Someone asked me the other day: what is the difference between culture and tradition? This was one of those thought provoking questions commonly posed by English learners. A native speaker tends to understand both things without thinking too much about the connection.
Without reference to a dictionary I surmised that the elements of a culture were the traditions of a society. That the traditions were the individual things and all together they made up the culture. Maybe the answer to “what is Thai culture?” could be answered by a list of Thai traditions. This list would include holidays; activities like sports and Thai massage; historical persons and events; attitudes; laws; foods; languages; religions and the arts. Anything that we think of as Thai.
The dictionary supported my intuition. For “culture,” the number two definition was, “the customs, ideas, and social behavior of a particular people or group.” For “tradition,” the number one definition was, “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.”
This all begs the question: what is American culture?
America is an amazingly diverse place. In wave after wave of immigration, for three hundred years, all of the world’s peoples have moved in great numbers to America. They retain elements of their home cultures while adapting to a waiting American culture. But what is that waiting culture? Today, different individuals will offer different explanations. For some, America is a white, protestant culture. Some complain that America is a mongrel culture. American culture has long been described as a “melting pot.” Like I said, families retain traditions from their home cultures through many generations. My own family celebrated thirteen holidays at my grandmother’s house, including St. Patrick’s Day. No one there would have objected to being categorized as “Irish Americans,” but we all knew that our natural place in the world was the United States.
The culture question may seem much more straightforward as regards Thai culture, because it is easy to mistake Thailand for a homogeneous society like Japan or Denmark. Thailand, however, is anything but homogeneous.
Physically, the Thais are a very diverse population. It is a crossroads nation, with influences running north to China (vocabulary, sound system, diet), south through the archipelago nations (vocabulary), and west to India (alphabet, vocabulary, religions). So the shape of the eye in Thailand varies from heavy double-lidded to very wide open; skin tone ranges from bone-white to deep bronze; and hair texture also varies.
There is also great variety to the languages regularly spoken in Thailand. The official language is Thai, called either “central Thai” or “Bangkok Thai.” There are many regional dialects, most of which are mutually incomprehensible. At least half of Thai people speak one language at home and another one, central Thai, at school or business. In the far corners of the Kingdom these local languages really predominate.
There are many things that hold the Thai people together, notably the monarchy and Thai Buddhism. My own feeling is that the greatest glue is the ancient Thai tradition of getting along, or not giving offense. Maybe, as a Korean friend suggested to me, this getting along is due to the huge area of the rice fields, where people worked, played, lived and ate together and getting along was important. Maybe it’s just because Thailand is too great a place to screw up with contention.
In spite of all of the diversity there is a recognizable Thai culture at work. Its origins differ most from American culture in its age. While Americans have shared the American character for only three hundred years (it formed before the revolution), Thais have been essentially Thai for 3,000 years.
So what, then, is American culture? This has been turned into a political question in our time. Clearly, America is not a homogeneous society racially or ethnically. All of the world’s peoples are represented. It is not, nor has it ever been, religiously or linguistically homogeneous. This comes as a surprise to most people. In the colonial period there were some fifteen different sects of Christianity, and there was great hostility between them. There were large populations of French, Dutch and German speakers in the colonies, with their own newspapers if population density allowed it. As we can see from the Thai example though, this diversity does not prohibit the formation of a common culture.
America is a much bigger country, and that may once have generated regional differences. In our own time, the distances have been shrunk to insignificance by advances in transportation and communications.
What can we point to as elements of the uniquely American character?
1. We have always been a commercial people, trade has always been the backbone of America. We also like the idea of being our own bosses and striking our own deals with one another;
2. We think big, we are accustomed to broad vistas to be explored and exploited, and we are accustomed to a full range of opportunities;
3. We are a mobile people, we are willing to move around and we have plenty of room to move around in;
4. We value individual freedom, both economic freedom and the freedom from political interference;
5. We are plain speaking and hardworking, and we believe in fair dealing as a way of doing business; and
6. We value the freedom to be a little different from each other and not be penalized for it. Consider that many groups that are now considered mainstream, like Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, and even Episcopalians, were once persecuted minorities.
These are the characteristics that separated us from our former countrymen in Europe. At some point we were no longer “English” or “German,” we were American. This was the genesis of our desire to find our own destiny as a new country.
The waves of immigrants who have joined us over the years have universally embraced these attitudes and preferred them to the situation in their countries of emigration. Few people return to their former homes, and if they do it is usually due to economic or family pressures.
So yes, I believe that there is an American culture such as I have described, and that it has maintained its typical American character throughout our history.
Further, I believe that our diversity is our greatest strength. The United States is the only country in the world where a newcomer of any description can make a new home and become as American as anybody, and quickly too. I think that it is horribly wrong to consider, as many do today, that this diversity is a dilution of true American culture. Note that many groups that faced oppression in the past, such as the Italians or the Irish, have proven themselves many times over to be good Americans and are, today, accepted as such. I could say that the Chinese too have proven themselves as much as anybody to be great Americans, but the acceptance part lags behind, doesn’t it? Could it be . . . racism? Well yes it could. Racism is the reason for that “dilution of American culture” argument. One can only hope that there will be progress. Even “two steps forward, one step back” will get you someplace eventually.
I’m still proud to be an American, although I do complain bitterly about many of the actions of our government these days. Perhaps complaining is part of the American character too! But whatever our government does to embarrass us around the world, individual Americans are still recognized as tolerant, friendly, co-operative and fair minded people (and welcomed in all of the world’s taxis as good tippers too).
That’s our culture! I only wish that our government would stay closer to our shared values.