Notes On Multi-Cultural Experience: Music And Growing Up

For a long time, as a writer, I have resisted writing about multi-cultural issues, or from a multi-cultural perspective. I thought for all this while that the reason I did not want to write like this was because I was not drawn to multi-cultural topics, and there was also, for me, something naive and hackneyed about it. The greatest cliche of all was that of the stereotypical cross-cultural experience, usually involving gaffes at a party and tensions in a relationship. I felt that these ideas had already been written about so extensively that I could do no better than sound the same tired aphorisms and come to the same, well-trodden, conclusions.

More recently, I started considering the possibility that I didn’t have a reason for not writing about multi-cultural issues, merely a rationalization for it. This realization about myself was itself revelatory enough, that it has inspired me to shake off a long-held moratorium on writing about multi-culturalism and plunge headlong into the thick porridge of thoughts, experiences, ideas and ideologies that had been brewed over many decades by writers of this ilk.

What is this rationalization? I believe it’s simply that because I don’t really know what “culture” means, or haven’t cared to come to terms with what it means to me, I haven’t actually been in a position to write about multi-culturalism. I have been incompetent and the trick was to pretend I was indifferent. That was where the rationalization came from. Perhaps also I was avoiding the troubles that come with grappling with the role of “culture” or “my culture” in defining who I am. Intellectually speaking, I have been performing a difficult surgical procedure of separating from my identity the very notion of “cultural conditioning.” It’s like pretending your skin doesn’t exist really, but I didn’t think it was particularly naive to think of myself as purely what I make of myself, rather than what my cultural background has made of me.

To be sure, this highly individualistic stance is not novel or too uncommon, particularly when you are speaking intellectually. Stalin might have invented the term “rootless cosmopolitan” to politically isolate and persecute Russian Jews, but its an accusation whose sting has proved useful in a world that is globalized beyond the dream of the statesmen of Stalin’s era. More states and regimes feel the dislocating threat of multi-national corporations and floating labor populations that will any day heed the calls of the highest bidder over the trumpets of patriotic fervor. Even before Stalin, intellectualism had already proclaimed the triumph of the individual perspective over absolute truth and objective standards. In our post-modern era, one would rather stand everything than have to stand up to anything. This is the age when we create our identity out of a patchwork of cultural influences, appropriating which ever influences suit our moods and desires. And if such a self-making strategy dovetails with the ability to find the best deal on everything, from cheap Japanese cars to “value” New World wines to inexpensive Kenyan-manufactured footwear, so much the better.

But the identity one manufactures is meant to feed the emotions one hopes to have, while the emotions we have already spring from wells that were cut deep by the winds of our past. When we are flooded by the waters of feelings we cannot explain or control, then it behooves us to examine, no matter how convinced we are of being masters of our own fate, what role our roots, our provenance, our heritage, are playing in propelling us onwards.

Which brings me to where I am at. My own multi-cultural moment. I might as well admit right at the beginning that it happened within my relationship with a woman who is of a different culture than I am. There, how ironic. That I should have laughed at the inability of others before me to navigate away from the rocky shores of mixed race relationships, and then found myself floundering in those same, treacherous, waters. Obviously, I should have been learning how to swim instead of merely getting a tan on the beach and having fun at others’ expense.

I can’t remember what made my girlfriend observe thusly, but I remember she stood in front of the body-length mirror in our bedroom and said, “Multi-cultural relationships are hard.” I was in bed, waiting for the day to start. I don’t have a job right now, and she does. I figure she must have been just getting ready, starting the day, just making conversation before she headed out to work, completely oblivious that what she had just said had planted a bomb inside my head, its insides ticking away threateningly. Tick, tick, tick…

So what’s so hard about multicultural relationships? … tick, tick, tick, … Was I actually in one, … tick, tick, tick, … despite the best of my efforts to pretend not, to pretend that I was in simply a relationship, a social contract based on love and mutual respect, … tick, tick, tick, … between a man and woman like so many others, unlabeled, unconditioned? Wasn’t this relationship … tick, tick, tick, … of exactly the same kind that billions before me in the human race had entered?

Tick, tick, tick, …

She’s Korean-American, born in India. I was born in India, where most of my family lives.

Tick, tick, tick, …

But I have lived in the United States for over ten years now, so I am partially ‘American’ myself, which might explain the relative ease with which we established our relationship, relative at least to the more stereotypical case of a romance formed fresh off the boat. I would like to think that it wasn’t the reckless adventurer and exotic foreigner in me that was attractive to my girlfriend, well at least not now after we’ve known each other for over two years. If that is indeed the case, I would have to rethink how much credit I usually give to the allure that the East has over people living in the West.

And even before I came to the States, I was no stranger to the Western world. Indeed, how many of us can be, if we have received an expensive education and had ambitions, or at least were raised with parents who had ambitions, of acquiring knowledge and a career of renown and remuneration? I grew up speaking English, the language of global communication, watching Hollywood movies, reading  the classics of British and American literature, and listening to the Beatles.

Ah, music. The great equalizer. Drinking my Coca Cola, listening to rock-and-roll, uh — that could easily be the refrain to an international anthem of teenagehood. Was my childhood any different than that of the average American’s, steeped as it was in the same mixture of lyrics celebrating love, rebellion and pure nonsense? And even if it was different, how did that matter? It was listening to this music that counted, knowing reality through the lens of the sentiments espoused by Brit rock,  then Sixties pop, then New Wave, then Heavy Metal, then grunge bands.

Yes, we all studied hard because that’s what children of the aspiring middle class do, but under our breaths, we agreed with Pink Floyd’s verdict that we didn’t need no education. … tick, tick, tick, … We broke it down to Michael Jackson albums, and we woke them up before they had to go-go. Even though few of us had experienced the pleasures and pains of altered states of consciousness, still, when Cobain died, … tick, tick, tick, … we knew his nirvana was something more exciting than the dull version of salvation that came from many decades, if not multiple lives, of spiritual navel gazing.

So I was sure that culture had no role to play in a world where everything was instantly shipped around the world, and was heading to a paradise … tick, tick, tick,… where it would all become even more instantly downloadable. My culture was my own, like making a Swiss army knife out of only the tools that you are interested in carrying.

And then I started ripping my girlfriend’s CDs. And as I sat at home, unemployed, popping in one album after another from her meticulously catalogued collection, … tick, tick, tick, … a different picture of this music emerged. These weren’t CDs purchased all at one go, because she had been trying to listen to all the music of a particular band, but collected patiently over the years, as they were being put out.

The collection attested to my girlfriend’s more committed relationship with this music, a commitment that reflected the role that listening to this music played in connecting her with her peers who all underwent the same experience … tick, tick, tick, … in watching this music grow as they themselves came of age. This music was written by people who were like them and who grew with them, came from the same households they came from, wrote this music because they had the same frustrations with the society and culture they shared.

I could imagine as I picked through the CDs, mechanically burning them to MP3 format the history they embodied — this was the CD released at the concert where someone lost the hearing in their right ear; that the CD that took trips to Tower Records all over town in a van taken without permission from an uncle; and this one, oh, this one, man, … tick, tick, tick, … was played all night long on loop when one decided that sex with that cute girl was the most amazing thing one could do with one’s summer holidays.

Boom.

Culture is what happens to you when you aren’t thinking about life at all. It’s out there and it’s in you, and the artefacts of culture are not culture in themselves, but merely markers of memory. They are easy ways in which to say what culture one belongs to — the one that manufactured these commodities and created that art and built these monuments.

All the music of the West I’ve heard is nothing more than a story book that I’ve read, whose characters — the lives of contemporary Americans; the contemporary character of America itself — are as removed from my life as fictional characters in a fairy tale are. For Americans, people whose culture truly is American, those songs are memories, shared experiences, commonly-felt joys and sorrows. They are, each in their own decade, the diaries of this country’s generations. It will take me a lot of listening to be able to read deep between the lines, to know where the ink has faded away leaving only tell-tale signs of the triumphs and struggles that brought these compositions to life.

Where will my revelation take me from here? Certainly, I need to consider where my own culture is limned — in what music, in what television shows, in what common slang. Do I still have free agency? Of course, I do, not least because I can still make my own culture, not perhaps in re-defining what my background is but in asserting what will be the seed that will germinate into the arbors that shelter tomorrow’s culture. My multi-cultural relationship will define what tomorrow’s culture will be like, and that will be the source of thecontrol that my own individual agency will exert on culture. I cannot change my own culture, but I can change what culture others will grow up in, and therein lies my personal salvation.

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