The more I travel, the more I hear similar refrains repeated over and over. One of my least favorites is the phrase absorb other cultures. I don’t mind the idea of learning about other places, people, and histories, but something about the use of the word absorb strikes me the wrong way, as if culture is easily soaked up the way a sponge soaks up water. While learning about other people, their culture, their history, etc is a noble goal, whenever I hear people talk about absorbing culture, they usually seem to have spent 2-4 weeks in one particular place yet claim to have a thorough understanding of why that place is the way it is. I don’t think you can spend three weeks in India and suddenly know everything there is to know. Anthropologists may integrate themselves into a community for years, but you’re like, super-smart and open-minded, so you definitely did it in three weeks!
Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but it’s impossible to really know someone else’s culture in a short stay, or even a long stay. I’ve lived in Poland for almost two years, and the intricacies of Polish culture are not yet clear to me. And how could they be? I barely speak Polish, and I’ve only been to a handful of cities. What can I even begin to understand? My observations so far are that Polish men are rubbish at flirting, Polish people love to drink vodka, Polish people don’t like talking to strangers but love having too many shopping malls with all the same stores. What more strangely specific observations could I extrapolate and over-emphasize, using them to draw broad conclusions about relatively unimportant minutia of daily life?
Over 10 years ago, Chuck Klosterman mused over the same problem: What banal and unimportant observations have Germans made about Americans based on the few things they’ve seen? He went to an art exhibit that analyzed American culture through one of our most iconic images: the cowboy. But as he points out, most Americans don’t think about or emulate cowboys in their day-to-day life. While cowboy culture is undoubtedly part of American culture, it doesn’t have the impact on modern America that the artist seemed to think. So he thought: what could he, as an American, say about Germans?
As I rode the train from Munich to Dresden to Hamburg, I started jotting down anything I noticed that could prompt me to project larger truths about Germany.
An abbreviated version is as follows:
1. The water here is less refreshing than American water.
2. Instead of laughing, people tend to say, “That is funny.”
3. Most of the rural fields are plowed catawampus.
4. Late-night German TV broadcasts an inordinate amount of Caucasian boxing.
5. No matter how much they drink, nobody here acts drunk.
6. Germans remain fixated on the divide between “high culture” and “low culture,” and the term “popular culture” is pejorative.
7. Heavy metal is still huge in this country. As proof, there’s astonishingly high interest in the most recent Paul Stanley solo record.3
8. Prostitution is legal and prominent.4
9. When addressing customers, waiters and waitresses sometimes hold their hands behind their backs, military style.
10. It’s normal to sit in the front seat of a taxi, even if you are the only passenger.
The fact is, Westerners think that if they learned how to say “hello” and “thank you”, eat something that looks “authentic” (to them), and smile at some people (or maybe take a photo of them), they’ve learned something profound about that culture. But that’s not real. That’s just a colonialist narrative positing you as the explorer, and your destination as a lesson just waiting to be learned. But people, places, politics… they are not that simple. Europeans ask me all the time about Donald Trump, thinking that there is some sort of singular story about him and his meaning for Americans… but there isn’t. Or if there is, I don’t know it and can’t explain it. I don’t support him, but obviously people do, so what does that say about our culture? Can you draw a conclusion that applies to all 300+ million people? When confronted with this impossible task, would you even try?
But that’s not really what people are trying to do. They are trying, as all travelers who’ve bought into this “be a traveler not a tourist” bullshit, to find an authentic experience, no matter how much it reduces the subject of their discovery to cheap stereotypes or broad generalizations. They do this with food, with handicrafts, with a perfunctory history lesson on a 2-hour guided tour. Soliel Ho puts it beautifully in her piece, “Craving the Other”:
Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, often claims that to know a culture, you must eat their food. I’ve eaten Vietnamese food my whole life, but there’s still so much that I don’t understand about my family and the place we came from. I don’t know why we can be so reticent, yet so emotional; why Catholicism, the invaders’ religion, still has such a hold on us; why we laugh so hard even at times when there’s not much to laugh about. After endless plates of com bi, banh xeo, and cha gio, I still don’t know what my grandmother thinks about when she prays.
I thought about this a lot. Both of my mother’s parents are Polish. I live in Poland now. But what do I really know about the place? What can I know? Who would I even ask? My grandmother’s experience, as a Jew, would not have been the same as the parents or grandparents of my Polish co-workers and friends. And my own grandmother, who does not go to temple often, what does she think about when she prays? Because I know that she does, but I don’t know how or for what. I know so many of her stories, but I’ve never thought to ask her about the religion that almost got her killed.
I’ve met Polish people who study Judaism and it still seems so strange to me. Just like the kids who laughed or wrinkled their noses at Soliel Ho’s Vietnamese food as children, the Polish haven’t always been supportive of Jews or Jewish culture. So what are these people finding now? What are they trying to discover? Is it a way of doing penance for the sins of their parents? There’s probably a lot they do know about Judaism: things that I was too lazy to learn, or have forgotten. It’s quite possible they know many things that I don’t. They almost certainly speak Hebrew better than I do. But I don’t think they will ever get the crux of my culture growing up Jewish, at least in the U.S., the embedded struggle of belonging to a minority religion in a country full of another religion’s symbols and holidays. They’ve never felt the isolation when they constantly hear “Merry Christmas” or the ire of listening to people complain that Christmas is under attack because someone tried to be inclusive and say “Happy Holidays” while you literally practice a religion that people have repeatedly tried to wipe out. They’ve never had a hollow feeling in the pit of their stomach when at nine years old, one of their best friends tells them matter-of-factly that they’re going to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus.
So the next time you’re tempted to talk about absorbing the culture, remeber that culture is not like water and osmosis, looking for a state of equilibrium. Someone else’s culture does not exist to teach you a lesson, or give you meaning. Culture is not a monument that you can slap a filter on and post on Instagram. Culture is part of who we are and the things we do every day. Culture is the stories people told their children, the traditions people kept even if it was dangerous to keep them. Culture is the inter-generational trauma that made it possible to survive wars, famines, genocides. Culture is the daily struggles of carrying these burdens of people who don’t want you, who don’t care about you, who would honestly rather you didn’t exist.
You can’t absorb culture, because culture is not spilled milk, and you are not a sponge.