In the past few days the term “cultural” has been used in multiple conversations around me or that I’ve been apart. It is an interesting word because we all imagine a situation or person or place. Generally they are different than us. The images have different skin, or clothes, or facial structure, or just language. This might be accurate but so often we forget about our own culture. For me it is western or multi-cultured which are additional words that give us hard-wired mental images.
This type of thing doesn’t bother me but more often leads me to just laugh. I like to play around with these images. To dress like an Italian-American in a nice pinstriped suite even though I have no bloodline attachment. To eat Asian food although my cultural ancestry was very bigoted towards them. To not wear American baseball hats but instead Irish looking caps which pair well with my facial hair that is actually colored from more Slavic countries than Anglo.
My favorite though is to speak of Americana as foreign. A couple years ago for a Cultural Anthropology class we had to go to an “culturally ethnic” restaurant or store. I hated this assignment as most of my food was purchased from Russian, Mexican or Korean markets. The restaurants I was a regular at were central Mexican, Vietnamese and Thai. I didn’t want to have to write a report about my local hangouts, even though it would have been super simple.
My buddy and I had a trip to the Oregon coast planned for the weekend and I took my homework along. We went for a hike, had some local lunch and then were looking for a hang out spot when we saw Pig’n Pancake. It was perfect!
There was the standard pie case, the hot sauce and ketchup container cozy, the cube of sugar packets (all 4 colors) and the plastic jelly cubical organizer. The booth and standard plastic sheeted 42-page menu. The same food that you would find at any of the 42,000 Americana dinners around the country. And a massive taxidermied (or fake) swordfish over the kitchen window.
I loved it. It was so kitsch, so home cooked, so standard American. It was cultural, or so I thought.
I took notes, answered the presentation questions, and had my very artist buddy draw some of the scenes. When it was my turn to present there was some push back. From classmates that had stepped into ethnic restaurants for the first time. Places they had passed for years. And were surprised how friendly everyone was. Or how different the food was. Or how close the aisles were in the Mexican supermarket. It made me laugh.
Granted, I was raced with a different worldview. Traveled differently—looking for the weird place instead of raked white sand beach. And viewed Americana as boring and bland, while they viewed it as normal. This is the view I still take when it comes to engaging culture. We first have to find a normal to compare other things to. For me, that normal is often bright, unfamiliar, and playing the best of the 80’s.