling on the floor, perhaps then they would  turn to see if I was okay, but I wouldn’t count on it.

People don’t really talk on the metro at all, not even to their children. It’s as if everyone is just trying to get through the hell of their daily travel with as little trouble as possible, and they all understand that silence is the best way to do that. Babies don’t cry. I’m not exaggerating. This is a city of ten million people where women are rarely on birth control and most people don’t own cars, and yet over these past three months, I have heard maybe three babies total cry on the train. Perhaps even more troubling than the absent voices of small children is the fact that if one child does pierce the silence with a wail or if say, a drunk elderly man does the same, people around him don’t react. Their face muscles don’t even twitch. It seems Koreans have collectively agreed that if they ignore it, it doesn’t exist, and they are getting closer and closer to the truth with that one every day. 

I’m now discovering that the danger with being a cultural interloper is not that you take your culture with you wherever you go, but that eventually pieces of those other cultures rub off on you, and you don’t get to choose which ones. Last week I saw a teenager nervously eating a bagel sitting across from me on the train. People don’t talk and people certainly don’t eat on the metro. I felt embarrassed for her. On this mornings commute I saw a girl in front of me bounding down the stairs with wet hair. Bulgarians do not leave the house with wet hair for fear of catching their death. I found my self thinking, “Her mother let her leave the house like that?!”  It was then that I came up with my own definition of culture:

Culture: A set of agreed upon neuroses shared by a group of people

Okay it’s not ubiquitous, but I think I’m getting closer.


  1. hmmm... i guess now that you mention it, it was pretty quiet on the train in taiwan. somehow this past summer i managed to survive on the bulgarian trains- i think it helped to carry a hand fan around with me.
    i guess like pollen/other things that stick to you, culture is very much the same. it's funny you picked up the wet hair thing- i wonder besides the nodding/head bobble what else i will pick up from bulgaria.

  2. I like the blog Illyria! Your writing is quite enjoyable to read and your insights about culture are funny. I look forward to more! I have never followed a blog before and have generally also looked on them with disdain but now I will have to reconsider. Keep writing milady :)

  3. As I live and the first entry. And good choice for background wallpaper, a lens out in the world.

  4. Well done, young blogger. Now don't let this die in infancy. That's the trick with these things, I've heard, because the bastard about writing is that it takes stupid levels of discipline to produce and keep on producing. If you can find a time every week where you are especially contemplative this might be the way to do it?

    If it helps, you should know that your first entry is great-- really well-written, thoughtful and about the right length. So now questions for the future: Do Koreans really have clubs where you can go just to play boardgames? What do they do in their free time? Do they have free time? Are they easier/harder to get to know then Bulgarians?

  5. love love love love love it!!!!
    Dying for more.... it is like crack for me ;)