National Culture and the Cricket Test

I recently watched an episode of “Imagination” on BBC on an American teacher in the US. The class comprised a good mix of students from different ethnicity. Quite a few of them were second generation South East Asians and Hispanics.

I felt that the teacher was using his English class to inculcate values that would do not only America proud but humanity as well. There were a number of works that were being studied. Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn seemed to have significant mindshare.

In one of the sound bites the teacher said that the students were learning to identify with the American culture. This struck me as a remarkable sentence. The idea of a democracy has been stumbled upon in various geographies by quite a few cultures in different ages. There has been civil war in the United States of America because a significant number of citizens adopted a strong position on freedom as a birthright and that all men are created equal.

But aren’t these “values” only? Or do values form a dominant component in the definition of “culture”? The phrase “American culture” feels, sort of, strange to me. I have been hearing of the term “the melting pot” for years and have only partly understood it

I remember the short story “The Ice Palace” from way back at school. The compatibility, or lack thereof, of the way of life between the northern and southern regions was under the microscope of the class. In India we call it the unity in diversity.

The Canadian way of life – on the other hand – that I was exposed to while in Toronto was very different. I commented to a lot of people that America tolerates while Canada accepts. The arterial road has signs in Korean, Japanese, and Arabic besides the ones in the standard language. In fact there are two standard languages. Every paper napkin in the Subway fast food chain has text in English and French at opposite corners.

Australian, I have heard, is possessive of its Australian identity. The white Caucasian American will go back to Ireland or Wales to re-discover where her or his ancestors were from, but that is not the way of the Australian. An Australian is an Australian is an Australian.

On 21 May 1972 a Hungarian-born Australian geologist name Laszlo Toth damaged the Pieta by Michelangelo at The Vatican with fifteen strikes of his hammer. Catholics and art connoisseurs of the world were disturbed. So were a group of Christian Brothers. One of them was an Australian. Another, an Irishman settled in India, remarked “It seems he is of Hungarian origin” to soften the blow. The Australian Brother was stern “He is an Australian”. Is that another version of the melting pot?

What is a melting pot anyway? A euphemism cooked by a nation of immigrants? Can the melting pot be a culture? What is culture, or more importantly, what is this concept of the national culture? The concept of the nation state is fairly new in the history of mankind while culture is as old as human civilization.

In India we have this trail of culture that recedes beyond history, legends and myths. It certainly reaches out beyond the constraints of the nation state that came in being on August 15, 1947 A.D. Pundits have found threads that have evolved from the banks of the Indus and have got entangled with the confluence of the three seas at Kanyakumari.

We, the people of the modern day nation state of India, are comfortable with this evolution of thought, values, civilization, religion or language. We call the current stage of this evolution as our culture. We have this comfortable feeling that our fore fathers have been around for millennia and have been part of this evolution.

There have been settlers who have come in from time to time; but that too has been centuries ago. They are now an integral part of Indian culture. So when I see second and third (or even fourth or fifth) generation settlers becoming one with the “culture” of the administrative entity of a nation state I feel something is not being defined correctly.

You can adopt a family and become one of them. The duration of the process would perhaps depend on the size of the family, the diversity in thought processes, the bond within the members and a host of other factors. It is, nevertheless, conceivable. But can one come from a culture half way round the globe and adopt another in a matter of a few generations? Can one ever really pass the “Cricket Test”?

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