Monday, November 13, 2006

Cultural Musings

what are you doing?
Originally uploaded by Bob Jones.

So, we were at my parents' place on Saturday night, celebrating my dad's 72nd birthday. After dinner, my niece (that's who the shot is of) said something about Canada not having any culture. A precise echo of my own thoughts. But this conversation got me thinking, just as my students have gotten me thinking, and tonight I present you with my thus semi-formulated (and not very original) thoughts.

Of course in comparison to many countries, Canada seems to be greatly devoid of culture. I mean, how can you compare with the thousands and thousands of years other countries have on us? I've tossed this idea around in my head as I've travelled to and from Niagara and Mohawk Colleges, time on my hands, and as I've missed the festivals and formalities of life in Japan. But there is one aspect of Canadian culture that has become all too clear to me on our return to Canada, and my return to the world of ESL in North America...the culture of tolerance.

When we were in Japan, I was proud of our Canadian tolerance. I loved how Jeff and I always tried to understand and appreciate the Japanese way, even when it drove us crazy. We were always open to new ideas and ways of thinking. But now, back in Canada, I grow weary. Very weary. You could look at this whole tolerance thing in many different lights, but being an ESL teacher, that will be my shadow of choice for this evening.

Since my return to the North American ESL classroom, I have welcomed with open arms students from China, Syria, Cambodia, Switzerland, Libya, Korea, India, Mexico, Poland, Colombia, Taiwan, and Palestine to my fair country. (Yes, I do feel like I'm teaching a virtual UN this term. And notice the peculiar absence of Japanese students...hmmm...) I have given them a warm, kind Canadian welcome. I have listened to them go on about how boring our planned activities are (like sitting on your ass in Welland is so much more exciting), complain about how all Canadians are fat and need to diet, and flat-out state that they aren't interested in various culturally-related activities like Halloween because "it's not our culture, so let's just study English." I have watched them stick to their own cultural groups in and out of class, even when I try my best to mix them up, and I've listened to them go on about what they did last weekend...with people from their same country. And then I've listened to them whine about how their English isn't improving fast enough.

And I have smiled. I have humoured them, gently goaded them... and smiled.

But I finally caved. My tolerance waned. Last week, I almost lost it when my student from India claimed that "Hitler was a great man, and he only killed people when he had a good reason to kill them," said that Schindler's List was based on fiction, and then challenged me to cite my sources when I tried to tell him otherwise! I also finally told my students that I don't ever want to hear them talk about weight in class again because I find it irritating, and that in Canada we really try to see beyond the outside appearance of a person to their heart. (Ya, imagine explaining that to a group of level all began with me writing the word "superficial" on the board and telling them to look it up in their electronic dictionaries!) And I also asked yet another group of students how they would feel if I went to China, studied Chinese, and then told them that I didn't give two figs about their culture, geography, or history because "it's not MY culture...!" (Response? Stunned looks...and no, I didn't literally say "two figs". Are you kidding?)

But don't worry. Through it all, I still smiled. Only the Hitler-supporter felt any actual measure of anger, and that only lasted the 5 minutes or so till break.

My conclusions? I'd rather stick my head in the sand than know the honest truth of how many of my students interpret world history and politics. I'd also rather stick to teaching the subject matter of the English language than get caught up in this sticky, cultural stuff...but that's the joy of teaching ESL in Canada.

But overall, I have to say the worst feeling is the sense of being used. I mean, this is Canada. We pride ourselves on being multicultural. But I keep getting the sneaking suspicion that the students we are welcoming in and teaching are not as interested in embracing multiculturalism - in plugging into Canadian society as it were - as we are. Let's face it: the English language is a powerful tool. A lot of these students simply want to grab the tool and learn to use it as fast as they can, all for their own gain.

And heck, why not? More power to them. But it doesn't mean I have to tolerate it.

How can I tolerate it when Jeff and I just spent the last two years eagerly exploring every facet of Japanese life available to us, whether boring, uncomfortable, or confusing? When we were so willing to put our culture to the side in order to learn from a new one? Or was that us just being Canadian? So therefore we shouldn't expect the same of people from other countries? Oh listen to me, will you? "shouldn't expect the same of people from other countries." There's my tolerance lingo again...

I'm so confused!


Sarah said...

Good one Kathy, when I am sitting here in Japan wishing for all things Canada I can read this and be thankful for where I am and remeber that I am going to miss all the things that are driving me to the brink of insanity later. But I do disagree about the lack of culture, I would kill for a piece of Canadiana - someone please order me a double,, double!

Joanne said...

I'm with Sarah on the double double. Although I am enjoying my hot o-cha in a can nothing compares to good old Tim's.

In all seriousness though, I bristle whenever someone says that Canada has no culture. It offends me. It is a hard thing to define, I'll give you that, but we do have it.

epps_nihon_go said...

So we have two perspectives from Canadians living in Japan...
Any from Canadians living in Canada?

Anonymous said...

i am seriously patriotic and i love canada and everything about it. just a couple things come to my mind. as canadians we don't trumpet our goods, we would rather prefer to others. i guess we're just not that very arrogant. we would rather make peace than war. we actually don't really even mind if someone has something better than us because, well, we're just happy with what we have. but, on the other hand, another thought comes to me and that is, for some 'the grass is always greener on the other side'. i think that speaks for itself. we have so much stinkin' culture its just hard for us to see it or appreciate it sometimes. yeh canada, your the best damn country in the world. erika

Mikiko Fukuda said...

I think everyone is missing the POINT of the blog AND misinterpreting the word 'culture' here. I also think that a VERY large fact isn't being mentioned:Canadian culture started with Aboriginal people as they were ORIGINALLY the TRUE Canadians, and as a result are what TRUE Canadian culture IS. If the only thing we Canadians can boast as culture is watered-down coffee then I think we DESPERATELY need more education about our country.

ブライアン said...


分かりました、I'm more convinced than ever that we're in desperate need of a 電話…しかもできるだけ早い方がいいような気が… and as an official Canuck halfie I must admit a certain confusion at all the CULTURE Culture culture 文化 ぶんか カルチャー musings I've seen in response to your latest bloggasm... no surprise, really, that ミキコ様's made my heart beat fastest(てかミキコは自分のblogを一体when the hellなら最新するのかな~?)

mariaborito said...

WOW! what a response! this just goes to say kath that you have people's attention. people want to dialogue with you! so i have a lot to say as well but thank you Mikiko! thankyou! i work with Aboriginal's and they are trying everything they can to restore their sabotaged, mutalated culture. it's virtually impossible actually. i think i must have my own musings on this matter of canada because it bugs me like crazy.

Kye said...

I agree with you part of Canadian Culture is tolerance. We have such amazing icons and things that define the country, but don't seem to relate to the people themselves.

I find that when people ask me what I am, and I say Canadian, they say.. "no, where are you really from?". I am proud to say that my family has been here for confirmed 11 generations. I am Canadian. I am proud to be Canadian.

Your Favorite Bornagaincanuck said...

Culture? Isn't it just America Junior? Doh!

Holly said...

Hi there,

My name's Holly and I'm a first year student at UBC hoping to go on an exchange to Japan next year, hence my perusal of your Japanese themed blog.

I've lived in various parts of the Canadian West my whole life, and my family has been here for many generations. Basically I'm about as "Canadian" (blood wise at least, but we all know that being Canadian doesn't always have to do with your bloodlines) as you get on the Prairies and West coast (besides of course The First Nations) , but I do agree that Canadian culture is difficult to pin down.

In fact, I've only really gotten to know my own culture because of going to university and living in Residence with so many people from different cultures and countries. But once I started looking, really looking for my culture, I realised that it was there, something that was part of my everyday experience, things I had really never thought about.

Canada's a funny place, and even her citizens don't quite get her. We're a young country, so we don't have the history of some places. We're not an economic giant, so we don't have the "power" and "promise" of a place like America. We're a huge country with a small population, this has lead to severe regionalization. I mean many times, you're from Alberta, BC, or Ontario before you're from Canada.

But at the same time, Canada is it's own country with an incredibly diverse culture and identity. We span so many cultures and have so many quirks. I mean have you ever tried to explain the relationship between Quebec and English speaking Canada to someone from another country? It's something we all intrinsically understand. Canada is prairies and farmland, mixed with vast forests and long coastlines. We're neighbors to the Americans, inhabitants of the frozen north, players of hockey and drinkers of Timmy's coffee. We may not have a distinctly Canadian "culture" or traditions dating back centuries, but I've always thought that this was a bit of an irrelevant point. I mean, we're a young nation with barely 500 years of history and only a handful as an actual country. Of course we don't have the same kind of "culture" of nations have. I've always kind of believed that we're writing and changing our traditions with time. That we're a part of the culture rather than just the practitioners. I've always believed this made us special. Canada is a nation which, no matter how many differences may be present, it ultimately united by them. One of the greatest things about living in Canada is the distinct attitude of being able to be so different yet at the same time Canadian. If this isn't something special and unique to our country, worthy of the word culture, I really don't know what else is.