Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It's a cultural thing

Coming to Korea has been eye opening in so many ways. I have been exposed to people from all backgrounds, from all over the world, as well as being immersed in Korean culture. It has been so amazing learning about cultures and traditions from different parts of the world - not just Korea but England, Ireland, America, Australia, New Zealand and the subcultures that exist within those countries, like Mexican traditions for example. Hours have been spent this year discussing culture, traditions, politics and things unique to our home countries and Korea. Often when faced with problems in Korea, the words "it's a cultural thing" slip out. Because how else can we explain most of what goes on here?

Coming from South Africa has been really cool for me (not just because I love my country) because of the reactions I get when I tell people where I'm from. Koreans will always assume you are American first - "migook saram?" they'll say. When saying I'm from Africa, they immediately act surprised and will either say "Mandela, good man", "Word Cup" or "Why you white?". I've had foreigners and Koreans alike ask why I'm white...

...what we eat, if there really are animals in the streets, what we drink, what our currency is, how the African language 'clicks' sound, and again - are there really white people there? It's provided me with many a laugh but also an awesome opportunity to tell people about South Africa and try to rectify some wrongs. We joke that I have to kill a deer from my window for dinner, and I know I freak people out sometimes when talking about the safety (let's be real, they don't need me to freak them out, they just need to Google South Africa). But it's been really great talking about my home; people are genuinely interested. I might even have convinced a few to come visit. And in turn, I've loved learning more about their worlds. Like how chav culture affects people in England, the dynamics within the United Kingdom and just how MASSIVE the US is (seriously though, it's huge). It's been a learning experience for all. It's also really made me think about myself as a South African, and what that means to me. This post might be a bit all over the place as I try to explain the thoughts in my head about this all, so please bear with me :)

As mentioned, I get a lot of questions about where I'm from. One of the first questions to strike me as a difficult one to answer was something really simple - what is a traditional South African food? Now in Korea, there are very specific foods that EVERYONE will eat. Korea is a mono-cultural country in many ways (let's not get too deep into this, it's a sweeping generalization I know, but allow it). Kimchi for one is famous for being a Korean food. In fact most things I eat in Korea, unless it's 'Western', are very Korean. So it should be an easy question to answer: the Koreans have their Kimchi, the English have tea and scones and the Mexicans have their delicious foods (more generalizations). What do I have? Now let me try and explain my thoughts here. South Africa is so diverse and has so many subcultures, religions, languages and traditions that there are a number of 'South African' foods. So do I say borewors? Do I say pap, chicken, potjiekos, koeksusters, bunny chow or fish and chips? What is symbolic of South Africa? I tend to say a braai then, because it's simple. But the truth is a braai does not mean the same to everyone in SA. What one person sees as authentic SA food, another may never have tried. I know this is the case for many countries as we live in a world where people are able to relocate to wherever they want, causing many cultures to live under one flag. For me this isn't the issue. The issue I'm struggling with is what about me? My roots?

I'm a White South African. My ancestors came from Europe most likely, and I know I have some Dutch, Scottish and probably English blood in me. But all I've ever known is South Africa. I consider myself to be African, and I'm passionate about this. So what is my culture? The traditions I celebrate because they are important to ME? This is what has been playing on my mind a lot as I struggle to answer basic questions like what is my traditional food. I feel a bit cultureless. And it's hard. Am I thinking about things the wrong way? I'd really love to hear some feedback from people. When it comes to traditions, I feel like I celebrate religious traditions, such as Christmas and Easter more than cultural ones. What do we do on big holidays? Things like Freedom Day and Youth Day? Days unique to South Africa, not ones like St Paddy's or New Years Eve. Well, I don't know. Is it enough to say I live in a multi-cultural country and so do a number of different things, I don't have any one cultural identification? That's good, and I'm so lucky to live around such diversity - I miss it, I thrive off of it. But it makes me sad that I feel a little lost within my own country. The Afrikaans population have their specific cultural practices within the scope of being 'South African', as do the Zulu, the Xhosa, the Ndebele etc. Their histories are rich in culture and tradition which are carried through to this day. Granted it wasn't always pretty and there is a lot of hurt and destruction in their history but they seem so sure of who they are culturally. I hope I'm making sense here. Traditions are different; they can be created within families, friendship groups, cultures, religions, or countries. They may stem from some kind of background or for a specific reason but let me separate that from culture, as it is culture that I'm struggling with.

I think that until this year, even though I'm a Sociology Major with an interest in everything social, me as having a culture was not something I really ever questioned. But being in Korea has made me ask a lot of questions, and really think about things. I'm not Afrikaans, I'm not Zulu, I connect to no other language rich in African history. I am English, and it feels like it means nothing. I know that often people who relocate to other countries, say the Chinese moving to South Africa, keep identifying with their culture even though they are living in a different place. They can tell you what their cultures is like, what they eat and do for special occasions. I have realised that a lot of the food I eat and things I do come from places spread all over the world. So where does that leave me? I feel a bit like a mixed-breed, like the pavement special dog with a bit of everything mixed in who is really cute but a few seeds short of a watermelon. I really do love my country, its people, the richness of the cultures that surround me. I just want to find my own place within it, where I fit in.

I could keep talking in circles but I think I should try wrap this up. This post was just about trying to voice my feelings about this matter in the hope that someone wants to discuss it with me. Maybe I'm missing the bigger picture, or have completely misinterpreted the meaning of culture. This is what living abroad does I guess...makes you change your way of thinking and forces you to see things differently. Maybe I should do a genealogy exercise and try to trace my roots, find out where I come from. I will always see myself as African but I'd like to know where my ancestors came from and what was important to them.

Eish but this post has been a bit odd. But this is part of my journey here, share it with me. Feel free to leave comments and start a discussion, I'd love to know if other people feel the same or if I'm just crazy ;)

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