The Importance Of Not Forgetting Your Culture

Typical of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
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There is no dignity in denying one’s identity. Culture is a very large part of someone’s identity. Many people who come from different cultures/countries that start to live in “developed” countries like the United States, are made to feel like they should not be proud of where they come from, sometimes even ashamed. While this type of issue affects everyone of all ages, I believe it has more negative effects on younger people because it is they who are at risk of forgetting their culture when starting to live in a foreign country by adapting and assimilating to that country’s culture and beliefs. As a result they may become alienated by both the foreign country that they have adapted to for not originally being from there along with by their own people for no longer being relatable to them. As a result of this detachment and alienation they will come to the wrong but natural conclusion of denying their cultural identity or developing contempt for the country they are living in. I also believe that it is these types of situations that result in a sort of inferiority complex in some people. This is something that I have witnessed first hand with people that I know and even in my own personal experiences. 

Culture can mean many things. There is a culture in school, workplaces, family and each country has its own culture. To me, it is a way of living or being. It relates to moral values and beliefs. Coming from a country where there is a variety of cultures, what having a different culture simply means to me is having different values, beliefs and way of doing things. It can be when a large group of people have different cultural traditions. For example, in my country there are tribes and each tribe has a different way of doing things, different way of dressing, different food and even different cultural clothes. And I believe all countries have tribes no matter how developed a country is and while there is a standard way of existing and way of carrying oneself with regard to social behavior, there will always be this sort of social division in every society because I take the literal definition of what tribe means and that is a social group. Although when most people hear the word ‘tribe’ they might picture in their mind, savage people with weird paintings and piercings on their bodies that live in huts in jungles that pray to weird gods and perhaps are even cannibalistic. Having a different culture can also mean when one is living in a different culture that is foreign to their own.

I have come to understand that when talking about social culture, there are three categories. There is surface culture which is something that is obvious to perceive and that is not so embedded. It can be something you can differentiate about a culture just by looking at it or hearing about it. Examples for surface cultures can be traditional clothing, food, rituals, celebrations, language, etcetera. There is shallow culture which is less obvious than surface culture. It is a culture that is there but may not be discernible because it’s not talked about much. It can be about the behavior of a certain culture, how people in that culture interact, the norms of that culture, etcetera. And finally there is deep culture. I believe this is the most important part of culture because it affects the way people think, are, their feelings and attitudes towards things. I think deep culture has a lot to do with the type of moral values each person has.

Culture means a great deal to me especially now that I live in a culture that has values very different to my own. It has a lot to do with who I am, my morality, my thinking process, the way I carry myself and how I perceive the world or everything in general. Culture is something that shapes a person and of course that shaped me. I have a scroll of the Amharic alphabet hanging in my room so I don’t forget how to read it. Forgetting my culture is sort of a phobia of mine because I have seen how damaging it is to a person. I think it kind of makes a person feel like a misfit. Knowing my culture and where I’m from gives me stability. It gives me confidence in myself. If I didn’t know my culture I think I personally would go insane. Because my culture is my identity and losing my identity is something I can’t imagine especially now that I have matured and realized the importance of it but if I was younger and had no adults to instill my culture in me I would have become a total degenerate today. My mother had a lot to do with the knowledge that I have about my culture. I learned how relationships with family can really go a long way in teaching you a lot about life, especially about culture and how your affection for someone can really motivate you to be the way that someone wants you to be. It upsets me when my siblings forget certain things about our culture like words or sayings, so I try to teach them things that I was taught. 

My country is known for many things. On the surface, it is known for being the place where coffee originated, the many gold medalist athletes and perhaps the ancient rock hewn churches. It is also known for being home to one of the worlds longest reigning empires, ‘The Solomonic Dynasty’. Ethiopian food has become highly popularized at a global standard. It gives me great joy to see people from a different culture, eat and enjoy my country’s food as many of our dishes are full of very healthy and beneficial layers of ingredients especially for people accustomed to eating unhealthy food. I believe there are about ten Ethiopian restaurants in the city of Rome, Italy alone, a country that is highly publicized for its cuisine. Amharic is the only language in the entire continent of Africa that has its own form of writing apart from hieroglyphics which is less used at this time. The feast of the epiphany known as ‘timket’ and ‘meskel’, the celebration of the finding of the true cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified on, are one of the largest celebrations in Ethiopia that annually attract thousands of tourists from all over the world. The latter includes the burning of a bonfire called ‘damera’ and is a very visually gratifying scene.

Italian is regarded by many as a beautiful language for the rhythmic and melodic way it is spoken. Being part Italian myself, I totally agree. I also share the same sentiment for Amharic. The Amhara, one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, have a very eloquent way of speaking. In formal settings, there is an expectation to speak clearly but with a soft tone as loud voices are perceived to be too aggressive. Ethiopians who speak Amharic use metaphor, allusion, witty innuendos called (qine), in everyday conversations and often use exaggerated phrases to emphasize a point. On one occasion when my brother was having a difficult time understanding a simple direction I was giving him, I told him that speaking to him was like pouring water on rocks, meaning to say that telling him to do anything was pointless. Amharic literature comprises genres of poetry. One genre, wax and gold (sem ena werq) is a form of poetry in which a verse rhymes but also has two different meanings. The apparent or obvious meaning of the words in the verse are the “wax” (sem), and the hidden, more deeper meaning of the words are the “gold” (werq) which a person has to think about in order to find the meaning. My mother is a master of sem ena werq and often quizzes me and my siblings at the dining table. Coffee is a cultural drink in Ethiopia and its drinking has a ritual process that can sometimes take a whole hour. Coffee is brewed with a traditional clay pot called ‘jebena’ and is served with tiny cups that don’t have handles. Ethiopian butter called ‘kibe’, salt, sugar and tiny branches of rue known as ‘tenadam’ are served as condiments to choose from for your cup of coffee. When this coffee drinking ceremony is only done by women, it is acknowledged that gossip takes place. As a child my father used to tell me not to sit with my mother when she and her friends were having coffee because “men don’t gossip nor should they be around it.” Handshakes with direct eye contact is a normal way to greet someone in Ethiopia but after you have established a close relationship with someone, it is customary to kiss a person on the cheek three times alternately. Sometimes twice which can sometimes create an awkward situation when you lean in for a third kiss but the person has turned away.

I miss waking up to the beautifully eerie hymns that echoed in the morning from the orthodox church in the neighborhood where I grew up in Ethiopia. I say eerie because the hymns are in an ancient language known as Geez that is now considered to be a dead language but it sounded very beautiful to me. Even though I no longer live in Ethiopia, I still remember the peaceful feeling I would get when listening to the hymns in the morning. It was a comforting routine that I miss. Religion, specifically the Christian orthodox church, is a very embedded part of Ethiopia’s culture and dominates the political and social life of its people. Ethiopia embraced Christianity in the 4th century, long before Europe. Much of Amharic words actually rely on religious symbolism. Rue, a plant used in Ethiopia to spice up tea and coffee also used to cure headaches and flu is called (tenadam) which means the health of adam. Most Ethiopians go to church on a daily basis as there is a church in about every neighborhood. Some go really early in the morning to give thanks to god and say a few minutes of prayer. Women that are on their period are not allowed to go inside a church because they are considered to be unclean and so would instead pray at the gates of a church.

I always feel the need to educate others about my culture. I like to talk to people about the things I’m proud of, so they know that I have many reasons to be as equally proud of my culture as they are of theirs. Many people forget that the earth is so huge and there is an entire world out there, apart from where they live. This is a fact that I tend to forget, because growing up, traveling, and living in other countries, and attending an international school, has taught me to appreciate and respect other cultures. It was also humbling to learn how small my perception of the world was. I learned that in each culture, there is a significant source of pride. Unfortunately, not many people are fortunate enough to experience other cultures as I have, and so they live the rest of their lives with a very limited perception of the world even in this age where knowledge about almost everything is accessible to most people. There is a saying in my country that “too much honey will taste bitter,” which is an obvious euphemism for saying that anything in excess is bad. Too much pride in one’s culture is bad because it bolsters arrogance and ignorance. I believe this is the cause of many issues concerning race in many parts of the world. Dale Carnegie wrote in one of his books that “when dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures bristling with prejudices motivated by pride and vanity.” Our pride in our culture should neither cause us to be prejudiced nor vain. While I think it’s totally okay to be proud of each of our cultures, we should acknowledge each person’s right to be proud as well, and advocate for it even.  Our pride should not cause us to be vain about our culture that we boast about being the greatest country in the world, or unconsciously belittle people from other places, or feel that our culture encompasses the right to be the moral beacon of the world. We should learn to find fascination in other cultures, just as we do with other things that are unknown to us, like space, wildlife, and our oceans. So be adventurous. Read a book or watch a documentary about a different culture and its history. Learn a new language. If you are able, travel to different countries. By doing this, you will learn to see the humanity in everyone and be more empathetic towards others. It will make you more knowledgeable, and perhaps open you up to different opportunities.

I think employing people that have a background in different cultures is a very beneficial thing for schools and other institutions that have a goal towards being inclusive. Last year, on the first day of my Korean class, I introduced myself to the teacher, who was Korean, and told her where I was from. She had a surprising reaction and told me that, in her culture, Ethiopians were known to be great warriors and had once come to Korea’s rescue in a time of desperate need. She then had the entire class stand up and thank me. It was a funny and memorable moment. The other day, I met a woman who was substituting for my art teacher and when I told her that I was from Ethiopia she also had things to tell me about my culture that I had no idea about. She told me that in Greek mythology, Ethiopians were highly favored by the Greek gods and how one Greek god, Poseidon, dined with them. It is instances like these that make me proud to be an Ethiopian. It makes me feel accepted, respected, and included. And I would never have experienced this if there weren’t people interested in other cultures or didn’t have a background in other cultures in my school. So institutions like schools should employ people from other cultures or people who have taken a course about a different culture, its history or its language because they could provide more knowledge to others apart from what they have their expertise in. Having people from different cultures on staff can also help to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for students from those cultures. It can be reassuring for students to see someone who looks like them or who shares their cultural background working at their school or institution.

Culture is a vital part of one’s identity and should be celebrated and embraced, rather than denied or discouraged. It is important to remember that culture encompasses a wide range of elements, including language, customs, traditions, values, beliefs, and behaviors. When people are made to feel ashamed of their culture or encouraged to abandon it in favor of another culture, it can lead to feelings of alienation, detachment, and inferiority. These negative feelings can have a lasting impact on individuals and can even contribute to the development of an inferiority complex. It is therefore essential that people are allowed to embrace and celebrate their cultural heritage, rather than being made to feel ashamed or pressured to assimilate to another culture. By valuing and respecting diversity, we can create a more inclusive and accepting society where everyone can feel proud of who they are and where they come from.