History vs. Culture: Lenses Required

Just before Christmas, I got caught between a rock and a hard place: culture clash from both sides.  Without ruffling too many feathers, I had to convince a not-new-but-culturally-isolated Canadian to ‘fess up to the negative aspects of his native culture (that would be Chinese) while assuring a large handful of Canadians that we weren’t dealing with anything… crazy.  The issue came up when the teachers were trying to make a list of Potentially Offensive Topics to avoid with Chinese students, and most of the topics seemed to involve Chinese history.  Avoiding certain parts of Chinese history has become part of Chinese culture. Of course, it all stems from a more reasonable aspect of their culture: saving face.  If your country has completely messed things up, it’s better to just pretend it never happened.  This makes it a whole lot easier to be proud of the country you’re living in.

It was, surprisingly, a stressful few days.  I wouldn’t have thought so many people could get so worked up about culture.

While I was dredging up the more distasteful parts of Chinese culture for individual assessment, we Canadians began having the same done to our culture.  Seems a lot of people would prefer to forget that we are not actually a “we”: that some people invaded an area, won the battles through some dubious and conniving means (all’s fair in love and war, yeah?), and then made some promises to try and smooth things over.  Now, as it comes to light that some/a lot/most of those promises have been broken, we’re seeing the same issues come up: who’s saving face and who’s just being crazy?  History, after all, cannot be rewritten.

Or can it?

Of course it can.  It can and it has been, and it always will be.  That’s the way humans work.  It’s not just a matter of there being two sides to every story, but also a matter of culture changing so that history has to be altered to accommodate.  I haven’t even been alive forty-five years yet, and already I can see that history is being rewritten (or edited).  Are we all so deluded that we believe the Ancient Greeks and Romans were really so noble?  That everything in China was perfect before Mao got to it?  That the Iroquois assembled neatly into one league without opposition?

On the other hand, does anyone care to disagree about the Perfection of my late grandmother?  Hmm?  I dare you….

As usual, when I start thinking about something, it smacks me from all sides.  Smack #1: During the “holiday season” — which… nah, that’s another rant for another day — a friend posted this long but interesting anti-holiday-assimilation video on YouTube:


Much as I appreciate the sentiment, as a child of parents from two cultures, I can’t say how traumatised I’d be if someone suddenly insisted that I keep my holiday celebrations culturally or religiously pure.  Damn it, the White Horse and Zwarte Piet deserve as much attention as Sinterklaas does, and Christ has never once complained to me  about sharing the day with any of them!

Smack #2: Earlier this week, a friend said that he thought it was “important to keep Indo-Canadian culture in the fore front”.  (Apparently, he has no problem with mixed cultures, either.)   He also complained that the celebrations of said culture were being muddied by cheap materialism.

Smack #3: Conspiring with Fate to make sure I got the point, an acquaintance got me hooked on The Newsroom, which ended its first season by explaining the historical and cultural reasons as to why the Tea Party should be addressed as the American Taliban:


When looking at literature, we use literary lenses to explain our perspective to the reader; I think we should all become aware of the lenses through which we’re looking at history and culture (because the two clearly cannot be separated).  Even if the lenses are rose-coloured, it would be better to know that.  In The Global Village that’s being created by the internet and other forms of modern technology, believing in the absolutism of anything involving humans is folly.  History and culture were created by humans, so they can be manipulated — and destroyed — by humans.  The sooner we understand this, the sooner we can loosen our grasp on the past and get on with the present.

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