In honor of Cultural Diversity Month this month I asked a few bloggers to share about their cultures. One of these bloggers was the awesome Ana (Nymeth) of Things Mean a Lot. If you don't know Ana, you should. She is a kind, funny, and intelligent person with great taste in books and a quirky writing style that I love. Thank you, Ana, for sharing about your culture!
~It goes without saying that culture is all around us – and this means that one’s own culture is often very to describe unless we are given the chance to temporarily step outside it. When someone asks me about Portuguese culture, I tend to draw a blank, simply because I’m too immersed in it to be able to portray it accurately. I’ve lived abroad before, but only for periods of about six months, which wasn’t enough for me to gain much insight. This was something that crossed my mind as I read Aarti’s excellent guest post for this series last week: the fact that she’s well-versed in two cultures makes her more aware of them both. That’s not the case with me, which is why I’ll probably not be able to tell you as much. Apologies in advance!
A simply example: I never knew my culture had a mostly conservative dress code until I lived in the UK and realised that actually, I quite like wearing skirts shorter than knee-length. This might seem completely obvious from the outside, but for me it was very easy to mistake my environment’s punitive response to women who wear short skirts for a personal preference for longer ones. I should note, however, that I live in a small city in the north, and that this might not be true of Portuguese culture as a whole.
When I think of culture, I think more of smaller and more concrete things like cuisine, traditions, rites or general habits than I do of personality traits. This might be another consequence of lack of distance, but it also has to do with my belief that culture is only one of the many forces that shape us. I’m quite shy and reserved, for example, and I know that Portuguese people are reputedly effusive. But I’m far from an oddity among my family and friends. Possibly this general belief has to do with the fact that we greet even casual acquaintances with two kisses, one on each cheek. But in our cultural context, the gesture isn’t at all intimate. I do it often, and I don’t think much of it even though I’m generally shy – this is because for me, doing it doesn’t mean I’m stepping out of my reserve.
A common belief about my culture is that we’re inclined to be “nostalgic”, whatever that means. This is an image that Portuguese people are as likely to perpetuate as anyone else, but I could never quite grasp what is generally meant by it, even though entire philosophical tracts have been written on the subject. On a related note, I hate the myth that the word “saudade” is untranslatable and exists in no other language, as if its meaning was something completely ineffable. In fact, the word exists in German (sehnsucht) and if English had the noun “missage”, it would exist too. It doesn’t; but the verb “to miss” gets the idea across just fine. Of course, words are never exactly the same in different languages, but in this particular case, the meaning is not that far removed.
The things I value the most about my culture are much more practical and concrete than a general feeling of nostalgia. They’re the things I miss when I travel; the habits I don’t see myself changing even if I fulfil my ambition of living in different parts of the world. For example, we have late-night habits. We eat dinner between 8 and 9:30pm; we only use the word “evening” from 8pm onwards (“7 in the afternoon”, “8 in the evening”); we’re not likely to go to bed before midnight; and evening entertainments, such as concerts or cinema sessions, rarely start before 9:30pm.
Then there’s the food, to which I’m quite attached: yes, we do eat a lot of codfish, and yes, most people like olive oil. And we have bread with nearly every meal, and those custard tarts sprinkled with cinnamon you might have heard of really are that delicious. Finally, there are the celebrations. Unlike most of the population, I’m not Catholic, but my family still takes part in many of them for their cultural and social significance. Christmas means the world to me – and when we say “Christmas”, we often mean “Christmas Eve”, which is perhaps more important than Christmas Day itself. The tree never comes down before the sixth of January, though the Feast of Epiphany is not as big as it once was. On Easter, people spread flowers on the ground outside their doors, put food on the table, and open their houses to the local priest and to their neighbours. And around midsummer, different cities have different feasts in honour of local Saints. In my city, people go out into the streets and stay out all night – they eat, they sit around bonfires, and they hit each other on the head with plastic hammers and rub leek sprouts on the noses of perfect strangers who have the misfortune of walking by. I kid you not. But please don’t ask me how it all began.Thank you again, Ana, for sharing about Portuguese culture with us. When I first heard the word saudade, I fell completely in like with it. I really connect it (rightly or not) with my father, my childhood, and with my pre-fibro body and life. These are things I feel nostalgia for that are gone forever and are no longer attainable to me. I like your descriptions of the different celebrations, such as the Feast of Epiphany. I grew up Protestant but it wasn't until I became Catholic that I had any idea what significance Epiphany had or ever celebrated it in any way. I don't know how I would feel about getting hit on the head with a plastic hammer, though, hmmm...lol
Snapshots in Diversity (c) is a special series running on Lost in Books through the end of April. Please be sure to bookmark the blog so you can catch the next wonderfully interesting personal essay/interview.