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Month one: What IS American culture?

Now that I can blog again, there’s a few things I’ve been dying to write about. The first being — what IS American culture? I’m stumped.

South Africa is a very cultural nation — there are 11 official languages, all which stem from a different African or European geographic area. Black South Africans, depending on their home tribe, differ in language, clothes, but share many similarities when it comes to cultural traditions. For example, if a man wants to marry a woman, men must pay “labola”, which means the bride’s parents set a number of cows the man must give the family before marrying their daughter (nowadays families can discuss money instead of cows). Now that I’ve been living with an isiNdebele host family for a month, I’m able to see cultural norms practiced — even right now my host sister’s boyfriend and father of her child has to be in a separate room from Gogo (Grandma) and is not supposed to talk with her as a sign of respect and to show that he’s serious about my host sister.

When I’m put on the spot to talk about American culture in my host community, I’m at a serious loss for words. I find myself stumbling on my words and muttering to myself, “no, that’s not right” or “ugh, I really don’t know.” I question in my head — what IS American culture? Who are we? What are our traditions?

I went to an initiation event for 16-year-old girls of the isiNdebele culture a couple of weeks ago. The young women wear a huge beaded necklace, beaded glass tubes/cuffs all the way to their thighs (that are extremely heavy — I picked up one of my Gogo’s!) The girls dance to a traditional song topless and once they are all done they receive a full-size comforter and bedroom supplies that symbolizes their growth into becoming a woman. The family prepares enough food for the community and slaughters a cow (and might I add that freshly slaughtered and cooked beef is the best beef I’ve ever had — no sarcasm intended).

My host sister asked me if Americans do anything similar. The first response that popped into my head was, “well, some women have Quinceaneras when they turn 15.” But then I quickly confused her by saying, “Well, that’s not my culture. It’s Latino culture. I grew up around many Latinos — people who speak Spanish and came to America from Central and South America.”

Maybe my specific upbringing doesn’t have similar events, but I’m so culturally aware of those that live in California that by living there for 22 years of my life, those other cultures have become a part of me. I’ve taken a part of some cultural exchange during my lifetime — whether it was escorting my friend as a Queen in the Portuguese Holy Ghost Festival (Chamarita), making enchiladas for Christmas, eating traditional food in Los Angeles or San Francisco, interacting with those of a different ethnicity and race by working and living in Los Angeles, or even interviewing someone from a different culture during my student journalist days.

A while back, my host grandmother’s sister asked me where different types of people live in America, but only asked about people of European decent. “Where do the Germans, the Scottish, the British and the Irish live?” she wondered.

I was taken aback because to me America is SO diverse, but in the eyes of someone from another country, we’re all white Europeans. I acknowledge the confusion because let’s face it — people internationally think Americans are white because it’s mostly what they see in the media and our politics.

I tried to explain that there aren’t really places for all those people (but also discussed that some cities attract ethnic groups. For example, Boston has many Irish, San Francisco has many Chinese, and so on). I told her that America is such a melting pot of immigrants that many of us, like me, are mixed with so many origins of European decent. I, for one, know my father’s family is from Hungary, my mother’s family has some Native American origins and my middle name, Jeffredo, has a French origin. However, that doesn’t tell me much of exactly what I’m made up of. All I know is I believe I’m more Hungarian than other ethnicities, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Really, I’m just an American who — like many Americans — doesn’t really know who she is.

What this experience has given me so far is realizing that Americans might not know who we really are. With little knowledge of our ancestry, we can chose how to identify. I can identify as Hungarian or Native American, or both, upon my choosing.

Now that I have to share American culture and identity, I have no idea how to summarize this complex concept of who we are and where we come from. I want to disprove the notion that we’re all white Europeans.

The first way of attacking this subject for me is to define American culture and identity geographically and through family structure. American culture isn’t universal across the country — I do not share the same beliefs, values and experiences of every American. However, those of geographic regions generally have similar beliefs and values like: Religion, family structure, holiday traditions, jobs, history, sports, political beliefs, lifestyle, urban, rural, suburbia, etc.)

So, I’m an American, but more specifically, I’m a Californian and a Warden.

I’m a Californian because:
1) I have a liberal mindset because I grew up in a diverse area and a liberal geographic area.
2) I have an urge to learn about other people, which most people who were raised outside of major cities I would argue do too.
3) I try to dress as fashionable as possible (well maybe not so much here…) because everyone did in Los Angeles.
4) If I marry, I won’t until I have an independent life set out for myself. Many women are like this in areas of America, but some do marry young. Where I’m from, few do.
5) I cook enchiladas on Christmas and live off of Mexican food because I grew up in a Latino-Caucasian area.

I’m Liz Warden because:
1) I fight for what I believe in, which is what I was taught to do growing up.
2) I can’t cook (and apparently will never find a husband here in South Africa because I can’t) because my father cooked when I was growing up; it wasn’t taught to me as a “woman’s job”.
3) I have a dry sense of humor because that’s how I was raised by my parents.
4) I care about helping others because that’s what my parents taught me.

Hand-in-hand, it looks like an individual American’s identity and culture is different for everyone depending on where they live geographically and what their family structure is like (although I do wish I could think of more examples!)

But still, this doesn’t really answer my question of what IS American culture? How can I define it simply? What traditions, values and beliefs do we all share? Democracy? Freedom? Equal rights? (I beg to differ, however). Those are way too broad of answers though. Or do we not have a distinct culture and only have distinct identities based on where we’re from and how we were raised? Am I searching for an answer that doesn’t exist?

When I have to teach American culture to my students, I have a few ideas: Freedom of the press, ideas and opinions, Hollywood, Disney (and of course Disneyland!), Fourth of July, Baseball, New Years Eve and how we celebrate many cultural holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. Anyone have any other ideas? I’d love to know!

My job here is to serve as a public diplomat and exchange American cultural values with South Africans and share South African cultural values with those back home. I’m failing a little bit, considering this is all still just a ramble speculating who we are and why we are the way we are. People in South Africa are so culturally aware of who they are that this is the first time I’ve ever sat down and pondered about our culture and how we identify.

As time goes on, I hope to self-answer this search for what it means to be an American. Any help from the audience would be appreciated.

Yours confused,

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