Culture Envy?

1 May

Prior to embarking on any ‘cross-cultural’ endeavour participants are warned of the inevitable experience of culture shock. At some stage one is likely to feel out of place, homesick, resentful towards their in-country hosts and may even experience physical symptoms! We are also prepared for the shock of returning home to a place that is seemingly oblivious to the amazing and horrendous things that we have witnessed, an experience that is, at best, unsettling.

It is this return to the familiar and the friendly that has had the biggest impact on me, has changed me the most. While culture shock came, assaulted, and faded away, a much more permanent and surprising condition has taken hold: CULTURE ENVY!

As other contributors have expressed, it is perfectly normal to see your world in a new way; to critique consumerism, chastise racism, and condemn foreign policies. For me I believe this is also part of becoming an adult, particularly influenced by my university education – I am reminded constantly to be critical of ‘the norm’! However, my fundamental opposition to so much of what happens around me has prompted this culture envy.

While overseas, I delighted in buying conical hats and eating Pho with chopsticks in Vietnam, and parading in my shalwar and eating chapatti with my fingers in India. It was all part of the excitement of make-believe. But beyond those superficialities I have come to envy these people whose cultures are apparently so definite. Perhaps I am just mourning the absence of my own sense of culture – I don’t know what it means to be a white 22 year old female in Australia. Being an immigrant from the UK I find myself jealous of other migrant groups who steadfastly maintain their sense of identity through community organisations, the arts, and within the family unit. It is not the food or the clothes that I envy, no. It is this sense of belonging, this seemingly stable (though no doubt complex) system in which everyone has their place. The Afghan detainees at Curtin Detention Centre in WA were so determined to defend their ethnicity and religion that they had spent their whole savings to travel in a rickety boat across the ocean in the hope of Australia’s protection. What do I have to fight for?

Do I REALLY envy this?

Being an anthropology student I am sadly forced to question my own assumptions and ask whether these ‘cultures’ really are so stable. After all, my colleagues in India were vehemently opposed to the systemic discrimination of women and caste groups. And I am reminded of the Vietnamese youth who, despite living in remote agrarian villages, delighted in their satellite TVs, mobile phones and western pop music. Even some of the Afghan men talked excitedly about the prospect of visiting Australia’s night clubs (or ‘discos’ to them!), something that has never thrilled me…

So what does all this mean?

At the end of the day I should replace this envy with gratitude for having been welcomed into the lives of countless interesting people across the globe. Without their influence I could not hope to be in the place that I am now. I may not know exactly where I belong, or even where I want to belong, but I am so SO grateful that I live in a place where I have some choice in the matter.

Indian for a day vs Indian for a lifetime

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3 Responses to “Culture Envy?”

  1. clared22 May 2, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

    Hey panapestimio!

    I also feel like I am going through a sense of Cultural Envy. When I got back it struck me that I too did not what it meant to be a 21 year old female in Australia, which is something I had not really considered much before. I also currently find myself being much more critical of Australian culture aswell. I came to the realisation the other day that my main aim from my volunteering experience was to really experience another culture but not so that I then favoured it over my own. It was to develop a more ethnorelative standpoint and a sense that my identity could be less culturally bound. I too am grateful for the choice our culture gives us and that we are lucky enough to be able to go and experience other cultures. This really does enable you to gain a different perspective on your own culture and a sense of where you fit in globally.

  2. whitepageblank May 13, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    Hey panapestimio

    Maybe the grass is always greener! And maybe, just maybe everyone is jealous of aspects of everyone’s culture from time to time. I know there are a lot of things about my South Coast heritage I used to be ashamed of, especially compared to all my fancy city friends…but then later in life (I am speaking as if I am so old!) I really came to love these parts of me, and want to cherish them. And I am not sure if it is just me, but everytime I have been in another culture, whether it is in the Philippines, or having dinner in Marsfield with friends from Bangladesh, or even visiting my family on the South Coast, there is always some part of me that is really proud of my difference as well.

    But saying that, I have a question. In Australia, where, for many of its inhabitants, accumulation is not just a desire but a perceived right, and we are made to believe that we can have anything we want in life as long as we work for it – is Culture, namely other people’s cultures one of the many things that we can’t simply aquire – and therefore ever more desirable?

    Are foreign Culture’s one of the many unattainable desires?

    • panapestimio May 31, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

      Greetings! Sorry for the late reply.

      Of course there are many things that I cherish about my own individual upbringing – having moved here from England, and having had an awesome upbringing in the Blue Mountains. Not many of my friends grew up with kangaroos in their backyard! I guess sometimes I just yearn for that shared sense of experience that other cultures appear to offer.

      I guess culture is one of those things that money can’t buy, and perhaps that’s what makes it special. Though I wouldn’t think that thought has crossed the minds of many everyday Australians. Honestly I think most people go about their daily business completely oblivious to this idea called ‘culture’ – and that’s probably the way it should be! I guess feeling part of a culture comes down to an acceptance of who you are and who you are not…

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