The cultural artifacts around me

As I was combing through the last two year’s worth of grad school notes and writings, I came across this short piece I wrote for a course called Integrating Culture into the Language Classroom. One of the main ideas in that course was that in order to be better guides to culture in our classrooms, we need to see and better understand ourselves as cultural beings, and this short assignment is addressed to that. We were asked to look around our work space and talk about three “cultural artifacts” that say something about who we are culturally. It was a fun exercise, and I thought I’d post the results here.

My bed

Directly behind me is my bed. I started thinking about it as a cultural artifact now because I live in a part of the world where not everyone uses one. Many Koreans I know sleep on the floor, as do my stepdaughters most of the time. My wife and I sleep on a bed, but when we travel to out-of-the-way places in Korea it’s not unusual for us to roll out some bedding and camp out in a big scrum on the floor. While the traveler in me can do without a bed from time to time (I’ve slept on floors, benches, chairs, sofas, hammocks, beaches, train berths, subway cars, ship decks, and once or twice when I was in college, a barstool), I’ll take a bed over any other sleeping arrangement, any time. Okay, I have at times fantasized about hanging a hammock from my walls, but it’s hard to imagine giving up beds totally, and so I guess I can say it’s a pretty deep-rooted part of my cultural makeup. Maybe it speaks to the comfort that modern American culture perpetually strives for (and largely achieves). I don’t know, but I know that I want to always have a bed, and with any luck, to die in one.

Another thing I want to say about the bed is that I see it very much as our bed, meaning, the bed belonging to my wife and I and not to anyone else. This I think also speaks to who I am culturally. Right now my youngest stepdaughter, age 6, is sleeping on our bed as she sometimes does. The kids used to sleep with their mom a lot when they were younger, but as a stepfather who entered the family only three years ago, I missed most of that. While I tolerate it from time to time, I encourage them to sleep in their own beds (they have beds but generally don’t use them) in their own rooms. I can’t say it really annoys me when they crash on my bed, but the fact that I use a word like “tolerate” to illustrate my stance toward the kids sleeping on it tells you something about how I feel about that, as well as something about my cultural conditioning. I place a different value on what I see as my space, and feel a bit out of sorts when it’s infringed upon. I understand that many American families permit their kids to sleep with them, and that each family works this sort of thing out in its own way. It’s also hard to say how much my feeling comes from being a stepdad as opposed to having been there from day one and possibly gotten used to them sleeping with us. It’s probably a mix of reasons, and I don’t want to venture into half-baked psychoanalysis, but the nature of my reaction to the kids sleeping in my bed strikes me as being in some part culturally-based.

Coffee mug

There’s a coffee cup on my desk. I drink coffee every morning. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, and if for some reason I have to be without it – because I’m travelling or because I’ve run out (which never happens) I feel like I’m missing something. One of the things that surprised me about Koreans when I came here in 1998 was how little they cared about the availability of coffee in the mornings. For a long time it was just impossible in Busan to buy coffee before noon. Koreans drank coffee in the afternoons and evenings and sometimes at night, but rarely in the morning, which to me was exceedingly strange. I probably would have found it less weird if Koreans had simply not drunk coffee at all, but the fact that they used it for purposes other than the one I considered the main one – as a morning stimulant – struck me as odd. To me it was as if someone had bought a toaster, and used it, not to make toast, but to warm their hands in the winter. It works, but you’re really missing out.

I realize now of course that this attitude is part of who I am culturally. Koreans tend to be much more social about eating and drinking than I am. I’m happy to have a coffee with my wife in the morning, or with a friend later in the day, but when I need a coffee, there is no social stigma to me in going it alone and getting my cup of joe when the mood strikes me. At the root of my solo coffee fixes I sense a small trace of the individualism that is bred into Americans, the pioneer mythos we imbibe in school, the outside-the-box thinker we are all encouraged to be, sometimes at the expense of community, sociability, or conformity, which is a dirty word in America but not here.

Memos

The fringe of my computer monitor is so ringed with post-it notes that it’s beginning to resemble some bizarre species of rectangular sunflower. These are very much a part of my personal culture. I use them to remember all of the things that I need to remember, which, apparently, is a lot. The information overload of our time and place has been often remarked upon. I think my culture puts a huge premium on remembering – just this week I was overwhelmed by “remembrances” of 9/11 – yet we are increasingly called to remember more and more and tend to feel bad when we fail.

I also confess to being something of an information junkie. I read heaps and wonder how much I retain or whether in the end it’s really worth it. Conversations, names, the never-ending cycles of news, new seasons of sports, TV programs, new semesters, conversations real and virtual, ideas, thoughts, dreams – this great swirl of things, most of it forgotten eventually. I really can’t say whether our brains today are better than those of our ancestors at remembering things, but I’d bet the average person today considers his or her memory far worse than one of our ancestors might have considered theirs had you asked them. If that’s true I think that’s probably because of the mass of information we are daily confronted with, much of it important or interesting, coupled with the awareness that nearly all of it passes away unremembered. The post-it notes are perhaps my attempt to stem the tide, though I too suffer from the popular perception that it’s a losing battle. Maybe the post-its would be better termed a “symptom” of my culture than an intrinsic part of my cultural identity; at any rate, there they are.

 

What are the things near to hand that say something about who you are as a cultural person?

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4 comments

  1. Hello again, John,

    I’m sure it’s not quite the same in that I’m a “Westerner” (whatever that term means) living in a Western country, albeit with a “non-Westerner” (although geographically his country is just as “West” as Italy), but would you say that you could consider yourself “Korean” at least culturally-speaking, or will you always classify yourself as an American in Korea? I’m asking this because I can blend in in France… neither my skin tone nor my dress will give away my origins, and sometimes people don’t detect my accent. Do I want to “blend in”? Not necessarily. But I don’t want the only interesting thing about me to be my origins.

    I don’t have as many “objects” that define me culturally except to say that I place a very high premium on books. I attribute that more to my upbringing and access to literary education. For me, what is culturally revealing is what we consider to be “normal.” For instance, eating horse meat or dog meat as an American is not normal, even though beef, chicken, pigs, and sheep are for most Americans. Just like eating with your left hand (and not cutting up pizza!). Or one’s relationship with dogs. Or a culturally-bred aversion to smoking and cigarettes. Or eating dinner early. Or ice cubes in glasses of water and blasting the AC.

    Great post!
    -Colleen

    1. Hello again, Colleen,

      I don’t think I could ever fully become culturally Korean, just because culture imprints us so deeply when we grow that we seem to always retain some parts of it, certain perspectives, practices, or a fondness for certain products. However, I have certainly become Koreanized in many ways. It’s a long list and it strikes me now as perhaps an interesting subject for a future post.

      It’s interesting that you find that the things that distinguish you more in France are your perspectives, or as you put put it, “what we consider to be normal”. Is it that French and American material culture are closer to each other, or that you have assimilated to life in France. Your comment also brought to mind a very funny story by David Sedaris in which he discovers a quirky cultural difference in France when he and the locals react very differently to a photo of Jodie Foster picking up dog shit with a plastic baggie as she’s out for a walk with her dog. If you’ve never read him, check him out. Very funny guy, and he lived in France as an expat as well, so you may find a lot of resonance in his work.

      Thanks for dropping by. I appreciate your comments.

      1. I’ve always wanted to read David Sedaris and now I have a good reason 🙂 As regards American and French material culture, I’d say that besides traditions that affect “how we live” that are very very different, there’s a lot of “same but different.” I did a very interesting linguistics project last semester about “les anglicismes” (English words used in French) and cultural realities relating to food. For instance, you have McDonalds in both countries, but the experiences and the physical food, despite having the same name, are dramatically different. You have a coffee culture in both countries, but they are incredibly different. And of course food items are not always able to be found in one or the other country, but it’s more how you eat, and when, and with whom, and how long that is different.

        I think the question about whether I have “assimilated” or not would require me to reflect on how I live. Is it so different from how I lived in the U.S.? Materially speaking, I can pretty much have everything I had in the U.S., but I won’t be able to go shopping past 7 pm or on Sundays or expect to receive my grades or diploma within two months of a term’s ending… I reflected on what makes France France in one of my posts, in case you are interested: http://expatlove.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/what-is-french-about-france/

        Best,
        Colleen

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