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Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Take the High Road, You Take the Low Road and I'll Take Whichever One Gets Me There Faster.

I just got back from attending my sister's wedding in Ankara, Turkey. which is not an excuse for my blogosphere absence, it's the background for what I want to talk about today. My family has lived as expats in Turkey for twenty one years now and I lived in Ankara for ten of those years (1990-2000). So going back for the wedding was going home in many ways. We stayed at my parents house and the whole week was something of a mini-family reunion for us all.

While we were there I spent a good deal of time walking around the city and just enjoying Turkey and it's culture; the good, the bad and the ugly. Which got me thinking about the way we approach culture here in the US. Generally it seems as though the typical American (if there is such a beast) will adopt one of two views towards foreign culture: ethnocentrism or multiculturalism - the pedant in me is insisting that I apologize that these are not strictly antithetical terms what with one having "ethnicity" as its root while the other centers around "culture" - But I don't really like either of those approaches.
Let me do a little defining. As I see it, ethnocentric Americans are generally convinced that America has already arrived at the cultural peak of human existence. Our culture is the best there is because... well... it's ours, gosh darn it! And anyway, look at all the things we have been able to do because of it. Am'rcan culture landed a man on the moon, won two world wars, and spent the Soviet Union into a not-early-enough grave. Ethnocentric Americans do sometimes show and interest in other cultures but usually this is done either to study them as curiosities, to mock them as bizarre and inferior, or to figure out how to gain some sort of edge (these days usually educational or athletic) over them.

Multiculturalist (spell check says I coined a word there) Americans are much more humble. They will be the first to tell you (and tell you, and tell you, and tell you, and tell you) that American culture is just one culture among equals and that all cultures are their own beautiful selves and that they cannot really be compared in any qualitative way unless of course you are willing to admit that American culture is the worst possible because we have lots of nasty, racist, oppressive tendencies so that, come to think of it, you can sort of rate cultures as being better or worse in so far as they differ from ours which is clearly at the bottom because all those ethnocentric Americans clearly want nothing more than to rise up and conquer the whole world under one vast red-white-and blue golden arch, riding wiener mobiles and throwing cold pepsi cans at defenseless, illiterate, two year old shamans in the heart of Papua New Guinea just before we force them to watch 48 straight hours of Saved By the Bell.

In case you haven't noticed, I don't really identify with either of these approaches. I am what anthropologists call a third-culture-kid. I grew up as an American in a foreign culture. The result, at least for me, has been that I like to cherry pick cultures. As I grew up, Mom and Dad would tell me that certain practices, tendencies and assumptions were either American or Turkish (or from one of the scores of international students I went to school with). I would then decide whether or not I liked that particular aspect of the given culture and either reject it as a bad idea or try to adopt it. And I have maintained that practice to this day: When I run into a new culture or cultural practice I usually do my best to understand it, appreciate it and then throw out everything I think is bad or damaging about it, recognize the beauty of the practices and attitudes that are left and then try to find a few "gems" I can harvest from it and incorporate into my own worldview and family culture.

Thus I really appreciate and try to emulate the American "can do" spirit along with the western "protestant work ethic" and the importance of taking responsibility for my own actions. I have a huge admiration for Turkish concepts of hospitality and friendship which go far deeper into a person's self-image and worldview than the more American versions of good manners and acquaintanceship. At the same time, I am perfectly happy insisting that the Turkish cultural understanding of fate and it's twisted concepts of male sexual honor, are disgusting and have no place in a healthy person's worldview. American consumerism and the value we place on things over relationships are disgusting and damaging as well.

This all feels very freeing to me. I see what multiculturalists call the tapestry of cultures as something more like a gold mine. There are so many ways of seeing the world and doing life out there and the world has become so much smaller in the last hundred years, that we now have this exciting opportunity to evaluate cultures, process them, harvest what is good, beautiful and helpful, and get rid of what is evil, disgusting and hurtful (female circumcision anyone?). While my ethnocentric friends frustrate themselves trying to defend every piece of America as "vastly superior to anything they have" and my multicultural friends tie themselves in knots trying to explain that it is right and proper for some cultures to treat women like property, I get to step back and condemn what is evil and enjoy what is good.
What do you think? Is my approach worthwhile or am I committing terrible, intolerant act here? I am particularly interested in hearing from any other third-culture people who read this; have you had similar experiences?


  1. The wiener mobile cracked me up!

  2. I love your approach and generally share it, but I think you're making straw men of the multiculturalist and ethnocentricist.

    Also love the wiener mobile.

    What I wonder about is the legitimacy (or even effectiveness) of creating patchwork personal or family traditions based on our favorite bits of different cultures. I really like what I've become, which incorporates bits of Minnesotan, New Jerseyite, American Southerner, Turkish, British, Australian and perhaps a smattering of others. But I also don't have a sense of rootedness in a coherent or real culture and tradition.

    It's similar to issues I face in forming a church culture. We may use the Book of Common Prayer, say, and that may help me feel like I'm part of something, but it will never be the same for me as for my friend who grew up in the Episcopal church.

    Do you think we'll always be interlopers and borrowers in various traditions or cultures? Does it simply take time to fully appropriate them? Can you create (or patch together) a culture of your own from scratch, and can such a thing be satisfying? (And can you add clarity to my seeming inability to figure out whether I'm talking about cultures or traditions?)

  3. I definitely am using abbreviated straw man descriptions of ethnocentric and multicultural Americans. My goal there was basically to give a quick caricature of each approach just to give a quick explanation of what they are and what I object to in each of them. If you (or anyone else) wants to have a conversation about either approach in detail I would be thrilled to try and first, do them justice with adequate definitions, then discuss my detailed reasons for rejecting them.
    As regards you questions about rootedness vs creating a "new" culture out of fragments of existing ones, I don't know that it is possible to have it both ways at this time. You used the analogy of various theological traditions and the way you are able to see beauty in separate liturgies. I think the analogy works fairly well in terms of practice and truth.
    I divide any given culture or religious tradition into three categories: bits that are false/damaging (things like female circumcision or the prosperity gospel), bits that are fine but don't represent an exclusive truth (things like architectural tendencies or musical worship styles), and bits that are true/good/beautiful and particular to certain cultures and traditions (things like Turkish hospitality or the doctrine of the Trinity).
    As I try to build my own "family culture" I find I tend to begin with American and Turkish culture then I try to get rid of first category stuff, incorporate third category stuff and grab what pleases me from my choices of second category stuff. So I don't think we are heading towards some monolithic "peak culture", in a perfect world the multiculturalists and not the ethnocentrists would be correct.
    As far as having roots, I guess I think I do have roots; Mine are American and Turkish and I do see myself as growing out of those two cultures. I suppose there is a bit of a tin man problem with this (how much can you swap out before the thing becomes an essentially different thing?) But I at least see myself as pretty far from the non-identity threshold.