HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 4, 2018 – 12:00am
I’ve always been curious about culture and languages. When I visit a country, I try to learn a few words and understand why people think and act the way they do. Each country has its own way of doing things. Each one has its own unique traits.
I look at individual cultures as a particular way a people have defined the world and how they must live in it. Culture is a set of myths, beliefs, values, ideals, rituals, rules, signposts expressed and embedded in its language and customs. Each peoples’ shared history and the symbols they have created guide them and shape them into a community where they find belongingness and purpose. Culture is like a road map that tells people where to go, how to live their lives in a manner that gives them some sort of assurance that their lives have meaning and value. It gives people a sense of the universal order and their place in it.
I look at cultures and try to understand how they have handled life’s great questions, imponderables and mysteries like death, the afterlife, the future, God, love, the meaning of being human, sex, eternity, art, politics, ethics, etc. I am also curious about how they relate to the weather, their attitude towards foreigners, and their own fellowmen.
I want to think that each culture has made attempts to make sense and understand and define all those topics I mentioned above. After all, how can a community exist without having notions, ideas, explanations, opinions or some kind of philosophy about what existence means?
Take sex, for example. Have you ever wondered why some cultures are quite comfortable with it and why some have many hangups about it? How is it that there are cultures that celebrate sexual intercourse, sex organs, nudity and sensual pleasures while there are some that suppress all these? In Japan and Nepal, statues and images of phallic symbols are quite common. India produced the Kama Sutra. All throughout Europe, nude statues abound. Meanwhile, in many other cultures, there seems to be some palpable fear about sex which, in practice, has resulted in the subjugation and slavery of women.
Have you ever wondered why some cultures subscribe to just one deity? There is the claim of the one true Christian God who came to save mankind. But there are also cultures with many gods and goddesses who rule their own domains that affect the lives of humans. D.T. Suzuki, a Zen teacher, once expressed his bafflement about some Western religions in this way: “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion!”
There are cultures that are more comfortable with science and abstract concepts, while others make sense of the world through concrete and personal experiences. For example, some express distance not through meters or miles, but by how long certain human activities last while traveling certain distances. A place could be “two cigarettes” away.
Language carries within itself a defined reality, and as bilingual Filipinos, we experience two different “realities,” so to speak. For example, we can have an English Christmas or a Filipino one. We also switch languages depending on who we are talking to, and what the topic is. We can even switch in mid-sentence.
To experience culture, you must adopt its mindset. The Western experience of death means showing a lot of restraint in expressing emotions. Death is looked at with finality. The dead are gone forever. In the Philippines, dealing with death is anything but restrained. We ask those left behind to give a blow-by-blow account of how the departed passed on. During wakes, we eat, play mahjong, drink, laugh, cry and we never leave the departed alone. And after he/she is buried, we have nine days of prayer that follow and we mark the 40th day as special. And every year we take notice of the death anniversary. It is common to believe that when a butterfly is fluttering about, we see it as the dead visiting us. The soul is in a parallel universe. The loved ones may be physically gone but they are still somehow with us.
There are some things visible to one culture but invisible to another. As an example, Filipinos are more attuned to the presence of spirits and ghosts than Westerners are. We have more words for rice. We have words that are untranslatable. Language also determines what we hear. A cock crows a “cocka-doodle-do” to the American ear. To the Dutch, it sounds like “kukeleku.” To the French it is “cocorico.” To the Filipino it is “kukutaok.” As another example, Westerners admire and extoll individuality. We, on the other hand, see more value in belonging.
When I look at countries that were never colonized, I notice with admiration how they seem to have so much character. But when you read their history, you will notice that they also learned much from other cultures through trading and migration. Mahatma Ghandi once said, “No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” Despite my nationalistic sentiments, I concur. No culture is static. It must continuously grow.
In this modern age, cultures will brush upon each other with ever-greater frequency and intensity. No culture can remain uninfluenced and untouched. If it insists on being “pure,” it may eventually perish.
In the end, the embracing of cultures everywhere can only expand us as human beings. As Jawaharlal Nehru put it, “Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”