What was your childhood like?
No doubt this question can provoke a wide range of emotions and memories, depending on what you experienced as a child.
During our formative years, our parents have the greatest amount of influence in our lives. We are dependent on them to dress us, feed us, and sometimes just keep us from hurting ourselves! But as children, what we don’t realize is that we’re not merely offspring of our parents. We’re also offspring of the culture into which we were born.
Let’s explain it this way.
As children we inherit the physical attributes of our parents. We are reminded this is true every time someone says, “He looks just like his father!” or “She looks just like her mother!” (In case you were wondering, I look more like my mom.) We also inherit some of the expressions and behaviours of our parents. Without even thinking about it, we repeat the things they say and mimic how they act.
Just as we naturally take on the characteristics of our parents, we also naturally take on the characteristics of our culture. We observe the way people around us think, talk, and act. And these things often leave a lasting impression on us.
Our thoughts and attitudes are influenced by our culture. I had a recent discussion with a Norwegian friend of mine about leadership. As we talked, I discovered that our experiences with leadership in our home countries were vastly different, which in turn led to contrasting perspectives on how a leader should lead.
The way we express ourselves is often a reflection of our culture. This is probably most easily observed in the sub-cultures within one particular nation. For instance, one of my Chinese friends told me that he can tell which part of China someone is from just by the way they speak. Not only by their accent, but also by their vocabulary.
Our culture can also affect how we look. The clothes we wear and the hairstyles we choose are a classic example. Culture defines what is “cool” and what is “out of fashion.” My wife and I sometimes will joke about the clothes we would wear if we stay in China until our forties or fifties. (I would wear grey collared or button-up shirts, and she would wear purple dresses with high heels.)
To some degree, all cultures are comprised of socially accepted “rules” on how we’re supposed to live and how we’re to perceive the world around us. As children, we don’t know anything else except this one culture.
But as we grow older, we slowly begin to discover that there are other cultures out there that exist. We meet families that do things differently. We find out that other parts of our city feel different. And we discover that people act and speak differently even within our own country.
My Western/Canadian culture was never that important to me until I decided to live here in Asia. I started interacting with people who think very differently from the way I was taught to think. When my worldview collided with theirs, I automatically assumed that they had it wrong.
Though I didn’t have the words to express this a few years ago, I can now acknowledge that I simply felt more comfortable doing things the way my culture taught me to do things. And in some ways I still feel safer within the borders of my own culture.
Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, in Riding the Waves of Culture, explain it well this way: “A fish only discovers its need for water when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish. We live and breathe through it.”
As a foreigner living in China, I often feel like a fish out of water.
When I walk the streets here, I see so much that contradicts my culture. So many things don’t fit into my paradigm of how things “ought to be.”
But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the important thing isn’t to retreat to the safety of my culture, but instead to engage Chinese culture with the same curiosity that I once had as a child. To be one who learns rather than one who judges.
I will always love and appreciate the culture in which I was raised. Now it’s time to go love and appreciate another one.
How has culture impacted the way you were raised? What are some of the things you’ve noticed about different cultures? What parts of culture are easier to accept than others?