He who knows others is learned;
He who knows himself is wise.
- Loa-tzu, Tao te Ching
If I write this, I’ll be able to write anything after it. In defense of American culture.
Last Thanksgiving, I spoke to my cousin who is half Filipino about his mission, which he had just returned from. I told him about Field Studies, and I told him that he should consider doing one—maybe Tonga? Maybe Fiji? “What about South America?” he asked. I said, “There, too.” We talked a little longer, and I told him why I liked the idea of Field Studies—it was the chance to be immersed in a culture different from your own and I mentioned that doing that sometimes helped us realize there were things about other cultures we might like better than our own—that might be better than our own. To which he smiled and replied, “Yeah, everything.”
I’m not in the habit of letting people get away with telling me my culture is no good, so I said, “Well, I’m an American Studies major, so I don’t quite believe that.” And what I meant was that my whole life I’ve been studying American culture. And I’ve loved every minute of it. Studying a culture doesn’t inherently mean that you think it’s better. And true to that statement, I don’t believe American culture is better than other cultures, but I do think it’s fascinating, and I also think we don’t give it enough credit for being just as interesting and complex as any other. I am past grateful that there was something I’ve enjoyed doing all these years that they had a major for. How lucky is that? And all my life people have been telling me that my love for American history and American literature and American government and American leadership and American “proverbs,” American values, American music, American geography, American economics, American—you get the idea—is boring. But it’s not boring at all! And I’ve learned that best through my study of other cultures.
I don’t know if I believe in the melting pot theory, but I know that without the search for a passage to the Indies, America wouldn’t be the same. Without the turmoil of the Tudor household, America might not be the same. Without the French Enlightenment philosophers, America would not be the same. Without wars and slavery in Africa and the people who brought slavery to the Americas, America would not be the same. Without trouble in the Balkans, America would not be the same. Without a shattered Germany, America would not be the same. Without Coca-Cola, America would not be the same. Without communism in the Far East, America would not be the same. Etc. etc. This might be sounding a bit vague, or perhaps you’ve begun to cringe, so I’ll stop there. The point is, I’m not saying that these things made America better, or that America was right about its stance concerning some of these issues, but that America does not stand alone or apart from other world cultures. We are the Irish, and the Mexicans, and the Italians and the Chinese, and the Armenians, and the English, and the Nigerians, and the El Salvadorians, and the Tongans and the Turks, and the Ghanaians, and the Chileans, and the Vietnamese, and the Russians. All of that is here in our history, and in our culture and who we are is very dependent on who we’ve been.
I love American culture, not because I think it’s better, not because I think it’s exceptional in comparison to another culture, but just the opposite—because I think American people and American history and WORLD history says a heck of a lot about who Americans are and what we value. We are not the tabula rasa. We are not the blank slate on which others take away or add values, insert traditions, alter and shift customs or speak alternate languages and thereby make a culture different from ours. Aha! Samoans! Thinking that way is like thinking that Western Americans are the ones without an accent when in fact we did not come first, and so ours is not the absence of accent, but just a different accent. Furthermore, a Chinese housekeeper might tell us we have the most interesting accent on the planet. We are a culture all our own. We are a culture which has taken some languages, added some customs, adopted some traditions, retained some values and in doing so have created this bizarre culture that most don’t even try to figure out. But for a long time, trying to piece together what makes us who we are is all that has interested me and I’m not about to throw that away because someone else has decided quite erroneously that we are a blank, and therefore boring, slate.