My friend has tried to explain to me several times how important it is to him to preserve his culture, in his own life and especially in the lives of his children. Culture, to him, is nearly inextricably linked to identity. He believes that in order for his children to have a healthy sense of identity, they must be brought up understanding the culture of their people, and its importance, despite the location of their upbringing.
Another friend explained to me that her parents instilled in her a Texan culture in order to provide stability and identity to their children as they moved from country to country working for the US Foreign Service. She is very grateful for her parents’ wisdom in this.
Living and working in a multi-national team causes constant confrontations with culture which cause offense or insult. These confrontations include offending colleagues by sending emails without greetings and salutations, smelling the food before serving it to my plate, and making comments about the unsanitary living conditions in the town. To me, none of these things are inappropriate, but I have been told not to do them again to avoid offending my colleagues.
I have made many changes to my lifestyle to live and work in South Sudan with an international team. When I was asked to make more changes, it put me in a mental struggle. The questions that have been rattling in my mind are, “How much should I change myself (or my culture) to please others?” and “How much should I expect others to have grace for me and respect for my culture?” I can make compromises on my daily habits and interactions only so much before I begin changing the very essence of who I am. This is something that I cannot do and do not think should be done or expected of me.
This prompted me to ponder, “What is my culture? What are the components of culture? What is it that makes me, me?” Language, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, practices and behaviors, perception of social hierarchies, political views, nationality, work ethic, communication style, values, moral codes, worldview? Let me reflect on my identity in each one.
My language is English. I grew up speaking American English, but the more I spend time with English speakers from around the world, my English has become less and less unique. A friend even remarked recently that my accent sounds British! I have adopted unique phrases from other cultures (like saying “half seven” for 7:30), but I also have my own American English phrases and slang that differentiate my English from others’. Nonetheless, speaking English seems to put me into a category of people with nearly infinite opportunities for “success” (in career, material possessions, and fulfillment), which is the effect that acquiring English has on many individuals in many developing nations.
Somewhat different to language, but related is communication style. I seem to have a different communication style than many of my colleagues. They find my text messages and emails to be abrupt with little room for feedback. My communications are to the point and down to business, often lacking formalities of greetings and salutations. At the same time, in my verbal communication, I was told by a national staff member that I talk too much and I should try to make my communications with him as concise as possible. I think for him, the more I explained, the more insulted he got that I thought he couldn’t understand what I was saying or that I thought he was incompetent to do the work correctly. For me, I felt that I needed to explain the task fully and in detail so that there was no misunderstanding or lack of clarity of my expectations of how to do the task. This is especially because there is somewhat of a language barrier (I speak American English and for him, English is a second or third language, learned in Africa). To me, I felt that I was doing us both a favor by taking the time and effort to fully explain, and he felt insulted and annoyed with me for the same thing.
My religion is Christianity. I did not grow up in a particular religion, so in this aspect of culture, I created my own culture, apart from my family; or rather, I joined another aspect of culture apart from them. I wouldn’t define Christianity as having a culture unto itself, but different cultures within Christianity can be found, within a denomination spreading across the globe, or down to a specific church’s community culture. I don’t feel that I want to, or even should, belong to a specific culture within Christianity, as my religion is a relationship rather than a ritual, though it does influence my behavior. Primarily, it influences me to act in compassion and mercy, and should enable me to love everyone that I encounter.
My ethnicity is Caucasian. That hardly means anything in relation to describing my culture. My ancestors are from the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, and Palestine, but all of my grandparents spent their lives on the east coast of the U.S. In my lifetime, I had the influence of my two grandmothers, neither of whom seemed to reflect any particular ethnic culture.
My nationality is American. Since America is the melting pot, what does this add to the description of my culture? That I have the tendency to be arrogant, loud, and ignorant of the world? I don’t believe these things are true. To many in the world, it means I was born into privilege, which is true, but there are many Americans who were not. Does it mean that I am superficial and lack moral character? I don’t believe so. Does it mean I have courage to stand up for equal rights and for freedom? Yes. Being American also means that I relate to stereotypes of different regions of the US, particularly the south and New England. It also means I love Mexican food. For me, being American means I’ve been influenced by many cultures, I was born into privilege, I have courage to stand up for equal rights and for freedom, and I have an identity in the history of the development of my country (like the end of slavery and immigration of Latinos).
My highest education level is a Master’s degree in Public Health. Throughout my life, I’ve had access to and attended high quality educational institutions. This causes me to fit in and interact best with people who possess strong analytical skills, dream big and achieve their dreams, and focus on solving problems.
My perception of social hierarchies seems to be very relaxed in comparison to many of my friends. I do respect my elders, those more experienced, more educated, and in higher positions, but I also feel that I have something to offer or teach everyone around me, as I also have something to gain and learn from them. “God is no respecter of persons,” comes to mind. We are all equal in that we are all uniquely created, wonderfully and fearfully made. We are all in various stages of coming into our full potential, to be all that we are created to be. I believe I should treat everyone according to that potential, rather than the current reality.
Politics… My relationship with politics is not healthy. I despise thinking about politics. I don’t think I can make a good judgement of a person and his/her ability to run a country (a job which I have no idea what it entails) without having met the person. I recognize the privilege of living under a democracy that gives me a voice in the matter, as well as the hard-earned right to vote as a woman. It is not my interest, but I know that it is in my interest to pay attention. I took a politics test once to assess where I fall on the spectrum, and like most of my family, I lean towards the liberal democratic party. But I do not identify myself with this party because I don’t agree completely with all the essentials of the party. Nor do I feel that American politics defines any part of who I am. I call myself a-political (without politics). My beliefs about how to live in community tend toward socialism, that we should share resources so that no one is in need. But I fully believe that all should work according to his/her ability to contribute to the community’s collective and individual needs. As far as how government should play a part in society? I haven’t a clue.
My work ethic is rooted in doing the best I can do to complete the task effectively and efficiently. I don’t like laziness and idleness, or goofing off too much on things that do not add value to one’s own or others’ lives. My employer’s values are integrity, accountability, faith, hope, compassion, and dignity. I whole-heartedly agree with this work ethic.
I value people more than things. I try to treat everyone according to the way I want to be treated, with love. I try not to do wrong or harm to anyone. I believe that it is not my place to take revenge. I believe in “fair” and loving treatment of all people, regardless of anything they have done or said or believe.
This is who I am and who I strive to be. This is my identity. And it is influenced by many cultures.
[kuhl-cher] noun, verb, cul·tured, cul·tur·ing.
1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.
2. that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.
3. a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
4. development or improvement of the mind by education or training.
5. the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.
There are certain aspects of the components of my culture that I consider to be “excellent” but I can’t say that my culture is the most excellent way. I value aspects of many cultures, though they are not my own, nor would I choose to make them my own. But I can see the beauty and value in them.
If I strive to live the way God desires, to look to Jesus as my model, then I am moving towards forming my worldly culture to Kingdom culture. I wish to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, as a member of His family, and thus will refine my culture to His. What does that look like? It looks like love and freedom from the influences of evil for all! It is honor towards one another. It is peace among all men and brotherly kindness. It is patience and hope for good in everything and everyone. It is joy in all circumstances as I trust in a loving God. It is faithfulness to God and to each other. It is gentleness in all interactions. It is exercising self-control to protect self and others. It is the harvest of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is having no envy towards others and not boasting of self. It is not being arrogant or rude. It means rejoicing in truth. There is no injustice. It is believing in one another to be good, always hoping for good, and enduring through all hardships in that hope. It is endless love in the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 13). This is what I want my culture to be.