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.