Are you cultured? What is culture anyway? Unless you’re a container of yogurt or a glass of buttermilk, your cultural identity may not be as firm as you’d like to think it is. As with many words in the English language, “culture” is amorphous.
I’m probably not very cultured, as I do not really enjoy art galleries and museums unless, of course, they deal with archaeological artefacts. I spent two days visiting the Museum of Archaeology when I was in Mexico City, on my way to work on a Mayan site in Belize. There was a specific purpose to my visit. But just to visit any old museum, or stand gazing at paintings in an art gallery doesn’t interest me as much. I don’t like ballet either. I must be one of the few attendees, aside from several students I took with me some years ago in Sacramento, to find “The Nutcracker” rather boring. I do like Mozart, so I am probably not a completely lost cause.
But that may be because of my early cultural identity. I’m German and of course all Germans like classical music – at least that written by Germans or Austrians. (A Russian wrote “The Nutcracker”). So that would make me a cultural anachronism. I’m not proud of being German – the sins of the fathers and all that. There’s more to it, though. The German work ethic, which I’ve fought against all my life, has been prevalent in our family and is still not eradicated. It’s in the culture of Germans to not only work hard, but to obey the rules, not argue with authority and feel a natural superiority over all other ethnicities – i.e. cultures. This didn’t work so well for Hitler and unfortunately many Germans haven’t picked up on the lesson yet.
As a teacher in a middle school, I was required to promote a “safe school culture”. Teach the adolescents to talk over problems with words, not fists. Sometimes these lessons were effective. Sometimes they weren’t. School rules were expected to supersede the variety of ethnic norms with which the kids arrived in our classrooms. “No, Mario, you can’t be Mr. Macho in my class.” Again, we could have learned from history, but chose to ignore the lesson that cultural suppression will never succeed over the long run. The culture that is put down or denied will, eventually, re-emerge stronger than ever before. I believe Canada is on the road – granted, a very long road – to being truly “multicultural”. Yet there are still people who speak longingly of the “good old days”, when the only culture that counted was the European.
Everyone is cultured, but as George Orwell might have said, some are more cultured than others. When I was a child, I realized I was not as “cultured” as some of my schoolmates. I lived in a poorer neighbourhood, spoke “common” English and didn’t know which fork to start with at a formal dinner. When Princess Margaret visited Vancouver in 1958, my friends and I were pushed aside when the Princess’ convertible toured Queen Elizabeth Park. We’d been rolling down the hill and were grass-stained. Only the little girls wearing pastel dresses and white gloves were allowed to present Her Royal Highness with bouquets of flowers.
Culture is not static. As we grow older, we may become part of other cultures. We may marry into a different ethnic group and thus undergo a “cultural transformation”. A melding of the best of both worlds creates a new “culture”. Children learn from each other in school and especially on the playground. Although those who are enmeshed in tradition and fearful of change may not want to acknowledge this evolution, we can’t stop it. Today’s “culture” is not what it was 50 years ago. Princess Margaret would probably accept flowers from a grubby child today, and no one would make a big fuss if I picked up the wrong fork.
Cultures are varied and changing – this makes the world an exciting place. And my yogurt and buttermilk taste better than they did 50 years ago, too.