Considering culture

This post came into being as the result of questions asked about impressions of culture on a poetry website, dverse.

Having lived around the world for many years and having lived in and travelled in and been exposed to many cultures I ponder the most important things I have learned.

I enjoy different cultures but find those with a common language often the most challenging because there are so many more expectations and assumptions and ‘divided by a common language’ is very real. When we both speak English we believe we can communicate effectively but that is not necessarily the case because of cultural perceptions, habits, attitudes and manners.

It is also interesting, having lived in a number of English-speaking cultures to see how different cultures which speak the same language can be. As an Australian I have been exposed to New Zealanders, many of them live in Australia, have NZ relatives but have not been there. I have lived in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, both Johannesburg and Cape Town, and spent months at a time, many times, in the United States over the past 20 years because I have family living there.

The closest English-speaking culture to Australia I have found is Scottish although we share a lot with the English and Irish, since these three made up the bulk of our first settlers and still make up a sizeable number of our immigrants. New Zealanders and South Africans come next in terms of cultural understanding and connections, then the Canadians and last the Americans which is the most ‘different’ from Australia of any of the English-speaking cultures. I also find it quite different to Canadians and the British.

Of course there are exceptions and I know a few of them, but this is by its nature, a generalisation of culture or impressions of culture. Are their flavours to a culture? I think so. It does not mean that everyone within the culture is flavoured in the same way or to the same degree but the word culture and society mean, by their nature, that something is shared more often than not.

And these are my impressions and perceptions although, talking to other Australians, more common than not. And talking to other English-speakers, also not uncommon.

To clarify perhaps why I find the US so culturally different to the other English-speaking cultures I know, I would say the following are some of the major ‘differences’ between the US and the rest, where many, sometimes most Americans have, across their enormous diversity the following:

. a high level of religious belief of a fundamental nature. (The US is the most religious nation in the developed world.)

. a fear and often hatred of Government (In other developed English-speaking nations you can find people dislike Government, a few might even hate a particular Government because of its political persuasion but it would be hard to find anyone who feared it)

. a belief that poverty is self-inflicted. (This view was common in general prior to the 18th century but would be rare to find in developed nations today, except in the US.)

. a belief that owning a gun or guns is a requirement for security. (Other than South Africa which is not really a developed nation and which has high levels of violence, this obsession with guns would be, and is, seen as ludicrous. In other words, most cannot understand the American obsession with guns and never will.)

. a belief that social welfare is not only NOT a right in the modern world but is dangerous. (Social Welfare, including universal healthcare and quality universal education,  in other developed nations is seen as a right, is provided in the main, has not proven to be dangerous and has nothing to do with socialism or communism.)

. deep levels of fear and paranoia at general levels about life, society and the outside world in general. (You will find this in some people to a small degree in other English-speaking developed nations but nowhere to the same degree that you do in the US, and only in the US do you have a Prepper Movement, let alone one of such magnitude.)

. a lack of understanding about the rest of the world and other nations, sourced in a lack of curiosity and a general ignorance not found anywhere else in regard to your other nations, Canada being sometimes an exception in the northern US. (Most other English-speaking nations, including South Africa, seem to provide students with more comprehensive studies in regard to the world in general and other nations.)

. very little exposure to the outside world through travel. (With 80% of Americans not possessing a passport and unable to travel due to lack of interest or lack of money because of low salaries, this is exceptional not just in the English-speaking world but in the developed world in general.)

. a belief that the United States is ‘the world’ and despite all the evidence to the contrary, that life for Americans is as good as it gets and therefore the rest of the world is of little interest. (Perhaps it is because other English-speaking nations are less powerful, and in terms of military, actually powerless in the main, including the UK in this day and age, although even there at the height of their power the British were nothing if not curious, that Americans are exceptional in this regard and equate military power with progress. Although the internet is changing this for Americans.)

All of these factors, combined with poor levels of education and probably the worst media in the entire world,  make it harder I think for Americans to understand others and for others to understand Americans.

Having said that, the rest of the English-speaking world has, if they choose,  an opportunity for exposure to and a curiosity about the United States  which can be met through films, books and television and so a visitor to the US is likely to have a greater understanding of American culture than will the Americans they meet, have about their country or culture.

But again, the internet can and does play a part in changing that and perhaps in years to come more Americans will have passports and see more of the world than most now do.

All cultures are in a state of change including my own country. Given the changing demographics in Australia with our diversity of immigration in more recent years, my view is purely my view from my experience, in my lifetime and nothing set in stone. My sense of Australian culture would not be how my parents or grandparents saw it and neither it should be. Cultures change, some faster than others, particularly the historically recent immigrant nations, but all cultures do change.

The only constant in life is change and without it society becomes moribund and stale. Being exposed to different cultures whether through travel, living as an expatriate or immigration is ultimately to the good of all. It is challenging but in positive ways. One can feel insecure or inspired, or often both!

Other cultures do not make me feel insecure but it is certainly challenging when you do not speak the language. I spent quite a few years in Belgium and relied on the linguistic skills of the Belgians in the main but picked up some Flemish and studied French, because I love the language.

I spent more than four years in India but English is spoken widely so beyond picking up a bit of Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi, it was pretty much English.

With more than four years in Angola, I learned Portugese in Portugal but was never proficient. Angola was immersed in a civil war which made it challenging in terms of exploring the culture and we lived amongst a lot of Brazilians which confused it even more.

I have spent months living in Russia, no English there, well, not comparatively, but picked up enough cyrillic to use the ‘tube’; Portugal; London; Switzerland and have also lived in Zambia, where they speak English and Malawi, where, for the same reason of British colonialism they speak English.

Getting around and finding your way without the language is the most difficult part for me. Wanting to communicate with someone you instinctively like when you don’t speak the language is also hard.

What I love about it all, and I have set up home 32 times in 43 years around Australia and the world, is that when you live in a different culture you are presented with stark images of yourself – India was the most challenging – and you learn things about yourself that you would not otherwise learn. Often what you learn is not pretty and represents your ‘shadow’ which has been pushed to the surface by the challenges of an alien culture. Living as an expatriate in the difficult countries and cultures, which challenge you on many levels,  is excellent shadow work.

Experiencing other cultures  is inspiring, stimulating, frustrating, annoying, enraging, delightful, fascinating and more.

The only time I have felt unwelcome in another culture was with a religious culture where those who were ‘other’ were excluded unless they were necessary in a commercial sense. But any religion which sets itself up as being separate from the rest would be this way. I was only exposed to one and having said that, I also had friends, from various countries, from the same religious culture. Otherwise I found people welcoming everywhere.

India was my first exposure to how religious belief can create inhumanity to the other, particularly to those considered inferior because of a lower caste. India was my first exposure to levels of misogyny and hatred of the female which remain still, the worst I have ever encountered. India was my first exposure to the levels of filth with which human beings can and do live.

Africa was a variation on the theme of India. It is generally cleaner, still misogynistic but not so much so because it lacks the Hindu belief in the evil of the feminine, and caste is replaced by a somewhat less rigid tribal system which discriminates all the same. Africa was my first exposure to the part that witchcraft can play in a society and the cruelty and suffering it engenders. Africa was my first exposure to the damage done by evangelical Christians, mainly Americans, bringing their vengeful, smiting, smoting, angry God into a world where it fits perfectly with witchcraft.

The Third world was my first exposure to the damage done by self-serving corruption and societies where there seems little capacity to care about the community or the society as a whole and where me first, family second, community – religious, racial or tribal, third, is the order of the day.

Africa also taught me the destructive nature of Aid and brought the depressing understanding that after 50 years and untold billions of dollars in Aid funds, nothing had been achieved, except a few very rich Africans, and the average person was worse off than they were thirty years ago.

The Third World also taught me how bad life can be without Western values and functioning democracy.

In the Third World it is important, I believe, to remember that a Westerner will always be ‘welcome’ because they are useful – this is my experience anyway of India and Africa. It is not that people are less ‘friendly’ but that their world is different and friendships as we know them in the West are not common. Friendships in both India and Africa are about caste, community, tribe, family, commercial relationships – rarely just because they like you as we would make friends.

In terms of commenting on others, well, if you are in another country, I believe, despite a natural frankness, that one needs to be considered in comments although honest where possible. Some cultures, like Australia, are much more open to honesty and frankness and so you are unlikely to offend an Australian in the way that you could offend someone else. This is something I also learned that cultural perceptions even with a shared language, or perhaps because of a shared language, are a major factor in relationship.

I think I would say that what the past 35 years of living and travelling around the world have taught me, and I know this is politically incorrect, but here it is – some cultures are superior to others and Western democratic  culture, for all of its faults, offers the most amount of people the most amount of freedom, justice and quality of life in the history of the world.

Like it or not, Third World cultures are where Western culture was hundreds of years ago and the modern, developed world, while far from perfect and in need of improvement, is still better than any Third World culture. Particularly if you are female, poor, black, a minority religion, mentally or physically disabled or homosexual or lesbian or transvestite or any permutation on the theme of human.

So, while there are wonderful things to experience and explore in the less developed world and while the developed world has, in its growth, lost too many things of value, I still believe that the modern, democratic, developed world is where humanity is meant to be heading.

As someone who has lived for so long in Africa and India I find the ‘politically correct’ tendency to condemn the Western world and seek to make noble the less developed world or less developed societies, to be dangerous.

The other thing one learns living in so many different cultures is that the veneer of civilization is thin. By all means condemn and criticise where needed, what is wrong in Western societies but do not make the mistake of thinking that non-Western societies are better.

Democracy remains the best political system we have ever had. Flawed yes, but until something better comes along it is the best any of us can have and using our vote – not an issue in Australia as voting is compulsory – is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves, our children, our nation and our world.

If you don’t believe me, spend some time in non-democratic countries or totally corrupt, semi-democratic countries, caste, clan and tribal ridden like most of Africa and India, or even totalitarian or tyrannical regimes and see if you change your mind.

Decades of exposure to many different cultures has made me appreciate and honour the diversity, courage, nobility of spirit and creativity of humanity in general but it has also made me value and appreciate the advances made which the Western world now appreciates and for which the less-developed world still strives.

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About rosross

Editor, writer, poet.
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