June 17, 2010 18 Comments
When I was in graduate school, one of our professors asked us each to reflect on our cultural lenses and consider how our experiences shape us as learners. I’d like to share my response here:
Wow, what an intimate question we’re starting from. It’s taken me several days to mull over this charge to “identify my cultural lenses” and honestly, I don’t think it’s possible. In my estimation culture is a dynamic context through which we experience, learn, communicate, and categorize the life force. However, there are several key experiences in my personal background that have leaned heavily into my worldview.
I grew up in a family for which the effort to jump tax brackets was pursued with such force, single-mindedness, and vengeance we ultimately found ourselves without a center. My mother was raised in a very poor family: My grandfather worked on a ‘honeywagon’ (a truck that emptied people’s cesspools) and he was old-fashioned enough to prohibit my grandmother from working. She did however, along with my mom and her sister, take in ironing from other families to make a bit of extra money. My grandparents on my mother’s side did not receive much formal education: My grandfather completed the third grade but was made to resign from school in order to help support his family. My grandmother completed the eighth grade but never made it to high school. My grandparents were not educated people, they didn’t keep books in the house; they worked. This environment—and the sting of growing up impoverished—made a deep and negative impression on my mother who spent most of her life running like a “bat out of hell” (as my grandmother would say) to escape its legacy. “You need to go to college” my mother would tell us repeatedly, “The masses are stupid” was her mantra, which obviously originated from her deep sense of unease with her own position in the social order.
My father grew up in an Irish-American Catholic family and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. His grandparents on both sides had immigrated to America and settled in the area of South Philadelphia known as Devil’s Pocket. My dad, in his own words, “grew up on the corner,” which means he spent a lot of his time as a young person being a punk, getting in fist fights, and getting into relatively innocent mischief. He was intensely pro-Irish, anti-British, and aggressively working class but in some respects a natural intellectual (he was always reading and had an ear for languages). As much as my mother sought to escape her working-poor roots, my father sought to assert his. This combination of forces shaped my brother, sister, and me in profound ways. We all suffered, to varying degrees, to feel at home in any community yet yearned to belong. My brother expressed this pathos intellectually: He went on to college and majored in sociology, became obsessed with Marx, and flirted with socialist and communist ideals yet has never (as far as I can tell) really managed to connect his scholarship with living. To clarify: my sister and I refer to him as “the man of the people who hates people” or sometimes, “the anti-social socialist.”
The culture of our household led me to trust learning as a route to freedom—an imperative that linked itself easily with my spiritual work (which I embarked upon as a young teenager when I discovered a book on Yoga philosophy from Swami Vivekananda). However, like my brother, I found it very difficult to connect with others and too often the pursuit of learning was approached aggressively and defensively. For many years this aggression leaned into the manner in which I lived in and perceived the world.
By the time I graduated from high school and was ready to attend college, my parents made too much money for me to get any kind of sufficient financial aid and they were unwilling to support me financially. At that time, as school was financially out of reach, I moved out on my own to study life. It sucked. At twenty-five I joined the US Army, completed basic training, and completed a one year language immersion course in Persian-Farsi. The Army sucked but becoming bilingual was the most magical experience of my life. After separating from the Army, I managed to get into the University of Pennsylvania, where I majored in Middle East studies and gawked at my impossibly rich and brilliant colleagues. Penn was an amazing and strange experience—an intellectual wonderland but an incredibly isolating experience as well, because I felt like an imposter.
After graduating from Penn I moved to Cairo, Egypt, where I lived for three years, studied Arabic and got my brain pureed by the humiliating and transformative powers of culture-shock therapy. While there, I met my husband, who was born and raised in Slovakia and then immigrated to the United States in his early twenties. His job brought him to Cairo. Soon after we married, his job brought us to Japan.
SO, when you ask me to identify my cultural lenses it takes me a week to even know where to begin. Because of my early experiences, I always felt somewhat of an outsider. Ironically, having lived abroad for nearly eight years and being part of a bi-cultural marriage, studying Arabic, Farsi, Japanese, and Slovak languages, I have learned to feel and be more connected to other people. More than anything, these experiences have added up to cause me to spend a lot of time thinking and walking around ideas in effort to approach them from various angles.