The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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What is American culture?

In 2004, I was an exchange student in Ilo, Peru (a small coastal town on the Pacific Ocean in South America). It was an amazing time in my life. I was thrust into a world I had never known before. All my senses were working overtime, absorbing new information, sights, sounds and smells. I immediately noticed people kissing each other as they met on the streets, more people hugging than I had ever seen in public before. As I walked down the street, aromatic smells came from street vendors cooking delicious meals right there on the curb. I saw beautiful processions or parades go down the streets with native musical flutes playing loudly and traditionally dressed Quechua and Aymará Indians dancing proudly displaying their wonderfully colorful culture. I had the privilege of going to the sites of ancient Incan ruins like Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Sacsayhuamán and others that most Americans have never heard about. I heard the native languages of Quechua and Aymará on the streets – so foreign and unrecognizable. Allillanchu? – How are you?; Ima sutiiki? – What’s your name?; Yusulpayki – Thanks! It’s an amazingly diverse culture with multiple languages and even more dialects that seem so distant from each other you’d consider them languages in themselves. After a time I had developed an overwhelming adoration for the Peruvian people and their unique culture.

One day, when I went to the local big city, Arequipa, I ran into a tourist. He stuck out like a sore thumb due to Peru’s homogeneity. He asked me for directions and I gladly disclosed. He turned out to be from the United States and I gave him a few pointers on getting around and getting the best deal. We began to talk about the rich culture of Peru and then he said something that struck me; “I know it’s amazing down here, especially for us coming from a place that doesn’t have any culture of its own.” What?! Well, of course we have culture here in the United States or more commonly and ethnocentrically called ‘America.’ Then I stopped and thought about it. What is American culture? Oh no! Do we not have our own culture? The answer is of course we have our own culture, but the tourist was in some way or another touching on a valid point about American life.

Unlike the Peruvians whose overwhelming majority population is Amerindian and Mestizo, we don’t have a strong heritage to our land that dates back thousands of years. We do not live among the shambles of crumbled empires that our ancestors built. However, that is not to say that we don’t have culture. Culture is something that generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance. Culture we have, it is just heavily based in European or Western tradition.

Apart from that, American culture is commonly thought of as the entertainment industry or pop culture. Figures like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Superman and Britney Spears seem to be symbolic of our culture that is exported around the globe. American music is perhaps the most recognizable with rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, hip-hop, R & B, country and pop. Broadway is a theatrical element of our culture that is now known worldwide. Television, movies and film are globally distributed and now most countries have two cultures, the indigenous culture and the globalized yet predominately American pop culture.

We do have traditional foods that are uniquely or indigenously American and others that have become a huge staple in our diet: chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, hamburgers, potato chips, soul food, fast food, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, squash and turkey (Thanksgiving anyone?). Our fashion is part of our culture, even though it is not rooted heavily in the traditional European wear. Cowboy hats, boots, motorcycle jackets and blue jeans are very American. Although some have other origins, they have become an integrated part of American dress. American fashion is so important that we contribute abundantly to global fashion with brands like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and newer brands such as Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle.

American culture is also shaped by 19th century pieces of literature from writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Eleven citizens have won the Nobel Prize in Literature – that is surely something to count for!

So, it is not right or just to say that Americans have no culture. On the contrary, we have a robust and booming culture that is highly adaptive and changing with the times. Every year American clothing styles change, new music is created, new television and movies come out, new cuisine recipes are formulated, and we become richer with the elements of the past and the trends of today.

Brent Lemons is a junior international relations and political science major. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].

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