National Identity vs Cultural Differences
Reader twicerandomly asked me to write about national identities, and I’m happy to oblige because I love this topic.
National identities do not exist. Nations are artificial constructs invested with manufactured meaning that doesn’t have any real content except the one we force ourselves to believe in.
Whenever Spanish speakers from different countries get together, they immediately plunge into reciting endless lists of minuscule differences between them. This is the process of manufacturing national identity from nothing, and I always die of boredom the moment this activity begins because it is beyond obvious to me that if there were any real differences, narrating them would not be necessary. I mean, just think about it. In all of these conversations, I’m standing right there, as foreign as they get, and nobody feels it necessary to discuss my difference. Yes, in Argentina and Mexico you use a different word for “skirt.” Big whoop. And I use a different word for everything, yet nobody finds that super exciting.
Real difference doesn’t need to be named, constantly and obsessively, because it doesn’t need to be made more real through the act of naming. (Now apply this idea to the folks who have an overpowering need to repeat, “Men and women are different!” and you’ll see how this very need proves them wrong.)
What does exist is cultural difference. To a limited extent, cultural differences can be traced through language. As much as this will bug 90% of my readers, Americans, Canadians, Australians and the British have enormously more in common to an outsider than they have in terms of difference. And as much as it bugs me, I am part of the Russian-speaking culture and the differences between me and Russians somewhere in Saratov are pretty cosmetic.
I don’t like my culture, as I’ve said many times. And my culture doesn’t like me back, so it’s all good. If I were to write a blog in Russian, I’d have trouble finding even just half a dozen readers. In terms of interpersonal communications, I like Hispanics the most. They are so good at this stuff (cultural difference!) that you can just float right along, no effort required.
For instance, I’m looking for a cleaning lady right now, and I really want a Hispanic woman for the job. As much as I love English-speakers (the culture is the best ever for me to live in), I might not always have the energy to carry them through a conversation. English-speakers are very class-conscious and I know enough already to realize that it’s up to the person with the higher social standing to carry everybody else in a conversation. And that tires me out enormously.
There are obvious exceptions to the language rule, of course. Jews of all languages preserve their own unique culture, and I know a lot about a Jewish family two minutes after meeting them irrespective of the language the speak.
There are also post colonial structures where people speak the language of the colonizer but have a very different culture. India is an obvious example. Many Indians speak English as their native language, but culturally they have their own, very complex and unique thing going on.
The most obvious sign that people belong to the same culture is that they feel the need to reiterate their differences. Have you ever observed an American from Seattle and an American from Atlanta? There can be crowds of fresh-off-the-boat immigrants surrounding them at a party, yet they will plunge into an endless discussion of how one’s coffee is better than the other one’s ice tea while the immigrants stand there, forlorn and excluded. This is an actual experience I’ve had and I’m aware enough to know this show was inspired, to a huge degree, by the presence of actual difference.