The Culture of Things: What Our Everyday Objects Say About Us

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BUSAN, South Korea — As I was combing through the last two year’s worth of grad school notes and writings, I came across this short piece I wrote for a course called Integrating Culture into the Language Classroom. One of the main ideas in that course was that in order to be better guides to culture in our classrooms, we need to see and better understand ourselves as cultural beings, and this short assignment is addressed to that. We were asked to look around our work space and talk about three cultural artifacts that say something about who we are culturally. It was a fun exercise, and I thought I’d share the results with you.


My bed

Directly behind me is my bed. I started thinking about it as a cultural artifact now because I live in a part of the world where not everyone uses one. Many Koreans I know sleep on the floor, as do my stepdaughters most of the time. My wife and I sleep on a bed, but when we travel to out-of-the-way places in Korea it’s not unusual for us to roll out some bedding and camp out in a big scrum on the floor.

While the traveler in me can do without a bed from time to time (I’ve slept on floors, benches, chairs, sofas, hammocks, beaches, train berths, subway cars, ship decks, and once or twice when I was in college, a barstool), I’ll take a bed over any other sleeping arrangement, any time.

Okay, I have at times fantasized about hanging a hammock from my walls, but it’s hard to imagine giving up beds totally, and so I guess I can say it’s a pretty deep-rooted part of my cultural makeup. Maybe it speaks to the comfort that modern American culture perpetually strives for (and largely achieves). I don’t know, but I do know that I want to always have a bed, and with any luck, to die in one.

Another thing I want to say about the bed is that I see it very much as our bed, meaning, the bed belonging to my wife and I and not to anyone else. This I think also speaks to who I am culturally. Right now my youngest stepdaughter, age 6, is sleeping on our bed as she sometimes does. The kids used to sleep with their mom a lot when they were younger, but as a stepfather who entered the family only three years ago, I missed most of that. While I tolerate it from time to time, I encourage them to sleep in their own beds (they have beds but generally don’t use them) in their own rooms. I can’t say it really annoys me when they crash on my bed, but the fact that I use a word like tolerate to illustrate my stance toward the kids sleeping on it tells you something about how I feel about that, as well as something about my cultural conditioning. I place a different value on what I see as my space, and feel a bit out of sorts when it’s infringed upon. I understand that many American families permit their kids to sleep with them, and that each family works this sort of thing out in its own way. It’s also hard to say how much my feeling comes from being a stepdad as opposed to having been there from day one and possibly gotten used to them sleeping with us. It’s probably a mix of reasons, and I don’t want to venture into half-baked psychoanalysis, but the nature of my reaction to the kids sleeping in my bed strikes me as being in some part culturally-based.

Coffee mug

There’s a coffee cup on my desk. I drink coffee every morning. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, and if for some reason I have to be without it – because I’m traveling or because I’ve run out (which never happens) I feel like I’m missing something. One of the things that surprised me about Koreans when I came here in 1998 was how little they cared about the availability of coffee in the mornings. For a long time it was just impossible in Busan to buy coffee before noon. Koreans drank coffee in the afternoons and evenings and sometimes at night, but rarely in the morning, which to me was exceedingly strange. I probably would have found it less weird if Koreans had simply not drunk coffee at all, but the fact that they used it for purposes other than the one I considered the main one – as a morning stimulant – struck me as odd. To me it was as if someone had bought a toaster, and used it, not to make toast, but to warm their hands in the winter. It works, but you’re really missing out.

I realize now of course that this attitude is part of who I am culturally. Koreans tend to be much more social about eating and drinking than I am. I’m happy to have a coffee with my wife in the morning, or with a friend later in the day, but when I need a coffee, there is no social stigma to me in going it alone and getting my cup of joe when the mood strikes me. At the root of my solo coffee fixes I sense a small trace of the individualism that is bred into Americans, the pioneer mythos we imbibe in school, the outside-the-box thinker we are all encouraged to be, sometimes at the expense of community, sociability, or conformity, which is a dirty word in America, but not here.

Memos

The fringe of my computer monitor is so ringed with post-it notes that it’s beginning to resemble some bizarre species of rectangular sunflower. These are very much a part of my personal culture. I use them to remember all of the things that I need to remember, which, apparently, is a lot. The information overload of our time and place has been often remarked upon. I think my culture puts a huge premium on remembering – just this week I was overwhelmed by remembrances of 9/11 – yet we are increasingly called to remember more and more and tend to feel bad when we fail.

I also confess to being something of an information junkie. I read heaps and wonder how much I retain or whether in the end it’s really worth it. Conversations, names, the never-ending cycles of news, new seasons of sports, TV programs, new semesters, conversations real and virtual, ideas, thoughts, dreams – this great swirl of things, most of it forgotten eventually. I really can’t say whether our brains today are better than those of our ancestors at remembering things, but I’d bet the average person today considers his or her memory far worse than one of our ancestors might have considered theirs had you asked them. If that’s true I think that’s probably because of the mass of information we are daily confronted with, much of it important or interesting, coupled with the awareness that nearly all of it passes away unremembered. The post-it notes are perhaps my attempt to stem the tide, though I too suffer from the popular perception that it’s a losing battle. Maybe the post-its would be better termed a symptom of my culture than an intrinsic part of my cultural identity; at any rate, there they are.

What are the things near to hand that say something about who you are as a cultural person?


You can check out John Bocskay’s blog, ‘Outside Looking In’ here.

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