Understanding culture means ignoring generalizations
Last weekend at work a customer asked me, “What are you?” Thrown off by the ambiguousness of the question, I thought to myself, “A woman?” After considering the unresponsive and confused look on my face, he rephrased the question to, “Like, what races are you?” I told him that I was half Filipino and half Caucasian, which then prompted his next question, “Where are you from?”
I am still unclear whether this man invested a solid 15 minutes discussing my origin and ethnicity because he was genuinely curious about my genetic makeup. What was more compelling to me than I had initially thought was my realization that many people have little to no understanding of the cultures around them that are not their own.
I was born and raised on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, so it makes perfect sense that I might not have a straightforward answer for who I am on the basis of my culture.
Even though Hawaii wasn’t annexed by the U.S. until 1898, its economy was controlled by U.S.-based businesses like sugar and fruit plantations. The workers that occupied these plantations were actively recruited Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese and African-American immigrants, one of them being my grandfather who immigrated from the Philippines.
Indigenous Hawaiians also made up much of the workforce, but with so many cultures converging on the small islands, the local population started to decline from 97 percent of Hawaii’s population in 1853 to 16 percent by 1923, according to Library of Congress’ website.
This inevitable merging of ancestries created a culture in and of itself. A new generation ushered in genres of food, language, tradition, lifestyle and people were formed, while simultaneously belittling the culture that originated there, the Hawaiian culture.
Hawaii today has the highest racial minority population of any state in the union — 75 percent, according to U.S. census figures. Even though I am of Filipino, German, Irish, Scottish and English descent, it is more probable for me to interpret my culture as being from Hawaii, a culturally blended subgroup.
Unfortunately, it is rare that anybody who is not from Hawaii knows much about the state’s culture. This may be because the Pacific Ocean separates the islands from the other 48 states, but more than likely because of social stereotyping and cultural disconnection that results in uneducated assumptions about Hawaii.
I’m not saying that I know every cultural identity in the world. This is a personal account of reactions I get from people who think that because they have visited Waikiki for a week and have watched the movie “Lilo and Stitch,” they now have a grasp of Hawaii’s culture.
I receive assumptions like, “You’re from Hawaii so you’re Hawaiian, right?” But being from Hawaii does not automatically make a person Hawaiian. Hawaiian is a race, which is why I refer to it as “Hawaii culture” and not “Hawaiian culture.” The culture is further generalized under assumptions like, “So does everybody do the hula?” and “Do you guys still use canoes to get around?”
Making an ignorant generalization about Hawaiian culture in the form of a question does not grant someone freedom to “ask” whatever they please. It is still insulting to those who are asked the question, even if there is a question mark at the end.
I can understand that it might be unlikely to visit a place and grasp its culture during a short vacation, but it is helpful to formulate an understanding of someone’s culture based on research and the experiences of those amid it, as opposed to generating presumptions from one’s own accord. There is a lot of value in the simple act of asking questions like, “What was that like?” when someone talks about his or her culture rather than inflicting one’s own preconceived notion. The absence of arrogance makes for a much better conversation.
I hadn’t thought about it until I moved from Oahu to San Francisco, but culture identity is a valuable characteristic, if not the most valuable quality. Without it, you get lost in a sea of a thousand meanings.