Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Papadam Paradox

Linda was enjoying her lunch at the new Indian restaurant which recently opened up in the busiest section of downtown. She relished the warm spicy food after that long walk down China Town. But her bliss was rudely disrupted when a waiter flashed a plate full of crispy golden discs, courteously asking,  "More papadum, ma'm?" She shook her head and was puzzled at why that bothered her. Then she knew - her model of an Indian restaurant contained Indians serving their traditional food, not white men like the waiter. There was a reason why she loved being a multiculturalist. She wanted to enjoy, visit and be part of every culture, in its true ethnic, authentic form. It ruins that cultural experience if she were to realize that the curry was being prepared by an Italian chef and the place was owned by Americans. Doesn't matter if the food tasted authentic. She no longer felt being part of a culture. But this would mean that every culture should stay pristine and isolated, while multiculturalists like her continue appreciating and experiencing diverse and exotic cultures. But such a distinct cultural diversity seems like a paradox to the meaning of multiculturalism, doesn't it? (Original Source: The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

In this era of intermingling cultures, this paradox is common to all of us. India is proud to call herself a nation of diverse cultures and traditions, exemplifying the meaning of unity in diversity. However, respect and tolerance for other cultures is not the same as being ready to appreciate and be part of another culture. Multiculturalism is a notch higher. It is exhibited when people start to imbibe and embody aspects of other cultures. In my definition, it is cherry-picking some interesting, significant or meaningful values, traditions and practices of multiple cultures and living one's life by them. But when multiculturalism percolates wide and deep, soon there will no longer be distinct cultures to experience or "pick" from. What might remain is a morphed amalgamation of multiple cultures, with the roots fading into oblivion. But unlike Linda, this consequence, of losing the authentic forms doesn't bother me. I don't believe that any culture has one distinct authentic form. Every culture has evolved, is evolving and continues to evolve. With very generation, there is a gradation. But thanks to history, mythology and scriptures, we can still manage to trace our way back to the original roots, as arduous and obfuscating as the journey may be. We try to figure out the original meaning and significance behind every present tradition and end up with unresolved questions and debates. But it doesn't justify or make sense to try and preserve the current definitions of one's culture. The evolution of human society and its culture are inevitable. Besides, it is unrealistic for the entire world to morph into one homogeneous culture. There will always continue to be variations of the present and past mishmashed cultures, and the future multiculturalists can wade their way through those variations. Isn't it how we function today, with Indo-Chinese food and American Pizzas?

The other question is - in what ways do a multiculturalist truly appreciate other cultures? Appreciating and adapting to dietary habits, purchasing ethnic art and materials, wearing exotic clothes, having a good time celebrating fun and interesting occasions? What is the point if such superficial elements are emulated? How does it matter if one doesn't resonate with the deeper meanings, symbolisms and principles behind the food, the clothes, the art and the celebrations? But this seems to be our current trend - selectively following superficial aspects of a culture without any integrity to its significance or to one's principles. This is not multiculturalism. It is a serious problem of identity crisis, mostly just a shoddy external pretension, a pompous act to call oneself an elite multiculturalist.

A true multiculturalist transcends cultural, material and religious boundaries, seeking to genuinely learn, appreciate, imbibe and practice those values that resonate with the inner self. 


SecondSight said...

Looks like I have some catching up to do with the commenting :)

The question that I'm left with is- how does one define culture in the first place?

If culture is merely an amalgam of food, clothing and festivities, then most of us today are multiculturalists, whether we realize it or not. If we get down to the symbolism of different foods and rituals- Unfortunately,many of these may be so alien to us that we would be unlikely to resonate with them.
And if we consider the more fundamental principles behind rituals and customs, most of us would be utterly lost trying to explain the roots of our own cultures, much less any others.

I'm tempted to paraphrase my favorite book on 'ethical' dilemmas again ( ;))- Culture, by evolutionary definition,is what our selfish genes evolved to make sure they survived. Multiculturalism, if it must survive, would need a favorable selective pressure strong enough to combat that selfish agenda.. and we may be a few decades away from achieving that yet :)

Neeraja said...

I'm always plagued with this fundamental question. Culture to me is a way of life, that can be expressed through the principles we stand for and live by. It is also expressed in how we eat, dress, and celebrate. If the meanings and principles cannot be expressed (even in ways that resonate with one), such a culture is meaningless, and non-existent, according to me.