A culture is much like a home. A culture is a place to be pacified by familiarity and take pride in distinctiveness.
No matter how far I travel, I return happily to one place: my home. Clad in brick, doused in memories, with tall windows and creaky floors, I find ease in its familiarity. Its doors give me the placidity to be alone with my thoughts, its deck is the pedestal on which I watch the stars, and its kitchen is usually fragranced with divine food and the sounds of joyous laughter. I have lived in my home for 15 years. I have formed an attachment with the protection and acquaintance it provides. My house has met many visitors, but no guest will know it like my family and I do. They haven’t lived in it like we have. Their memories of the house are meaningful yet sporadic and my memories of it are habitual and specific, but all of our memories are everlasting.
A culture is much like a home: a place to rest your eyes, be comforted, and belong. A culture is a place to be pacified by familiarity and to take pride in distinctiveness.
A culture’s notability lies in its specificity. No two cultures are exactly the same, and that is beautiful, but whether we like it or not, culture defines a part of us. It can strengthen, shape, encourage, discourage, motivate, and most of all, change us. Being a part of a culture is not simply being born in a place, learning a language, or reproducing culinary traditions. It is residing within the collective experiences of a group. Within our culture's walls we are at home.
Humans are intrinsically motivated to achieve connection. On a most basic and animalistic level, we need connection with other humans to reproduce and ensure the future of our species. Beyond these primal motivators, though, we require kinship with others for our well being. This extends beyond just our happiness—in a joint study completed by the Departments of Psychology at UCLA and Stanford University, researchers concluded that on a neurological level “feeling understood activated neural regions previously associated with reward and social connection (i.e. ventral striatum and middle insula).” Conversely, “not feeling understood activated neural regions previously associated with negative affect (i.e. anterior insula).” Belief in a deity can gratify this need to be understood, as can intimate relationships. But what gratifies both a need to be understood and recognized? Culture.
Defining culture is quite a sisyphean task. There are so many facets that come together to create a distinct culture; what arrangement of roughly 20 words can tie them all together? Succinctly put, culture is the combination of elements that results in a way of life, the collective knowledge of a particular group of people that together forms a distinct identity. Culture is a deindividualized part of us that is given over to a group of people with shared experiences and values. This collective understanding provides comfort; being part of a culture can give us the confidence to relish within who we truly are because we have a sense of belonging. It pleases our innate need to be part of something and feel connection.
But cultures have an adept way of restricting people as well. Whether our need for liberation be because of shifting social tides, an unpleasant experience, an unaccepted opinion, or just plain curiosity, the boundaries of a culture can close in on who we truly are. And then we flee.
We escape our culture to gratify the need to be understood in areas where there is a lack of understanding. Cultures different from our own can challenge, welcome, or reject us. Experiencing other cultures exposes us to the totality of humankind as we find parallels between ours and another. It is an incredibly humanizing experience; connecting with other cultures reminds us of the beauty of individuality. As we notice parallels between the values of our culture and those of another, we feel a keen sense of proximity; this connectivity edifies our world view and strengthens our perceived affinity with others. Visiting another culture, conversing with someone from another culture, or even just learning about another culture reminds us of the joy that lies in distinction.
All of this proves the power of cultures: they have a unique ability to delineate. We either become comfortable within our culture, or we reject it. Why stay within the constraints of a place or way of life that lacks the edification of connection? Can’t we just leave?
I argue that it is not all that simple.
I am familiar with a lack of belonging. I know what it is like to grow up feeling like a weathered rock in an ocean of naysayers. I have lived in a small town in Georgia all of my life, and while constricting, residing in a place partially populated with such close-minded individuals who reject change and cultures unlike their own has given me the stamina to understand my distaste for white, southern conservatism. This luckily has inspired action rather than inaction in most scenarios, but it becomes tiring to have to continuously fight against the stream of normalcy. To cope, I romanticize in a futile attempt at escapism . I romanticize a life in France, living among the dreamers and futures of tomorrow, thriving as I read books and drink fine wines on warm Parisian evenings. I romanticize a life in Munich, taking the U-bahn to and from university during the week, hiking through the Bavarian alps on weekends.
Through my very rose-colored glasses I create alternate realities for myself. I convince myself that I would be happier somewhere else, somewhere where I “actually belong.” The reality is, if I were to leave the close-mindedness within my small town and board a plane to Europe today, I would be nothing more than a lonely imposter. Entering a culture is like entering someone else’s home: you can’t come into a home without respect for what it contains. You must understand that you don’t know its creaks and quirks.
It is an all-too-American idea that by moving to a place you can reinvent yourself within the context of a new culture. This narcissism is offensive and unrealistic. It lacks respect for the complexity of what culture is—not something that can be worn as a costume.
I can’t remove the fact that I am from America and was born in a southern town. Instead, in this limbo between where I am now and the rest of my life, I must embrace the things around me that I can say are part of my culture. I must connect with those who (although few and far between) share my aspirations and values. Yes, I will leave this town, but I have to respect my past and use it to look forward to the future.
I say all of this to prove that it is natural for humans to romanticize the reality of other cultures without fully understanding them. We yearn to be fully understood, and often being understood does not fit the mold of one specific culture. We attempt to adapt to another culture to fill in the empty spaces of our own. But culture derives from circumstance. Experiencing and perhaps fully understanding facets of one culture, such as a language, is certainly attainable, but to say that we can enter another culture, leave behind our previous culture, and suddenly understand the complete reality of a new one is simply unattainable. As I have grown and matured over the years, I have come to understand that while I know I am ready to live somewhere and experience cultures outside of Cartersville, GA, I still will miss things about my small town: our downtown’s close proximity to my high school, the public library, our local coffee shop, and the special people I have grown close to in my time here. Though I still dream of waking up to wrought-iron balconies or the Bavarian Alps outside my window, I’ve come to have a deep regard for the culture that my parents, friends, and town have created for me. So, if we are just a combination of the parts of other cultures that meet our inner needs, then can we really belong anywhere at all? Yes, we can, but there is more to it than just that.
As a species that intrinsically desires to be understood, I propose this: culture is established but not definite; it is ever-changing and imperfect. We may not love it all of the time; we may not even feel belonging all the time, but it is what we come back to at the end of the day. It is a home.