Saturday, February 09, 2008

Few Are the Choices We Make - part 2

Part 1 is here.

The way in which our lives are shaped by environment is something which happens not only on an individual level, but on a cultural level as well. People place the choices one culture makes on a pedestal and deride the proclivities of another, but it's very often the case that the "good" in a great culture or the "bad" in a less refined one have nothing to do with any sensibility of the members of that culture. The choices the culture makes are shaped by factors beyond personal aesthetic taste or sophistication and the individuals involved are neither to be praised nor "blamed".

As an example, we can look at food culture. Food culture is shaped by a variety of factors. Primary among them is available food sources, agricultural options and techniques, and food preservation technology. The first item is often recognized but the last one is probably one of the much bigger shapers of what people grow accustomed to and enjoy eating. Why does Japan have a culture with a lot of raw, super fresh food, dried food and pickled food? It's because refrigeration and newer forms of food preservation technology have not been around for a lot of their long history. Their tastes have ridden the tide of history to the present with small adjustments as each generation passed on the tastes of the former one to its children. There's a solid base of food culture though in what history and environment have yielded which will likely echo for centuries to come.

Conversely, why do Americans favor mushy, overcooked, overly salty or sweet food? It's because a lot of America's short history of food culture includes canning as a food preservation technology and the country is sprawling. There was a need for food that could go the distance during expansion and growth as well as keep it free of spoiling as it is carried from areas it is grown in to areas where it is consumed as a non-indigenous food. The first canning factory in America appeared in the early 1800's and canned food saw America through the Civil War through two world wars and into the present. Canned food meant a great deal to American troops in the past. It is also notorious for being overcooked, preserved in sugary liquids, or preserved in salty brine.

The favored cuisine of most people is built around what they grew up with. We like what we ate as kids for the most part and tend mainly to embrace variations on what we already like. While some people diversify their tastes, they are many people for whom food is not important enough to be worth the investment in time, effort, money and research to sample other more adventurous dishes.

On a massive scale, it's unrealistic to expect an entire culture to transcend its roots in a historically-speaking brief period of time. It's also absurd to go around judging any culture for such choices as they are mired in their culture and aren't responsible for either its general negative or positive aspects. Food, of course, is only one example of this. And there are exceptions, but they tend to be based on large scale disruptions to a culture from wars, occupation, major technological or economic breakthroughs, etc. You don't tend to see wholesale replacement of basic cultural elements such as language, religion, or food.

That is not to say that individuals can't break free (as many do), but the overall shape of a culture as mirrored in overall trends and options is molded by what came before and what is around its people, not by any innate superiority or inferiority of the people who populate a culture. To believe otherwise is to place unwarranted faith in the ability and energy of great numbers of individuals to actively seek and accept change en masse. It's unrealistic to expect people to chase down the best elements of other cultures and seek to actively adopt them as replacements for the "lesser" elements of their cultures. That doesn't make them narrow-minded or unsophisticated as it's natural to live in the environment in which you are surviving comfortably and to enjoy the things which bring easy satisfaction. It just makes them human.


Chris said...

I just got my 10,000 hit on my blog!!!
Please leave a message and a cookie.

As for your post..."over analysation" that a new word?

you still have one of the best blogs around!! Ever think of posting some sort of picture? I have ADHD and it sure would help my community :)

Shari said...

Chris: Um, I'm not sure what you mean. Are you saying I'm overanalyzing things? I think about things. It's what I do. It's what I say. It's what makes me different from people who rant or talk about the news or mainly post pictures.

And as for "ever think of posting some sort of picture", I've posted plenty of pictures in other blog pieces so I'm not sure what you mean.

If you mean pictures of myself, I explained in previous comments/posts that I'm not going to do that for privacy reasons. My name is already out there as is my apparent location from the pictures I've posted.

gaijinalways said...

Very well thought out indeed. I'm sorry I was so rambling in my last comments in part one.

Certainly we all have 'cultural burdens' that we try to operate freely outside of, but it is true that a little bit of regularity for many people is what keeps our sanity. Most people do crave some variety, but give the average person too much, and they feel overwhelmed. The key is undertanding how much we can tolerate in ourselves and others.

That being said, cultures do change, but at what pace and how often is decided by individuals within those cultures. We are all exposed to things outside our culture and outside our comfort zone, and we all react differently to those 'events' or interactions.

badmoodmike said...

Conversely, why do Americans favor mushy, overcooked, overly salty or sweet food?

Because we're stupid.

I think that if a person is open-minded enough to embrace other cultures, or to immerse themselves in another culture, then good for them! Much like you and your husband, I applaud you on your choice to live in an almost completely alien society.

And for those that would never do that, nor eat sushi or even the pepper steak from their local Chinese joint, so be it.

Some people, like myself, like to try new things and love other cultures because of their uniqueness. I love living in the US and in my little shack of a house, but I long to visit many exotic locales. Since I can't do that, I do the best I can with the occasional sushi meal, read the latest travel guide to London or surf an Australian travel site.

It is perfectly OK not to want to change. It is unreasonable to expect a person to give up their heritage and culture, but it is also unreasonable to expect a culture to bend over backward to accommodate those from another culture...such as the problems with illegal immigrants here in the US. Pretty much everything from product packaging to store signage is now in English and Spanish.

gaijinalways said...

I'm not sure that is 'bending over backwards' by including Spanish language on packaging and store signage. Especially in Tokyo, there is more English information than other cities in Japan (and a reason that many foreigners who want to learn better Japanese advocate getting out of Tokyo), but this hardly makes Tokyo any less Japanese.