On Culture–And The Uniqueness Of American Culture

When I married my wife Heidi in 1970, her family had a Dutch background and celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6. We put our Dutch shoes out on December 5, and the next morning they were filled with fruit and candy and small gifts. I have continued that tradition for 47 years. -Gary

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Responding to last week’s Sunday Evening Post (a letter I email to readers each weekend), reader Gary shined some light on this Dutch tradition. He maintains it with his family to this day–years since his wife Heidi’s passing. It serves as a gesture to keep the spirit of Gary’s late wife alive in their home; it serves as a way to add definition, character, and purpose to their holiday and life.

As Gary’s example demonstrates, culture and tradition needn’t be something we grow up with.

Reader Chris also replied last week:

I find these conversations about cultures and pride of culture to be interesting, because they are somewhat foreign to me. I don’t have much pride in my culture. To me, it was just the culture I was born into. The place I grew up, the traditions, music, holidays and values that I grew up in were not things I would have chosen. So I decided to go out and look for others, ones that fit my own set of values. I wanted to create my own culture in a sense, to pick and choose what fit rather than just accepting what I grew up in.

I realize that may not be popular to seemingly have so little loyalty to one’s culture, but…I believe every generation should go through every [tradition] passed on and decide individually which have value, which should be kept, and which should be dropped.

Chris’s approach to culture says a lot about what culture can be, how it can be formed and used, and the unique nature with which many Americans address this topic. For starters, the US is a diverse nation with typically at least some degree of “melting pot” going on between the cultures. But the US is also unique from most other nations in how young it is and in how its cultural foundation was laid by those who left their homelands (and often their old ways) behind.

Two Aprils back, I was part of a panel of speakers at a conference by the Global China Connections organization at the University of Minnesota. Our particular session was on global cultural norms, and when I looked down the table at my fellow panelists–a native Chinese woman, a native German man, a native Asian Indian woman, and a native Somalian woman–I realized how my perspective would stand out. It wasn’t just that I grew up in a different country with different language. It was that their cultures each went back centuries and even millennia, potentially encompassing all aspects of their lives.

At the Global China Connections conference

Seeing this, I spoke up first as the session began in the lecture hall, declaring this distinction to the attendees. My mostly German-lineage family has dropped practically all signs of being German. As such, my American culture goes back only a few generations, I said. And even then, I’ve abandoned many of these lifestyle aspects–hunting and gardening and canning food, for example.

So minus any ancient practices, and minus many traditional American ones, where does that leave me and countless other Americans in determining our culture?

Part of this answer struck me a couple of years earlier when watching men carve out tree-trunk fishing boats on a lake shore in East Africa. Watching those boat carvers slowly chipping away at their creations–and then me learning the boats only last a couple of years–I thought, “Why not save up money for an aluminum boat?”

Tanzanian man makes a toy boat while leaning back on an actual one

But continuing to watch, I considered how this boat-making is part of their culture–their purpose and definition of their life. As such, I realized they just simply may not want an aluminum boat.

New boat
Just returned from a haul

Seeing how my mind went immediately to getting a stronger, lighter, more efficient boat, I realized the degree to which American culture IS to favor that which is “stronger, lighter, more efficient…” Tradition be damned. It’s easier to buy canned veggies, farm-raised meat, and factory-made clothes than to fashion these things ourselves.

The other panelists at the conference spoke up after me, a couple of them pushing back on my argument by pointing out popular US pastimes, music, food, and pace of life–all of which create a distinct culture. (Indeed. This is why we had a diverse panel. Sometimes it’s best to ask an outsider to define a culture.)

At the same time, that which they and I pointed out was just mainstream America. There are also countless other ways of life maintained within our country–as there are many within most others nowadays. In my particular neighborhood in the Twin Cities, there are some traditional Jewish families. And in my letter the week before, I shared about a powwow I had attended–thus starting this whole culture conversation. By distinguishing themselves from mainstream US culture, these groups balance their ways of life within a country whose culture differs from their own. This is a unique challenge that my American ancestors decided not to maintain–one that I assume brings the struggle of being different but also adds an adornment to one’s life not enjoyed by most others.

May your Labor Day weekend be filled with your unique definition, character, and purpose of come with your culture.

-Brandon

p.s. As I did in my email, I’ll ask for comments below sharing cultural traditions/practices that you either do yourself or have observed when immersed elsewhere. Let’s learn about the variations of life represented here in The Periphery community!

p.p.s. To receive The Sunday Evening Post weekly email, please email me at brandon@theperiphery.com

3 Responses

  1. Marvelous, important questions, and examples. Your comment about not being proud of your culture struck a cord with me. I once interviewed an anthropologist for my college newspaper, and he asked me a hard question: “Who are your heroes?” At that time, I had none. He looked at me with pity. About 10 years after college I became a Christian. That quiet event changed my life. Now thirty years later I am awash with heroes.

    During the 1997 Red River flood, I discovered heroes every day walking around Grand Forks, many were neighbors, many came from all over the country, all pitched in to help fellows in need. I was talking to someone who lost a lot in that flood, and was bereft. I counseled that this too shall pass, something I was beginning to understand, as I’d lived in northern Virginia five years by then, and visited many Civil War battle sites, read Virginia history, and visited with Civil War reenactors. My house sits a short distance from a still-remaining ‘trench’ that soldiers used to protect themselves from enemy fire. A friend attends Centreville Ascension Church that served as a Union hospital after the 1st Battle of Manassas. By nightfall July 21, 1861, the stack of amputated limbs was higher than the windows.

    To call such conflicts “Civil Wars” is beyond understanding. People’s lives were torn asunder. Almost every tree in Centreville was cut down to provide fuel for the armies, which caused profound erosion and soil depletion–to this day. Towns changed sides many times. To survive such catastrophe one must have heroes. It’s hard not to admire John Singleton Mosby:

    https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/john-singleton-mosby

    http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2013/12/meet-john-s-mosby-the-gray-ghost-of-the-confederacy.html

    His Confederate Raiders terrorized the union army with a ragtag bunch of dirt farmers, as they defended their homes from ‘Northern invaders.’

    I am in awe of our Founders for they created the first organized government since the Anglo Saxons that endowed free men with political might. The Anglo Saxons had slaves too, as did every culture in history. But our society outlawed it, at tremendous cost. Which brings me to some of the finest iconoclasts in Western Civilization: The Abolitionists, my heroes, both in England and America, for they used Christian principals and our Constitution to change society for the better.

    Other heroes :Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and Thomas Sowell, for one must understand economics to find true freedom.

    I can double, or triple this list but what it tells you is one must read books to find heroes, and understand better what’s gone before us.

    1. Thank you for listing and describing your heroes. That would actually make for a great topic for a future article:)

      Can you explain something? You wrote that outlawing slavery came at tremendous cost? Is that to say you believe ridding slavery without the use of the law would have been preferred?

  2. Slavery was outlawed through warfare, not law, per se. The 13th Amendment, which freed the slaves, the14th which gave them citizenship & 15th Amendment, which gave them equal rights were enacted AFTER the North won the war. Before the war, the law failed the slaves and all those who died (620,000) or were maimed in the Civil War. Law, however, is only a mirror of the people enforcing it.

    The U.S. Constitution incorporated the first step to phase out slavery by outlawing the importation of slaves after 1807. Great Britain also passed legislation in the Slave Trade Act of 1807. It outlawed any British subject’s involvement in the slave trade. Both laws met with considerable resistance, and chicanery in avoiding the letter of intent.

    I grew up in St. Louis, MO, so the history of the Dred Scott case was only a field trip away.
    “In 1846 the slave Dred Scott sued for his and his wife’s freedom as they had been held as slaves in free states. All of the trials, including a Missouri Supreme Court hearing, were held in the Old Courthouse (in St. Louis). The case was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled against the Scotts, saying they did not have grounds as citizens to sue.” -Wiki

    That case set the stage for the Civil War, regards slavery. The Democrat Party has a lot to account for too, before and after the war, specially in undermining the intent of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, replacing them after Reconstruction with Jim Crow. You can lead a horse to water…

What say you?