Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Aggregation and Integration

Today I want to write a little bit about cultural identity and how it shapes our interaction with other cultures.  Both of the women who spoke with us today had transitive lifestyles while growing up, and neither currently lives in the same region as their immediate family nor expressed interest in moving there in the future.  The two also had very divergent views as to how to cultivate culture in their own lives: while one woman frequently referenced the importance of finding a “black community” for her children to identify with and how she wanted them to “see people like themselves,” the other woman kept stressing her desire to find a future home in a place with a high level of cultural diversity, valuing the progressive nature of such places and crediting her diverse cultural experiences with having shaped who she’d become.  (Interestingly enough, we all seemed to accept the first woman’s attitude, but I found myself curious what our reaction might have been had she been Caucasian and had stated her desire to raise her children in a “white community” so that her children might be surrounded by a homogenous population and culture…) The woman who prized diversity alleged that her identity came from a constant exposure to different cultures—not only in that she “adopted” aspects of the new culture she moved to but also in that she could compare her own set of values and skills with this new culture.  She seemed to have created a conglomerate culture for herself—an identity that could adapt and fit into a great variety of cultures—but I also wondered if this didn’t somehow prevent her from forming a true, deep connection with any particular culture and consequently with her peers from that particular culture.  While I was in Senegal, there were several of my fellow volunteers who had been raised abroad in a plethora of countries, and it was clear to those of us born and raised in the States that those raised abroad lacked the sense of American culture the rest of us shared.  As a way of coping with our sense of changing identities vis-à-vis the Senegalese counter culture, the rest of us were goaded to draw on our shared cultural backgrounds, but it became critically apparent that those raised abroad were unable to relate in the same way.  I cannot testify as to how this lack of cultural identity—or rather an aggregate cultural identity—affected the abilities of these volunteers to integrate into Senegalese culture, as integration is affected by a great many factors (volunteer personality, level of activity, host community attitudes, etc.) but I’m willing to question how each of these cultural backgrounds simultaneously enhanced and hampered the integration process.  

I could argue that those of us with a strong sense of “home” culture were better equipped to understand the importance of our host country’s culture: we could easily draw comparisons between the two and respect the host country’s cultural rituals and traditions based on the inherent recognition of the importance of our own.  Those with an aggregate cultural identity, however, would have no corresponding implication of importance, as they were able to pick and choose rituals and traditions from a variety of cultures and were never surrounded by a single cultural group long enough to have it become naturally engrained in their sense of identity.  However, their exposure to a variety of cultures could have sensitized them to the importance of exploring and accepting the “other,” thus furnishing them with an open mind and willingness to embrace unfamiliar cultural aspects while we “Americans” might be so absorbed in our own culture so as to be intolerant of any deviance from what we already know so well.  As I mentioned before, integration is a complicated process that is influenced by a variety of elements, but I’d be interesting in studying what role one’s cultural background plays and to what extent when one is exposed to a culture in conflict with one’s own.       

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