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Wearing Cultures on the Sleeve

Mar 11, 2008
Everyone is part of a complex culture whether we understand this fact or not. Quite often, as Americans, we have the tendency to believe that culture is a term that applies only to those who are different from us, either by ethnicity or race. In fact, we tend to apply these terms to others who are non-white and forget that all of us have a culture whether it be, Irish, German, Italian or Japanese.

Our ethnicity comes from those who came before us and is the legacy we are left with. How are we recognized as Americans when we cross the ocean to visit another country? Perhaps, this is a lesson we can learn: that others see us as different, as having our own culture. We may not have thought this way before. For some it is an enlightening experience, while others, unfortunately, think something is wrong with the host country.

As a case in point, Asian Americans can quickly be recognized as non-native by native Asians recognized when traveling abroad in that continent. You may wonder how that is, it could be nothing more telling than the volume with which we speak on the bus, a trait foreigners easily see as American. As another example of this same trait, I myself was traveling through Britain last summer when my entire family was collectively hushed by an old lady on the tube! Whether we see it or not, all Americans of every color and ethnic background do have some commonalities when it comes to our culture; whether a happy smile, the volume of speech.

Attributes that scholars characterize Americans with include our unabashed display of emotion, our value of doing, as in hard work, our focus on the now and the future rather than on the past, are all cultural distinctions of Americans. Who could forget that the value we place on independence is what started our nation.

While most non-Americans easily see these traits in us, for us it is another story. Americans may be quite surprised when we first realize that not everyone does things the same way we do. The fact that we even think this way is another sign American cultural trait. Next time you travel, you might be tempted to wonder exactly why someone does not return your smile or a reaction is unexpected. Remember, that it just may be that they wear their culture on their sleeve, just as we do. So rather than wonder how come they are strange, think how you might also be strange to them.
About the Author
Ian Spellfield explores the most frequently used African American names through the lens of history in his blog, Black Ghetto Baby Names.
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