"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Culture: The Rich Interior of Society

In our last class, we had an interesting debate about the distinction between social and cultural influences on the reading of a text and how they function within the tapestry of a literacy event.  I think that the reason this topic is confusing is because we tend to use the two terms interchangeably.  When we hear the word "culture" used in common speech, we often think of a special we saw on the Travel Channel or one of the many amazing  food festivals that we have attended in our hometown of Richmond, Virginia.  In fact, when people are asked to describe their own culture, they might immediately respond by commenting on some of their traditional dances, art forms, and cooking styles.  I would argue that this perception of culture is merely scratching the surface of its complex definition, just as the definition of literacy as one's ability to read does not really get to the essence of the word.  In my opinion, culture goes beyond the customs and artifacts that are produced by a people group.  It is the thoughts, feelings, and values that shape the way they interact with the world and create their own unique identity as a community.  That rich interior life of the community then informs their social practices.  In other words, the social practices are often an outward manifestation of the inner life (culture) of a group of people.  

One thing that I have learned from my personal experience of traveling and working abroad is that our own culture is often so embedded in us that we don't even consciously know how it affects our perceptions and decisions until those values are challenged in the context of another culture.  In 2010, I had the opportunity to travel to Northern India for my best friend's wedding and stay with her family.  They were very excited because I was the first American to ever visit their home, and they went out of their way to welcome me.  In Indian culture, specifically Hindu culture, a visit from a guest is considered like God, and hosting is an immense privilege.  Therefore, you must do everything in your power to roll out the red carpet for your visitor.  As soon as I arrived, my money and credit card was taken away from me.  I was told that I was not to spend any money while under their roof.  If I wanted to go out for a walk, two or three people were sent out with me.  If I wanted food or water, I was told to ask someone.  Once I tried to go in the kitchen, and horrified, my friend's mother asked me to sit down in the living room, and she would get me whatever I wanted.  After two or three days, I was feeling suffocated, and I couldn't figure out why.  I should have been happy with all of this attention, but all I really wanted was to go to the kitchen and make my own cup of tea!  Then I realized that I was grappling with my inner American.

In American culture, we value independence and self-reliance.  My well-meaning Indian friends were essentially taking away something very important to me and didn't even realize it.  In fact, I didn't even seem to realize it myself!
Taken from www.fultoncomm.com


  1. Hi Rachel, this is Annie. Sorry for jumping in. I am not in ADLT 650 anymore, but I still get emails reminding me of new post, and I just read your post. I like it a lot, especially the story about your experience in India. It is so true that culture is usually so deeply embedded in our minds that we tend to take it for granted. Only when we are placed in a different culture and being challenged, will we realize the cultural differences.
    Believe or not, I experienced "reverse cultural shock" when I went back to China this winter. People think I am Americanized or brainwashed, especially when it comes to family values. Some think I am an irresponsible and cold-blood child and because I am not staying with my parents to take care of them when they are aging. Even though they don't say it directly, their tone and body language make me very uncomfortable. This is the moment when I see the two cultures battling in me. If I am still a traditional Chinese, I will prioritize my family. If I am totally Americanized, I will not care how people comment. But I am not, I am half-and-half, and that's the source of struggle.

  2. Hi Rachel and Annie. These are lovely and quite helpful posts. It is one thing to talk about taking our culture (or our values, discourses, identities) for granted. Yet your stories hint at the depth of these things, and how "common senses" works at such embedded levels it can take something beyond ourselves to create the dis-orientation needed to discover it! It also points to the difficulty "capturing" these ideas--often they are only hinted at, through stories and poetry or theater. Thank you both: The Zone of Proximal Development is alive and well on our blog.
    And, btw, Annie, who has a gift for telling stories that get at the heart of these 'interior' things, will be presenting her 1-2-3 project to us this Tuesday. Thank you Annie!!!

  3. Rachel, this was a fascinating post! Thank you for sharing this story with us and making a very clear connection between literacy and culture. Examples like this help to deepen my own understanding of class material, so I am glad we blog--we never would have time to discuss this in class.

  4. Awesome story about the social vs. the cultural! I agree with you. Our 'home' culture is so embedded in us that when immersed in another one that is so different, we realize that it is 'us' who are different, and that can lead to shock and frustration! Thank goodness you were there on vacation; what if you were going to live their long term? Would the treatment have been the same? I ask because what if the latter were true. Would you assimilate to their culture, try to impose (with courtesy) your own, or leave?

  5. First of all, Annie, thank you so much for your comments and for your wonderful presentation last class. It was very kind of you to come and share your project with us! I really enjoyed it. It is amazing that even though our cultural values are so much a part of our inner lives, they can still change over time. We seem to adapt ourselves (to some degree) to our new social context, and in doing so, form a new culture for ourselves which is a hybrid of all of our influences. I think that working with international students for a few years now has caused me many moments of "dis-orientation". It has challenged me and allowed me not only to understand the perspectives of others, but also to recognize many of my own values and biases.

  6. Carol, those are really good questions! I have often asked myself the same thing. I guess the only way to know for sure would be to try it. Indian culture is so drastically different from American culture, that I imagine I would have to make some significant adjustments and that it would be a gradual process of assimilation. I am sure that it would be different living there because I would no longer be a guest. I probably would not be given special treatment after a time and would be expected to conform to their societal norms and expectations. It would definitely be an adventure!


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.