Culture. It’s a bit of a peculiar word as far as its current use in the English vernacular. Those of Generation X…Y…whatever we are tend to use it in unusual ways… “I’m going to get my culture on and check out this play,” or similar uses. It is often used as an excuse for the reason for misunderstanding between social groups in an integrating society. It is used for things both positive and negative, as diverse as talking about reality television to the music of Mozart.
Ultimately culture is defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” Please forgive me for including a definition in this blog post… I feel like I’m giving my first public speech ever again and regressing back to the words of my 8th grade English teacher suggesting that I start my speech with the dictionary definition. I’m including this because I wonder that if in this global, high-speed world in which we live, we have forgotten what it truly means.
Each one of us, regardless of how complex our background is from an ethnic, social, or racial sense has a unique blend of cultural experience that shaped the person we are today. For some, especially those of homogenous countries with little immigration, this culture is quite clear-cut. There are countless people who are 100% Chinese from a village background…or 100% Russian having an urban background. For the vast majority of us in North America however, our backgrounds are a blend of cultures.
The impact of the lack of blending of cultures, or the blending of cultures is something we don’t often speak of. Often it’s dismissed as somehow politically incorrect, or uncomfortable dinner table conversation. America has always had a bizarre way of handling its immigrant experience. Whereas countries like Canada and the UK to some extent describe their immigrant makeup as a Mosaic… America has always defined theirs as a melting pot. The visual picture painted by these words couldn’t be clearer…. A diverse blanket or painting enriched by its parts versus a “trial by fire” which melts all its ingredients to the same state to form a new end product.
Coming to a place such as Sicily really made me think about this, as I don’t know that I’ve been somewhere in quite some time with such a clearly defined and proud cultural identity. When you can walk down an entire 100 meter long aisle of a hyper-market and see perhaps 500 different types of pasta shapes, you know that you are in a place that fiercely both defends and supports its cultural traditions. We’ve all had Italian food… we think we know something about the culinary experience here, but every town in Sicily delights our taste buds with something different, something new & something unique to that terra. Take it from me… a self-confessed Central/Eastern Europe-phile…. you NEED to come to Sicily and you need to come now. Rarely am I taken so much by a place as I have been in our time here!
Sicily certainly isn’t a place without immigration….not a day has passed sadly since we’ve been here where there hasn’t been a major news story about a boat sinking and countless African lives being lost….lives that strived to get one step closer to the “western world” they dream of. A walk or drive down the streets of even a small town in Sicily will reveal not only “Sicilians” as we imagine them, but South Asians… Sri Lankans… Filipinos. Italy has been accepting immigrants by the thousands as the EU has a lack of a cohesive policy on the issue and as a “border state” with a huge open coast-line they have no choice but to confront the issue head on.
Above all this though, Italians, and the various regions of Italy cling fiercely to their cultural identity. We’ve sampled pastas and desserts that are unique to a specific TOWN of Sicily. This is what draws people here to some extent… to be able to drive 50 miles from one town to another and experience yet another different side of a small island. You might be only miles across the Straits of Messina from mainland Italy, but everywhere we’ve been in Italy feels a world away from continental Europe.
What’s my point? Ultimately, why am I even mentioning any of this?
More than anything, to me this is one of the most beautiful things of travel. It is so refreshing to see the depth of real culture in the places we visit…even if it’s not something we can fully understand or always relate to. I have to imagine that this sense of cohesion, this commonality shared among a group helps in more ways than simply those gastronomic. If you think of something highly divisive like a political election…the goal of the candidates is often to separate the community into groups with differing agendas and goals to help gain their support. In a country with a strong and unified culture this is far more difficult…. There is no doubt politicians would still attempt do this, but the differentiating tends to be more based upon other factors…perhaps socio-economic class, religion, etc…and the populace still shares common bonds to hold them together.
One of the greatest criticisms lobbed at documentary film-makers often is that they bring up points without a solution. This is definitely something I often think of when I bring up points like this on my blog. So…how can we take this cultural learning from across the world to an America that is more divided today than any other time in recent memory by racial, religious, and socio-economic lines?
There certainly isn’t a silver bullet here, but I would argue that if we begin to look and take the best from all of the various cultures that surround us within America we might make some quick steps forward.
The law of comparative advantage exists just as much in the cultural arena as it does in the economic arena. I’ve joked about this before, but there are some truisms that come out of this that can’t (or shouldn’t be 😉 argued with. Central and Eastern Europeans make superior beer, those of Mediterranean climates make good wine. The Japanese designed the best toilet on the planet. The fresh and unique flavors of Italian cooking are unique in the world. Koreans know how to make fried chicken. My friends in the former Yugoslavia make the best street food in the world. We can make a thousand jokes out of these concepts… “Heaven Is Where: The French are the chefs, The Italians are the lovers, The British are the police, The Germans are the mechanics, and the Swiss make everything run on time. Hell is Where: The British are the chefs, The Swiss are the lovers, The French are the mechanics, The Italians make everything run on time, And the Germans are the police.”
America literally exists as a nation comprised of all others….those who dreamed for a “better life,” whatever that meant to them at that moment. We have the opportunity to create that proverbial restaurant serving Korean Fried Chicken, with Czech beer on tap…or French wine if you prefer, with an Italian wait staff and a German back-office. I’ve seen more and more posts on Facebook about the “upcoming election” in America…. So as much as I want to avoid it, I suppose I can’t. All that I ask is that with this coming election “season” which now is somehow 1.5 years long…. That we all take a moment and remember this. We are only as strong as what we create together. Take a good look into your past and think about the cultural elements that influenced you to be “you.” Look beyond the garbage…beyond the mega-brands that tell you which tortilla chips to buy, or which soda is best. That isn’t culture… that is the opposite of it. Look towards your own personal heritage and share with us all why you make the choice that you do. Share with us the foods that shaped your childhood…. the music that inspires you… If we all do just that….we just might create the American dream that our grandparents came here for.
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