Products of our "Culture"

Some thoughts from today:

1) You can learn a lot from your relationships with people.

We often hear things like, “You can’t be in a relationship with another unless you can first be in a relationship with yourself,” and “You need to learn to be single (and okay with it) before you can be a good partner for someone else”… While those may be really good things to do–to learn how to fulfill your own needs, to know that you don’t need to be in a relationship with a significant other to be happy, to spend time getting to know yourself, your needs, your wants–I have learned that there are also some things that you can only learn from being with others. Maybe “others” in general, but I am particularly thinking about being in a romantic, emotional, personal, deep relationship with someone who knows you intimately, perhaps better than you know yourself.

Over the past year, I really have learned a great deal about myself, but the majority of my learning was about things that I could not have shown to myself, no matter how hard I may have tried. Perhaps there were things that I knew I wanted to work on, in theory, but I couldn’t have put them into practice alone. Despite however self-aware I was and am, there are some challenges that I could not present for myself. Like what it means to really trust someone. To really respect someone enough to really, genuinely listen to them. To acknowledge when I don’t know something, and not just because I haven’t ever thought about it before, but because I truly do not know. And perhaps I couldn’t because our experiences are so different.

And I learned that there are possible ways to address these differences that don’t include reaching an agreement, determining which way is best, or forcing an opinion for the sake of taking a stand. I learned what it means to accept another person. To step up to seriously uncomfortable, counter-intuitive situations without saying anything or doing what has over my lifetime become a habit, a “knowledge” in my body that moves me. To accept that there are lots of things that are different from how I might handle things, how I might engage with others, how I might hold myself and act in the world, and that this is okay.

2) Cultural Differences are REAL

Much of my learning has arisen out my bi-cultural relationship. Over the past year, I have come to a deeper appreciation of just how “Western” I am and how very different an Asian culture in, let’s say, Taiwan directs people’s lives. Maybe you could get this “cultural sensitivity” from traveling or spending lengths of time abroad, but let me tell you, a way to feel like you’ve hit a brick wall with your face is to confront these differences in a relationship with a significant other. The most well-intentioned things, which always come from a place of love, can come off as very rude, insensitive, inappropriate, or extremely frustrating. One can come off as too dumb, too strong, too arrogant, too timid, too shy, too polite, too week, too impatient, or too patient….almost too anything. And that is very hard to deal with if you haven’t been able to actually realize exactly what it is that you do that comes off that way.

I don’t want to use “cultural differences” as a cop-out, but it is often a very frequent source of our misunderstandings, which can often lead to conflict. And what I have realized is that some of my most personal values and convictions are not really my own simply because I am a strong, reflective, confident woman. Much of what I do comes from my culture. Even though I read and talk a lot about social constructivism and cultures influence on our subjectivity, quite often all of this remains pretty abstract. Importantly, then, I think I have started to realize that I didn’t/don’t really know what is meant by “American culture.”

If asked to provide a cursory list, I probably would have identified western, American culture with mostly very bad views that have supported very bad things in history. Slavery, colonialism, racism, exploitation, elitism, mass consumerism and so many other evils were products of an emphasis on strict liberal individualism, capitalism, “picking oneself up by one’s boot-straps” without acknowledging who made your boots, assumed “rights” to the pursuit of one’s happiness (even at the cost of other beings and the environment), etc. But that’s because I’m sooooooooooo radical.

What I didn’t fully appreciate about myself is that the way I communicate, which I often think reflects my personal emphasis on authenticity, my genuine desire to be always honest with others, my commitment to personal integrity and continued development, and my deep hope for real, meaningful human connection with others are also “cultural” things. Maybe not all Americans talk the way I talk, are not as blunt, direct, and transparent as me, and maybe not all Americans value these things so much that they live each day by always striving to approach their students and friends and family members with the same level of respect and honesty (by presenting my most authentic self). But all of this assumes to reflect a certain kind of “respect,” a particular sort of “honesty,” and is rooted in a non-universalizable conception of “self.”

Oh, I could go on and on about the many bumps and hiccups that I have encountered this year and the many hours of tangled conversation I have participated in to try to find a common ground or mutual understanding or satisfactory approach about what to do next, and I could list out the things that I find irritating, irrational, unhealthy, counter-productive about “other ways to do things”…but I won’t.

Because what I have tried to do is think about my situation and these issues more gracefully.

In philosophy, and especially feminist philosophy or social philosophy or any liberatory philosophy that takes social equality and justice as an end, this problem is captured by a question that often comes up, “How are we to work together to reach a satisfactory state of affairs if we are trying to addressing the varied, multiple, and diverse needs of very different kinds of people if their/our experiences are so disparate that we can’t understand one another or our respective situations?” One response, which is my favorite so far, has been offered most eloquently by one of my favorite philosophers, Ladelle McWhorter. She explains that “if we discipline ourselves to the pleasures and powers of connections that occur alongside of but differ from the pleasures of knowledgeableness, of identities and stalwart commitments, if we stray far enough afield of our carefully classified selves, something unforeseeable, something new—something that might be called free—may very well occur” (“The Revenge of the Gay Nihilist”, 2001, 125).

3) By not knowing everything, I learn a lot.

I have realized that my only recourse (thus far..) is to create a space for our differences without trying to mitigate them. And in doing so, I actually give myself more space to also grow beyond what I have been constituted as by my culture.

Instead of apple pie, our patriotic favorite, I think American’s need to eat more Humble Pie. And put ourselves in situations where we can better learn WHY.

P.S. Thanks go out to Del for being my go-to rock star, favorite contemporary philosopher. Thanks, too, to my friends for their conversations today. And many thanks to my girlfriend. None of the seemingly mundane things in life would be as painfully complicated and frustrating, I mean, would be nearly as growthful of learning opportunities without your sagely wisdom. And patience… 😉

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