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Culture is Not Static

If individuals are never the same, why should societies and cultures be?

Written by johnleemk on 1:25:32 pm May 15, 2007.

One of the most commonly accepted facts about individuals is that we change. Nobody is ever the same the next time you run into them. It may be a new haircut, a new outlook on life, a new boyfriend — nobody is the same.

But at the same time, one of the most commonly denied facts about societies — aggregations of individuals — is that they change. If individuals change, it seems reasonable that anything made up individuals must change as well.

And yet, people often seem to believe that things closely bound up with what makes us human individuals — things like our societies, our cultures, our languages, our very sense of who we are — never change.

For instance, opponents of cultural globalisation seem to believe that a globalised world will see people looking, thinking and acting like Americans. They don't realise that the people of the world will probably take the best of any culture and adopt it. I have a Filipino cousin in the United States who has given himself a Japanese nickname — because he is crazy about Japanese cartoons — and loves to play Japanese music on his piano.

As I pointed out in my defence of McDonaldisation, we will not end up eating American cuisine at McDonald's. We will eat global cuisine at virtually any restaurant — because we are evolving towards a sense of human and global, rather than national, identity.

Similarly, when I was discussing the effects of two cultures meeting as a result of immigration, I was met with an insistence that assimilation was the only way to go. When I pointed out that amalgamation — a mixing of the two cultures, creating a hybrid with the best attributes of both — the other asked, "So in Britain, do you expect the British to learn Hindi or the Indians to learn English?"

The very assumption that "Hindi" and "English" would be exactly the same after speakers of both languages meet is completely ridiculous. Virtually every language is a bastard child of so many other languages. English already adopted several Indian words thanks to the British colonisation of India.

So, I pointed out that I would expect the British and Indians to move towards a common language which combines words from both English and Hindi. And that's exactly what has happened — many have noted that in both Britain and India, a hybrid "Hinglish" has developed, spoken by both whites and Indians alike.

Cultures are not static because people are not static. Whenever we meet someone else, we are influenced by that person — even if only in imperceptible ways.

It thus stands to reason that whenever two cultures and societies meet, they both influence each other. The question is not whether they are influenced at all, but the degree of that influence.

Even countries which are typically thought to have assimilated, there is a considerable degree of amalgamation. Japan, for instance, literally jumped from the stone age to the industrial age in one generation, because they combined Japanese discipline with Western ideas and technology — reading accounts of how voraciously the Japanese devoured anything to do with the west should make any jingoistic cultural purist feel ashamed.

In my home region of Southeast Asia, countries where the Chinese have not totally amalgamated nor assimilated often look to neighbours like Indonesia and the Philippines, where it is thought that the Chinese have been assimilated.

But again, the question is not of which culture swallowed up the other — it is a question of the degree to which these different cultures interacted with and influenced each other. The Filipinos, for example, have taken up distinctly Chinese cultural practices such as turning to feng shui superstition, welcoming the new year with fireworks, and so on.

People are not static. People change. So why should cultures, which are nothing more than an aggregation of human behaviour, be any different?