Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Echidne Goes Touristing

I have to get this out of me first, so apologies to all who are yearning for my usual man-hating posts (those due to me not being able to get laid, what with men running away from goddesses with snake bottoms and such).

So imagine me with a very gaudy Hawaiian shirt on, large binoculars around my face and a voice which speaks more loudly when someone doesn't understand proper Murkan. In short, what comes here are the equivalent of those travel pictures nobody else wants to see. Except that what I show you is good stuff, of course.

Onions are wonderful metaphoric vegetables. Often we only peel the outer layers off them and think ourselves the experts on some issue. But to really know something, you need to peel off all those layers until nothing remains. And then cry the tears onions cause.

If traveling is like peeling an onion, most of our traveling is tripping along the outer layers, perhaps dipping in about one layer's worth. Then we go home and tell our friends that we 'did' Paris or Africa or whatever.

It's not that those first impressions of a place wouldn't be interesting and fascinating and even true. But they will be almost always about weather, nature, food and similar issues. Nobody gets into the culture with a few week's trip to the place. A few months isn't enough, and not really even a few years. That has been my experience, in any case.

This trip was different, because I went back to a place of my birth. But I didn't just dive straight through the onion, coming out from the other side. In some ways I've been gone for so long that on some issues I still peel the top layers (how do these new toilets work?) while on some other issues (family) I'm in the heart of the onion. It's a very odd combination.

But what my recent experiences have taught me is the importance of culture. "Culture" here means all the different generally shared beliefs of a community, all the rules about behavior and who-does-what, all the little interpretations about what various types of behaviors mean. And an outsider, in her big tourist boots, walks straight through all those and smashes them to smithereens! Because you don't really see any of that from the outside.

Why am I writing about this? Probably partly because I think that much of writing on issues such as international feminism oversimplifies the question of culture. Cultures vary greatly even among people who are ethnically the same and have the same religion, and cultures vary greatly across the European Union. I'm going to try to keep this in mind in the future when I write (in, say, comparing women in the American South and in the Northeast). I have known this before in the intellectual sense but it's a whole different thing to 'know' it experientally.

The more important reason for writing about culture is that we tend to ignore it. A lot. Take some evolutionary psychologist (the bad kind): They assume no cultural differences, really. Sometimes they assume no culture at all. Or note how very often we just assume that the way matters are done in the good old U.S. of A. are how they 'naturally' are. Or note how very often 'cultural' issues are viewed as trivial and unimportant. Culture wars are just silly, at least if they are not about your rights to be a human being. But culture matters. A lot.