A little bit of culture

Image credit: http://www.vwellhealth.com

I’m renewing passports again, this time for my eldest daughter and, she doesn’t realize it yet, but this is the one where the photo of her, aged 9, which will feature in her new passport, will be valid until she’s 19 years old.

I can recall the relief updating my own passport at that age, after a long stint of mildly embarrassing immigration moments, as customs officials switched between staring at my ten year old passport photo and the teenager stood in front of them.

Both my daughters have spent their lives (mostly) growing up in Saigon. My youngest was born here, and she enjoys showing people the “HCMC” passport entry as her place of birth.

Someone once told me that Flo and Martha are “third culture kids”. This was a few years ago now, and I’ve never quite got to grips with it. My instinct leans in towards this catch-all terminology being intrinsically positive. The sceptic in me wants, however, to also challenge that presumption.     

I think what I’m left with – given these other two counter-intuitive internal voices will perhaps forever be locked in a perpetual state of “agreeing to disagree” – is to hover, more broadly, over the concept of culture.

In CARE’s day-to-day work, the topic of culture features highly. We talk of the ‘cultural norms’ that exist at a community level, and how to appropriately factor in these when we design projects. We ask questions, too, of CARE’s own organizational culture and the way it shapes what we do.

For myself, living in Saigon is a daily social experiment in terms of mixing the way I see, feel, believe and do things vs. the habits, behaviours and values of the people I meet here. For example, in Vietnam, it is (generally) culturally frowned upon to lose your cool, or accept responsibility for mistakes. “Saving face” being the colloquial term for doing the opposite of what, for me, comes quite naturally (ie losing my cool, or being the first to admit I got something wrong.)

Culturally, too, many Vietnamese conform to the idea that the purchases made by the very first customer in your shop, after the month’s new moon, will dictate the success you will have for the rest of that month. The same with the first person to enter your house every New Year’s Day – it typically befalls an important family member, especially one born in an auspicious year, to walk over someone’s threshold before anyone else.

Vietnamese drivers – and this one is important – flash their car headlights in Vietnam to indicate they are not stopping. An immediate disaster for anyone hard-wired into the reverse of such a behaviour.

I’ve visited many countries across Asia, and in other parts of the world, and enjoy the synergies and the differences which emanate from the cultures that I encounter.

In some ways, on the subject of culture, I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s celebrated “This is Water” speech. A tenant of which being that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones hardest to see and talk about.”

The art of “face saving” is not taught nor promoted, it just is in one context, and isn’t in another. Why, then, should saving one’s face be so systematically ingrained upon one culture and not another?

Can someone pick and choose different cultural norms from a variety of sources, without losing the authenticity of one’s original culture? What if someone here in Saigon started flashing their car headlights to let people through, and inadvertently caused an accident, only to then refuse to accept any responsibility for their actions?

Overall, I think some selective ‘culturing’ is probably a good thing. Like grazing at a delicious buffet of food.

I am, perhaps, a tad bias, given my apprehension in wondering what gnarly preconceptions and perspectives my ‘third culture kids’ will be carrying with them into adulthood.

However, adopting and adapting the little pieces of culture where we find them – and especially where there’s a fit with our own intuitive sense of place, purpose and being – is surely a good starting point.

I say, dive in to those waters, and drink it in.


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