The cult of culture

CULTURE!  Mmmph!  What is it good for?  Absolutely nothing!

Subtitle:  A very long meandering rant.  Get out now while you still can.

What is culture?

Culture of a way of life. Culture is about connection. Culture is “living, breathing human beings” (more on that later).  Culture is the air we breathe. It surrounds us; it is everywhere.  Culture binds us to others.

First and foremost, culture is a lived experience.

This is what culture means to me.

Often I find that my thoughts solidify when they clash with other viewpoints. Recently I have been thinking about culture a great deal because of my exposure (heh) to white adoptive parents. As a result, I’ve been thinking about how I define culture by what it is as well as what it is not.

I often find other people’s conceptions of culture lacking.  Culture is not merely owned by brown people.  We are not the only ethnic people.  Our ethnicity, our heritage and our culture are not add-ons.

Culture is not a knickknack you pick up on vacation. Culture is not the display of an object or a people. Culture is not inherently contained in things. Culture is not a toe-dip and a quick retreat.  Culture is not looking at people. Culture is not an optional yearly visit or an afterthought.

The proper descriptive term for these would be cultural tourism.   Not culture.

It appears that many adoptive parents now endorse the idea that an adopted child should be exposed to his or her culture. But what does this mean in practice?

Sometimes it means culture camp, often run by adoptive parents.  Or a Chinese New Year party thrown by the local Families with Children from China.  Brown dolls.  Fortune-cookie Christmas tree ornaments.  And don’t forget the crap hawked by adoptive parents.

But even taking the Culture Tour Bus one stop further isn’t enough.  Learning how to cook “ethnic foods” is not necessarily culture.  Taking your kids to language school is not necessarily culture.  Enrolling your kid in tae kwon do classes is not necessarily culture.

Because culture can’t be removed from its people.

I work at a cultural center where language, dance, art, martial arts and music classes are taught.  There are a number of white adoptive parents who bring their children.  Some try to learn the language themselves.  And I try to remind myself that they are trying.  But it is so hard sometimes.

Because learning language or traditional arts is not what culture is about. It is one thing to learn about a culture.  It is another to share that culture.  To be inside the culture.   When the hard reality is that you may never truly be an insider.

It’s about learning cultural competence.  And here I am talking about the adults, who need to be examples for their children.  Because if I could make adoptive parents learn just one thing, it would be that not everybody does things the way you think they should be done.  Not everybody experiences life the way you do.   And so I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t take twenty minutes of a teacher’s time to complain about how the work is too hard and there is too much homework and your child hates coming.

And while I’m at it, maybe you could actually speak with some of those people.  Like “Hello.”  Or “Hi, my name is …”  And it would help if you did this in a normal tone of voice.  You know.  BECAUSE.  I.  SPEAK.  ENGLISH.  No, really.

If for some reason you don’t understand what was said, maybe you could sit quietly and try to figure it out.  Because other people seemed to understand just fine.  Instead of yelling, “WHAT?  WHAT did you say?  I can’t understand you at all!”  Then, when you receive an explanation, saying, “OH, you MEANT to say THIS.  But you said THEES.  It’s THIS.”

Please also stop talking about how the language makes no sense and why is it done that way and it’s just impossible to learn.  Obviously millions of people have learned it.  Maybe you’re just slow.

(Hey, adoptive parents often complain I don’t give them concrete suggestions for what to do.  So now I have.  Let’s see you work them.  Thanks.)

The really creepy and sad thing is that kids with same-race parents learn pretty quickly that it’s okay (maybe even encouraged) to make fun of non-native English speakers.  They learn to join in.  Because they recognize that white people have privilege even when they are not in a numerical majority. And what the adopted kids are learning?  Sometimes I think they would be better off not coming.  Because I can’t imagine all the internalized crap.

Sadly, even as a numerical minority in our language school, white people are accorded privilege.  And they use this privilege to shame and embarrass non-native English speakers.  They remove any hope of sanctuary.  And while they usually don’t last too long, there’s always a new crop.

I have not yet known one adoptive kid to stick in the language school through completion.  I’ve heard a number of reasons for quitting:  Too many other activities.  Kid didn’t like it.  Nobody else the kid knows had to do it.  (Which implies that all those kids at the school are nobody.)  The parents are going to wait until the kid wants to learn.

I went to language school for a number of years.  And I guess I would say I hated it.  But my parents didn’t care that I hated it.  It wasn’t up for debate.  But even if I never went, I could not escape my heritage or my culture.   My culture was lived.  It was not swallowed like a bad-tasting medicine on Saturdays.  Those same people were always around.  They were everywhere!  In my house even!

But culture is often seen as an optional add-on for the adopted kid.  Witness adoptive parent Scott Simon, an NPR reporter (and author of an adoption memoir with a cringe-worthy title), talking about Chinese school for his two daughters:

Well, you know, this is a  .. it’s been on hiatus this summer and we’ll reassess it.  You know, we want our little girls to grow up with some consciousness obviously of their Chinese heritage and we want to make this available to them.  Now I think they will go through different periods of their lives when at some point their Chinese ancestry and heritage is going to be very important to them.  At other points, and I think we’re at that point right now, it’s not particularly important to them.  We don’t want to get hung up about it one way or another, we want to make it available to them.  You know, you have to confront the fact that your children, the children you’ve adopted, are not just cultural vessels.  They’re living, breathing human beings who at some point will sort all of this out for themselves, and not all at once.  They’re going to grow up and make the decisions that they want to.

We listen so you don’t have to.™   Good to know that his children are human beings, by the way.

He repeats the idea of making culture “available” to them but how they will “make their own decisions about this” several times:

Our daughters know they’re Chinese, and you know we want to make that available to them.

Because I think that in the end  … The whole idea of getting your identity mixed up or dictated by your ethnicity seems to me not an attractive thing and I  have  covered too many ethnic conflicts in too many parts of the world to think that deriving your identity from your ethnicity is a healthy or moral thing.

(I listened to this part three times because I thought he couldn’t possibly be saying “moral.”  But it sure sounds like it.  It’s at the very end of the clip, in case you want to check it out for yourself.)

Although he talks about his children making their own choices, it sounds like he’s already made his mind up about what those choices ought to be.  Simon is not alone in suggesting there is a right sort of identity for the adopted child.

I try to understand the fear that must underlie these beliefs.  Sometimes I think adoptive parents try especially hard to mold their children as an act of claiming.  They talk about how they don’t see any differences.

But what if their children do?

What if they choose an identity that is not neutral whiteness, but is built around ethnicity and race?  (Note that this is not a serious question, since I don’t know what the f*ck that would mean anyway.)  Will it make them all mixed up?  Or just not “attractive” to their parents?

I wonder sometimes what it must feel like to feel different from your children.  I speak a language my mother does not.  My mother did not know this.  Until one day when we were traveling together and I helped a couple of tourists from another country.  The whole time I was talking with them, my mother was watching me with an expression I could not read on her face.  Later she said quietly, “I was listening to you and wondering ‘who is this person?'”

But now my mother has integrated this knowledge into her conception of who I am.  At a recent social gathering where a number of the attendees didn’t speak English, my mother drags me around, bragging that I can interpret.  (And makes me do so from one non-fluent language to another!  My head hurt for hours.)

When adoptive parents talk about not seeing “differences,” it is the willful non-seeing that is the marker of privilege.   And the definition of  “culture”  as cultural tourism is another component of privilege.  It is  combined with a willful ignorance of race and ethnicity . As if culture somehow exists in a vacuum.  The vacuum that is invisible whiteness.

6 thoughts on “The cult of culture

  1. White adoptive parent of two Ethiopian kids. We’re a military family, and where we are stationed, we have little access to their first culture. I’m doing the best I can, and regret what I didn’t know when we adopted three years ago, about learning Amharic, about everything.

    Taking all this in, trying to figure out what I can do better now. Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. I am a white adoptive parent to a Chinese daughter. Thank you for posting this (and similar posts). They’re great at provoking me to think critically about the choices I’m making for my daughter, and the frame of mind in which I’m making them.

  3. I tried to leave a comment yesterday didn’t go through.

    I think your saying that, just like language acquisition, culture can’t be learned without immersion, that is a fantastic summary of the whole question.

    The author of the dumbass book saying in your quotations:
    “I have covered too many ethnic conflicts in too many parts of the world to think that deriving your identity from your ethnicity is a healthy or moral thing.”

    now that is cringeworthy barf material.

  4. Is identity how one is like the people around them, or how we are different?

    My father doesn’t recognize me at all other than our physical similarities. I am not sure how he feels about that, but I am happy to not be him.

  5. Pingback: links for 2010-10-22 | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  6. Interesting post. I heard adult adoptee Jaiya John speak once about how every adoptee loses a culture, even domestic adoptees, because every family/household has its own culture in a sense. As a child of divorced parents who grew up shifting between my grandparents home in the West to my father’s home in the East, that point resonated. I was never at ease in one of those “cultures” and never internalized it. Now I have three internationally adopted children. I don’t expect them or particularly want them to “be like me.” I’m trying to keep them connected with their birth cultures, and I agree with you that it has to be a sustained commitment, not a once-a-year culture camp kind of thing, and you’re right, even the best effort by adoptive parents isn’t the same as living and breathing inside your culture day in and day out. I do think we can create a culture within our family that values all of our personal histories and cultural roots, and supports each member as they venture out into the world to pursue their own interests, dreams etc.

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