whizzing past the window of cultural insight

19 December 2011 § 2 Comments

Being a traveler guarantees a certain distance from the inner workings of the cultures one is out to experience. Unless one spends a good deal of time living amongst the locals, learning the language and paying due attention to customs and the subtleties of people in a specific place, they likely will not find the cultural intimacy we tend to romantically, idealistically claim we want to experience while spending three or four days in a city of millions, exhausting museum tickets agents while they are at work as opposed to spending the evening in their home, two blocks away, building the bricks of culture we think we will find in the corridors of ancient buildings and in the art of long-dead painters.

If we see the local reality for one moment in the time that we pass through a country, we are as lucky as he who drinks blood in Kenya as if it were the fruit of the earth, or who beds down on the couch of a kind stranger and his family in rural Ireland.

But we must remember these as gestures, and therefore as the result of culture as well as contributing to it. For culture is not merely what a group of people make of themselves, but also what others make of them. The differences which separate these groups, the space in which we communicate and stumble between the seams of our respective worlds, hoping that the correct answer will appear as suddenly as we found ourselves wanting a better grasp on what our counterparts are thinking, and when it doesn’t, learning from the confusion and asking what tradition is when it comes to informal futbol games, for example, on basketball courts on lazy sunday afternoons. They’ll tell you, just like you would tell them if they looked as bewildered as you.

A small part of me wants to detach from what I know here, and become a cityhopper again, the one who learned little but the names of the streets he was crossing, or the birth year of an old poet. There is an ethnocentric safety in that distance, like looking into a telescope and seeing a red dot, and being told that what I see is in fact the planet Mars, the closest it will be to Earth in so many years, or ever has been, and then stepping down from the telescope seat and going out with your friends for pizza.

Sometimes I really miss that pizza. But my curiosity endures it; I want to make sure that what I am seeing is Mars, and then go there, and breathe the air and shop in the markets and learn how to ask not just where is the bathroom, but also may I join you for a drink also, and finally discover the secret behind your accent, or find out what filmed formed you, if that’s how it goes here. Or was is a farm, or a ghetto, or a pompous beach town on the Pacific coast?

Right now, my tico brother Jorge is standing out on the second-story balcony and watching the sunset. He had to check with me about that word. The new Blink 182 album is blasting, from his bedroom where I type, out the always-open door and into the gasolinescented city, which is surrounded by small mountains just daunting enough to cool the air off as it makes its way from the seas. He does this every day, as soon as he gets home. I’ve lived with him for three months and have never known this.

We’re always learning new things.

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§ 2 Responses to whizzing past the window of cultural insight

  • Jeff Sutherland says:

    I absolutely adore your way with words. I can’t believe you won’t be back for a while, yet. I sincerely mean it when I say that I look forward to our next encounter. Whether it be a lunch somewhere, or another all-out roadtrip, I just can’t wait.

  • Marilyn says:

    Excellent post. This resonated with me deeply as someone who has lived between worlds for as long as I can remember. Your phrase “For culture is not merely what a group of people make of themselves, but also what others make of them.” is something I need to think on. But my favorite part was your analogy to looking through the telescope of detachment instead of moving in and embracing, no matter what the differences and mistakes and lack of safety we experience in the process. Thank you for this post.

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