Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interlude: The Comfort of Culture

This was written for a Multicultural Education class after being asked to define who I am as a cultural being:

Walking into the convention hall in New Orleans created a wave of emotion that produced both an excitement in my stomach and a calming sedation to my nerves. The signs for each of the fifty states were scattered amongst more than 9,000 chairs. Beach balls and balloons flew above the crowd of energetic teachers, some dancing to the blaring music. At the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly, things were not always this engaging, but throughout, I continued to feel the purposeful conclusion that this place was exactly where I was meant to be.

My best friend took me to a party in Cleveland with her fellow art students and her fiancĂ©. The house was beautifully decorated with what I am sure were meaningful pieces, which were the subject of many conversations. I paced through the crowd and worked my way into several discussions. Leah and I had been best friends at Oberlin, but I did not know anyone in her new art therapy community. As they spoke of school, Cleveland, art and politics, I felt out of place. When questioned, my answers were as short and vague as possible. I could not stand the reaction on their faces when I told them I was from Kansas. I went to the bathroom and cried before stepping out into the cool night, where a shirtless man grilled hotdogs with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other. He was humming a country song and greeted me with kind eyes. “From Kansas, then?” He confirmed with a smile. “I did some work near Wichita. I’m from Nebraska myself.” I spent the rest of the evening outside talking about farms and turnpikes.

In elementary school, everyone brought religion with them to the classroom. The teachers spoke of God often and church was discussed as if we all attended together. I was an extrovert raised in a liberal, protestant family. Occasionally I said, “Oh my God,” and got severely punished. Once I said, “Jesus Christ,” and was not allowed to attend music class for a week. We held fake presidential elections and out of 400 students, mine was the only vote for President Bill Clinton. I did not realize this until later, but I was living in the same city as The Assemblies of God and Ku Klux Klan headquarters. Looking back on those experiences, I now realize that the public school was really only public for one religion and one race.

My grandma spent several months out of the year in Japan with her family. She lived in central Kansas since the end of the Korean War, but fell back into her heritage when on the phone with her sisters or back in Japan. In Kansas, she made fried chicken. In Japan, she made sushi. When I was 16, I had the privilege of accompanying her with my parents and brother to the country that holds the majority of my extended family. She was a different grandma during that visit. She cried, laughed and scaled a fish like a cat. She spoke about her diseased brother and father, who both died in World War II. I had sung my whole life, but it was not until Japan that I found out that her mother was also a singer. It ended up being her last visit to Japan before her death. I cried upon departure more than I had ever cried when we moved every few years in my childhood. Still today, I have dreams of getting on a plane and just going to be with my family. I have never felt so safe and secure as I did with them, and we did not even speak the same language.

I illustrate these four experiences as examples of my cultural encounters. There are more experiences on which to elaborate, such as arriving at Oberlin and living amongst fellow liberals for the first time, or writing a pro-LGBT rights column in my high school newspaper that subsequently got me in quite a bit of trouble. I am not sure which of these experiences defines my culture the most—the positive places where I felt comfortable, like I was part of a community; or the times when I was so aware that I was different. To truly understand my culture, I have to think about both sides of the spectrum. When I was comfortable at the NEA Representative Assembly, I was part of a culture of teachers. In Cleveland, I embraced my Midwestern roots. In elementary school, I identified with anything but the conservative, religious Midwest and southern cultures. In Japan, I forgot for a moment that I look nothing like my mother and relished in my Shinto, small-town Japanese heritage.

I spoke with a friend recently who is also from Kansas, but is currently living in Toronto. I had just returned from my vacation in San Francisco. We agreed that in very liberal places, we find ourselves defending, even identifying with the conservatives. But when I am home, it is the opposite. I separate myself from the norm and go out of my way to be politically and religiously different.

The only thing that connects the dots is music. From a Japanese lullaby to a southern gospel hymn, I bask in the musical culture wherever I am. Regardless of my feelings, I can separate that from everything else, and it is a way for me to fit in, always.

I could list aspects of my culture—my Asian upbringing, learning Spanish as a way to connect with my Mexican heritage, being active in left-wing politics and perhaps my most defining characteristic, my fierce loyalty, just like the rest of my family. As culture is about comfort in a community, though, it does not seem appropriate to just list my qualities, weaknesses and attributes. The reflection on stories, and the soundtrack with which they are associated leads me to a clearer picture.

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