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Culture is What You Make It


At dinner, he blurted out that he'd be going to karate. After finishing a bite, I told him it was taekwondo. He asked what the difference was. The dinner took a pause.

"It's a different school of thought," said my husband.

"It's a different martial art, from a different culture," I said.

"What's culture?" said our son, and, not to be deterred, "What's our culture?"

It's one of those moments where you look at your partner across the table and think, we've trained for this; we can talk about this. Then, I took a breath to stop myself from launching into an elementary definition of each of my children's own brand of intersectionality that comes from language, culture and experience. That'll come later; now, it's just the question at hand.

My husband and I slowly stumbled through an explanation of things typical to the people in an area. I explained that America is large and that our state is large. My husband explained that we brought a lot of different cultures together in one house.

"What do you think of when you think of Mexico?" I asked. Both of the kids said tacos. And music, said my son, moving his body rhythmically to a song only he could hear. My daughter spoke about Folklorico dresses. I saw my husband wince because the richness of a culture is something one person alone can't quite teach.

With an American father and a German mother, and bouncing around between countries as a child, each of my parents had to be both the example and ambassador of their country. In short, that's likely why I come across as more stoic and speak with a Midwest American accent. It's strange to have a claim to two cultures and yet, in a way, still be an outsider to both. It may be a future my children will have as well.

"What is German culture?" my son asked. I held my breath to see if he'd repeat a joke I told him offhand as a toddler that he likes to parrot back to me; I had told him that socks with sandals were a peak German experience.

But then I nearly bit my tongue remembering how my mom and I gave a side-eye to a couple who had walked out restaurant earlier that day. The young man, socks with Birkenstocks. The woman had a shorter haircut and dyed a particular type of purple. If you know, you know.

"Like it is with our country, German culture depends on where you are," I said.

"It's cold," he said.

"Yes, temperature and temperament, as in, how they act in public. They're not as friendly as we are sometimes," I said. "There are a lot of different rules. Their humor is different. Their food is different."

They both championed tacos again. My husband and I repeated a long-standing tease: They're the only New Mexicans in the house.

I told them that New Mexico would be shaded by what it is and what other places are not. It's a hard concept now because they won't truly know what their culture means until they leave. They may grow up with self-deprecating humor about their home state but are growing a foundation for its hidden charms in ways they don't know yet. They each turn to the sunsets. They each know to appreciate the rain. They are both wary of goat heads that can spoil a walk.

The United States of America is not a monolith of cultural identity. Deep down, we all know that, but the refrain is that we should be unified; it's right there in the title. And, when you can ensconce yourself in the bubbles that tell you what you want to hear, that myth is easy to understand and an easier place to be. We disdain what pulls us out of our bubbles: the car pulling alongside us with uncomfortably thumping music, the family asking for gas money at the exit of a commercial plaza, the calls to prayer that pull a coworker into a back room for a few minutes.

The richness of our culture is how we actively participate in it, and it is something we actively craft. It's a collaboration, not just ownership. And it's not until we see each diverse American as an equal American that we will live up to the title of the United States of America.

Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at cassie@mcclurepublications.com.