The Flow of Culture

We have come from many places
We bear upon us the imprints of many cultures
With ways of being and understanding shaped through the ages
We have come with our differences and we have come with our deep longings to be one
The flame we kindle now bears echoes of many times and places
From the ancestral hearth to the cathedral apse
From the shabbat lights to the celebrations of the passing of years
A light to celebrate life. A light to dispel the gloom.
A light to bring us from separation to unity


Red Brocade, by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Extinction, by Jackie Kay

We closed the borders, folks, we nailed it.
No trees, no plants, no immigrants.
No foreign nurses, no Doctors; we smashed it.
We took control of our affairs. No fresh air.
No birds, no bees, no HIV, no Poles, no pollen.
No pandas, no polar bears, no ice, no dice.
No rainforests, no foraging, no France.
No frogs, no golden toads, no Harlequins.
No Greens, no Brussels, no vegetarians, no lesbians.
No carbon curbed emissions, no Co2 questions.
No lions, no tigers, no bears. No BBC picked audience.
No loony lefties, please. No politically correct classes.
No classes. No Guardian readers. No readers.
No emus, no EUs, no Eco warriors, no Euros,
No rhinos, no zebras, no burnt bras, no elephants.
We shut it down! No immigrants, no immigrants.
No sniveling-recycling-global-warming nutters.
Little man, little woman, the world is a dangerous place.
Now, pour me a pint, dear. Get out of my fracking face.

Message, by Andy Pakula

When my family and I decided to move from Boston to London, we heard many things from our friends and colleagues.

There were comments about the weather, because they somehow didn’t realise that their own weather in Boston is much worse.

We were warned about differences in language. We knew about things like lift instead of elevator and boot instead of trunk. But we will be forever grateful for warnings about some of the most embarrassing and offensive mistakes we could have made! So, we learned that a pouch you wear around your waist is a bum-bag. That was a useful cultural difference to know about.

I think that the most consistent warning we had was about food. According to sophisticated, urbane Americans, the only food you can get in Britain is cottage pie, mashed peas, and fish and chips. That’s it. Pure British food from a traditional pure British culture.

Imagine then my delight when I found out thatone of the most traditional and common dishes to have on a night out in London was a curry!

In fact, as of last year curry houses made up a fifth of all the restaurants in the U.K.

The story of the absorption of curry into British cuisine is a complex and long one. It involved a restaurant opened over two hundred years ago in London by an immigrant called Dean Mahomed.

Of course, like all cultural mixing, curry is part of a complex story that is tied up in European colonialism. British curry has long been different from authentic south-Asian food. It has changed as it moved from one place and one people to another. And this adaptation - this changing in the process of translation - is the rule, rather than the exception.

Cultural elements come into contact. They mix. They are adopted and altered and spread again in different ways.

I grew up in the US in a household where eastern-European Jewish traditions mixed freely with European Christian traditions and secular Americanisms. Our annual December Christmas tree/Hanukkah bush combination. Blintzes, bagels, TV dinners, and bacon were all part of our diet. And we also partook in a well-known Jewish-American tradition - going out for Chinese food - especially on Christmas.

But then I was in a country that claimed its traditional foods to be pizza, hot dogs and apple pie, none of which were at all American in origin!

It’s not just food either that wends its way across cultures and space. We have some delightful music today. Traditional Scottish and appalachian music played on fiddle and banjo. Of course, it’s thought that violins and related instruments come from an ancestral form of two-stringed fiddles played with horsehair bows by Turkic and Mongolian horsemen from Inner Asia. The modern violin was created in northern Italy.

And banjos are adaptations of African instruments brought to America by African slaves.
Food and music and much much more…  All elements of culture flow and spread and morph and merge and divide and change over time and space. So, the idea of traditional anything doesn’t usually survive close inspection. Almost everything we do and think of as traditional came from somewhere else and usually many somewhere elses.

Turn to someone near you. Take turns sharing some way that cultural mixing takes place in your life. It might be as simple as liking some kind of fusion cuisine - something like burgers on ramen noodle buns, spaghetti tacos, or tandoori chicken pizza. Perhaps it’s some kind of music that has crossed cultural lines. It might be in your work or your hobbies. Just pick any one thing and take one minute each to share with your neighbour.

Cultural change and mixing is everywhere.

How interesting it is then that in almost every place and every generation, there is a desire to preserve and protect the purity of a culture.

The United States is truly a nation of immigrants. Since the native population was all but wiped out, nearly every American’s family came from somewhere else. Some came voluntarily looking for new opportunity. Some - like my great-grandparents - came fleeing persecution elsewhere. Some came in chains through the shameful institution of slavery.

No matter why they came, almost all Americans or their ancestors came from somewhere else.
And then, after they had been in America for a few generations - and sometimes even less - these immigrant Americans suddenly wanted to exclude the next group. Some even wanted to send away those who had been in the country for generations - to some imagined place called ‘where they came from.’ There have been movements to send freed slaves and their descendents to Africa. There is a poisonous desire to push Mexicans, and central and south Americans out. And now we have seen the venomous creature created by a yearning for an imaginary cultural and racial purity raise its hideous head again against Muslims.

We saw this monster arise in Germany in the 20th century. It happened in former Yugoslavia between Croats and Serbs, in Rwanda between Tutsis and Hutus, and we have seen forms of varying levels of viciousness arise even here in the UK.  

It happens too in smaller groupings. In a much less virulent form, it happens in clubs, corporations, and it happens in congregations. No matter where and despite a history of changing culture that brought people to a community, there appears to be an automatic human tendency for people to want to shut the door behind them.

This is not a response that only bad people have - if there is such a thing as bad people. And given how widespread this response is and how even people with great values and intentions react this way, we can probably conclude that it is something hard-wired into us - a way that evolution prepared us to keep out the foreign and the dangerous.

There was a time for such responses - a time when it was safer to exclude than to include - when weapons did not reach so far or eliminate so many - when we weren’t as interdependent with one another as we are now.

Today though, we are a small world where hurts here become anger there and where mistrust now becomes hatred tomorrow.

Today, we live in a world where our fearful ways and our closed doors bring not safety but danger, not distant coexistence but close-by suspicion.

Each of us now needs to understand that curry and cottage pie can and do exist side by side.

We need not lose the familiar when the new is welcomed.

We need to know too that the new will always bring discomfort even as it leads to a richer, more varied new culture. We need to know the the natural reaction to seek comfort leads us away from a more varied, diverse world with greater understanding and connection.

Today, the greater connectedness of our world presents us with grave challenges, but also the greatest opportunities we have ever had to become a more understanding, interdependent, compassionate, vibrant, just and loving society. Let us notice discomfort and the yearning for purity of culture, and then turn toward the challenge that leads toward the bright new world of tomorrow.