I never thought much about culture growing up. I’m from a small town where ethnic diversity consisted of white people, black people, and one half-Filipino kid that went to school with us. College was an eye-opening experience for me. I went to school in Richmond, VA which, despite its history as the capital of the Confederacy, is a surprisingly diverse place, both ethnically and culturally. In college, I had an opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries. The undergraduate social work curriculum also placed a lot of emphasis on diversity and cultural sensitivity. The class that made the biggest impression on me was one called “Oppressed Groups.” It made me realize that not being discriminated against was something I had taken for granted. For example, I remember being surprised when my Korean-American roommate told me about a sales associate who was rude to her at 7-11. “I think maybe she doesn’t like Asian people,” she said. This was a completely foreign concept to me. I’d never had to wonder if the guy at the store was rude to me because of the way I look. If someone was rude to me I’d always assumed it was because they were just a rude person.
By the time I finished graduate school I had started to lament my lack of culture. I became more interested in my own ethnic origins. I’d always known we were primarily “Spanish,” but I started looking into what exactly that meant. (I’m about 25% Spanish; my maternal grandfather’s father came from a place called Orense in the northwest of Spain. My paternal grandmother’s father came from somewhere close to Madrid, the Spanish capital). I started talking to my family and asking questions about our cultural background. What I learned was disappointing. My maternal great-grandfather came to the country to find work. He changed his last name to sound more American. While he continued to speak Spanish at times he never taught his children the language and never talked much about the home he’d left behind. No one knew much at all about my paternal great-grandfather. He didn’t change his last name but at some point it lost its original pronunciation and transformed into something distinctly American-sounding.
I felt cheated; my ancestors had abandoned their culture and passed nothing on to me! I went on a request to recapture what I’d lost. There was very little actual Spanish culture to be found nearby but I discovered a very rich local Latin American culture (a lot of Latin American people live in the area because there are so many military bases nearby). I spent years trying to immerse myself in Latin culture. I took a few Spanish classes and practiced speaking Spanish whenever I had the opportunity. I became interested in Latin music. I even started dating Latin men. In the end, though, I still felt like I was trying to be a part of someone else’s culture.
One day about a year ago, I was chatting with a coworker who had become sort of a mentor to me. We started talking about culture and I told her how I felt about being “culture-less.” She empathized with me and said she used to feel the same way. Then she took a trip overseas to visit some friends. They began talking about culture and she said to them something similar to what I’d just said to her. Their response was, “Well of course you have a culture. You are DEFINITELY American.” After telling me this story she said, “You’re completely American too, Melody. You just don’t realize how distinct American culture is because you haven’t spent time much time in other countries. Once you do, you’ll realize just how American you are.”
It’s not that I had never realized I am American; it’s just that I’d never thought about “American” as being a culture. I guess I was so identified with my culture that I didn’t recognize it as a lens through which I experience the world. Because I’m American I value independence and believe it is very important that a person be able to take care of him or herself. As an American therapist, when a patient has a dilemma I say to him, “You have to decide what is best for you.” Then I help him to identify his needs and to explore which option is most likely to meet them. Not everyone would agree that “what’s best for you” is a priority. Perhaps in more collectivist cultures the primary concern would be how to best represent the family or how to best serve the community. Individual needs might not even be a factor. I believe that being able to put individual well being first is a privilege, but even that belief is influenced by culture.
There are so many facets of American culture: individualism, a focus on achievement, a belief that anything is possible, extreme impatience. For Americans, what do you think defines our culture? For non-Americans, I’m particularly interested to know how American culture is perceived in other countries around the world. What does American mean to you?