Posts Tagged ‘cultural customs’

Cross-Cultural Respect

May 1, 2018

It looks like I can no longer avoid wading into the culture wars. Not that I couldn’t continue to ignore most aspects of the current, often ugly, social debate but that I find myself up against a personal limit, the same one that requires that on occasion, no matter the cost, I “speak truth to power.” Some actions cannot be let go without objection.

I just read an opinion piece  by Josh Campbell entitled “An FBI Director, Two Prosecutors and a Priest Walk into a Bar.” It links James Comey, Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and Chaplain Patrick Conroy as casualties of, or in his view heroes of, ethical public service in the current era of self-serving lack of moral character. They each stood up to political pressure asking them to compromise principles and standards that have a long and respected history, and which are now under attack.

The issue that has pushed me to write is not political in this sense, but it is in its own way a matter that calls for “drawing a line in the sand” of what has become the desert of cross-cultural discourse. The other article I read this morning was the account of a Caucasian Utah high school teen who chose to wear a traditional Chinese dress to her senior prom, and posted pictures on Twitter that included one in which she posed with friends with their hands together in a traditional Asian gesture of respect. Keziah Daum is, from the photos, a lovely young woman who garnered many thousand followers on Twitter but also an onslaught of ugly accusations of “closet racism” and “cultural appropriation”. She defended herself well, and I am not writing to add to that defense, but to take on the – sorry I find no other word for it than “idiocy” of the concept of cultural appropriation.

I am Caucasian, of Jewish heritage, with a German-born father and a Russian-born maternal grandfather. I grew up living in Vietnam and France, have been married to a mixed Black and Native American man, a New Mexican Hispanic and am now married to an African from Cameroon. I speak several languages, cook cuisines from many more countries, and have enjoyed a lifetime of learning other cultures. I have taken comparative religion courses, attended ceremonies in many different churches, temples, synagogues and other places of worship. In homes around the world, and with students studying locally from dozens of different countries, I have shared  meals, conversation, traditions and customs that have helped us all to bridge the differences we were raised with. It has been a rich and enriching life experience.

How can anyone be so narrow-minded as to critique wearing a dress from a different culture, opening a restaurant that serves food not native to the upbringing of the owner, performing a gesture of respect that is not usually made by a Westerner, or any other honest expression of appreciation for an aspect of another culture? Would the protesters against the artificial concept of cultural appropriation want to see us all in our little isolated boxes, unknowing of and uncaring about the tastes and talents and costumes of any other group? Taken to its logical conclusion, if I cannot cook your food, speak your dialect, wear your clothes, to whom will you show them off, market them, or communicate?

Perhaps that is in fact what is desired – that we all cease to communicate and descend into anarchy? The loudest voices now seem to be declaring, “My way or the highway” and castigating anyone who tries to show appreciation for a blended approach to cultures.

I refuse to let any accusation of so called cultural appropriation pass unchallenged. In fact, I challenge the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, stating that it is a fallacy and an artificial, meaningless construct, a distortion of cultural appreciation that should not be given countenance in our society.

Happily I am not on Twitter and rarely look at Facebook, so if I now become subject to vitriol, I won’t know it. This is far from the first time I will have spoken up when I’ve felt it necessary. I rather doubt it will be the last. I also do not doubt that I will survive and continue to thrive. For certain, I am expressing Truth as I perceive it, and that is always a rewarding endeavor.

Three cheers for Keziah Daum and all who, like her, are able to appreciate, enjoy and share in aspects of cultures with which they were not raised!

Japanese Rituals and Tea

March 16, 2014

A dear friend commented on my essay on English tea, that this elaborate meal is very different from an Asian tea – leading me to consider my experience with traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The first time I benefited from participation in this ancient ritual I was not quite thirteen years old. My mother and I were traveling from the U.S. to Vietnam by ocean liner, a zigzag course from San Francisco to Hawaii to Osaka to Manila to Hong Kong, where we were to land and meet my father for the last leg by plane to Saigon. My mother got bored with life on the ship and decided we should get off in Osaka, and spend a week in Japan before flying to Hong Kong.

Not one to enjoy noisy, busy cities, I found Tokyo interesting but overwhelming. In particular, an hour spent inside a large department store left me feeling frazzled, and as though I were picking people out of my hair and off my skin. Near to the store was a public garden and within the garden a large building which proved to be a cultural museum. Just at the time my mother and I arrived at the entrance to the museum, a young woman in a beautiful kimono announced that a tea ceremony would begin in five minutes. Joining the group that followed her, we walked into a spacious central room where we were invited to be seated on cushions on a tatami floor. In rows, facing an open area, we waited, some talking quietly until the hostess politely shushed everyone.

The walls and ceiling were carved wood, decorated sparingly with niches containing a vase, or a statue, or a calligraphy scroll. The impression was of richness but also a quiet simplicity. Despite being part of a relatively large group (we must have been thirty people) I felt as though a space had opened around me, allowing me to relax and expand. Perhaps it was the size of the room, or its dimensions that created the sense of airiness which I found so soothing.

The tea master entered silently, gliding to his place facing us, a low table and a brazier arranged so as to be within easy reach, yet artistically angled to present to us, his guests, a broken line reminiscent of waves breaking across the tatami sand. The master bowed to us, and we somewhat raggedly bowed back. That is, the Japanese in the group bowed gracefully and in unison – we few Westerners belatedly realizing what was expected, followed as best we were able.

The hostess knelt to the side of the tea master, again gracefully angled to enhance the pattern presented to us. She passed items to the master in perfect rhythm with his movements, and without any visible requests. I concluded that she knew the ritual as thoroughly as he did. Each gesture of each of their four hands was controlled, graceful, careful and complete – a dance of fingers wiping bowls, rotating the tea canister, positioning the kettle, showing off the items used to scoop the tea powder, to stir it, and finally rotating the bowl of tea to present its most beautiful face to the guest for whom it was intended. In turn, the hostess brought a bowl of tea to each of us, then returned the drained vessel to a row behind the master. When we had each had our few sips of thick, bitter, refreshingly energizing, green beverage, and all our bowls were lined up facing us, the hostess and master bowed to us and we – this time collectively, no laggards – bowed back.

The master rose and left the hall, and the hostess signaled for us to also stand. The Japanese rose gracefully while we Westerners found our own, often inelegant ways to our feet. We were escorted back to the entrance hall of the museum, and quietly invited to tour the rooms, which included ancient tea ceremony implements, and gorgeous kimono. I did my best to carry the silence, the stillness, the ritual formality and peace of the ceremony with me as I studied the displays. I still remember how tempted I was to scold the few Western visitors who burst into conversation near by, criticizing the tea as not being what they expected, barely drinkable, not something they would ever willingly have again.

Unlike with English teas, which I’ve enjoyed many times in many lands, I have only experienced that one fully formal Japanese tea ceremony. An acquaintance who married a Japanese, and lived many years in his family home, recently invited me to a tea ceremony that she arranged for a small group of friends at a lovely gallery in Albuquerque. The rituals of turning and admiring and wiping the bowls, of slow-moving hands doing a dance with the tea implements, were familiar despite the many long years since my visit to Japan. At the same time, I was aware of the difference between the formality of the museum ritual, and the “welcome to my home” informality of the ceremony in New Mexico. What they had in common was the creation, through gesture and tradition, of a sense of peace, harmony, stillness, contemplation.

I left the museum on that long ago day, better able to exist within the rush and burble of humanity surrounding me. The ceremony created within me a place of quiet and privacy to which I could retreat, and which I could to some extent then carry with me out into the rest of the day. I’ve learned in later years that other cultural customs also developed in Japan, to provide a sense of privacy to people who live in close proximity, in rooms divided only by paper. For example, the occupant of a room must acknowledge someone who enters before the latter may speak. If unacknowledged, the visitor knows to silently withdraw. Only if the reason for entering the room is of grave importance will the visitor remain, still and silent, until an acknowledgement is offered.

Living most of my life in a very different culture – one that seems to rush to fill any silence with words or music or some sort of noise – I’ve chosen to live in a rural location, in a small house with many large windows that minimize my separation from the trees, grasses, birds and wind surrounding me. Within this retreat I enjoy tea, sometimes green, often strong and black, which I drink from a hand crafted mug. I have my own rituals – the water must be boiling, the tea of good quality, the pot a pretty one. Neither English nor Japanese, nor the Russian of my father’s tea preference, but a blend of all three and a link to cultures and countries and lives I’ve been privileged to encounter.

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