By Cécile Buckenmeyer
After 20 years as a cross-cultural advisor, I still wondered what ‘culture’ meant. A well accepted definition is “a pattern of thinking, feeling and potential acting” (Hofstede, 2005, p. 2), but this didn’t mean much to me personally; it didn’t describe my subjective and psychological experience of culture. In 2013, I decided to write my Diploma thesis using my personal and professional experiences on the subject of culture. I interviewed six Japanese women who had moved to the UK in the last year about their experience of cultural adaptation. This process entirely changed my perspective on culture, but also on the meaning of home. In this article, I will briefly introduce some of my findings.
The Japanese women I interviewed did not relate to the idea of a “Japanese culture.” Rather, they recalled specific experiences that were emotionally charged and created a meaningful bond between them and Japan – or more precisely, between them and the particular place in Japan where they came from. These experiences included “a pattern of thinking, feeling and potential acting” (e.g. “in Japan, it’s the Japanese way. Without talking, we know what others are thinking”), but also many sensual experiences: the “smell of burning grass,” the “colour of the sky,” the “taste of home food,” etc. I started to think that subjectively culture was a range of experiences that occur in a particular place.
I then reflected on my own relationship to places and culture: as a French national who has lived five years in Japan and the last sixteen years in the UK, what actually makes me feel connected with these cultures? When I am in France, I appreciate drinking a typically English cup of tea; it allows me to maintain a sense of connection with the English culture that I now (at least partly) identify with. When I am in the UK at Christmas, I like to make the typically Alsatian biscuits that my mother used to make. It isn’t typically French, but it is how my family used to celebrate Christmas. In both cases, I re-create experiences associated with particular places, which give continuity to my sense of identity. Through these cultural elements, I assert that wherever I am, I am the same person.
Culture is rooted in places and that relocating inevitably changes our cultural identity
One tends to think that culture is about tangible elements such as tea and biscuits, as well as a group’s accompanying values, norms, rituals, but psychologically, it is perhaps more about places and the continuity in one’s relationship with places. My hypothesis is that culture is a range of experiences that symbolise our relationship with particular places: the typically English cup of tea and the Alsatian biscuits are symbols of my relationship with places in England and France that are meaningful to me. They help me create continuity and maintain a sense of identity. I am aware that this definition emphasises “place,” but I feel that it is necessary in order to compensate a prevalent perception in our modern world that culture exists regardless of place. Some expatriates and migrants can for example delude themselves that wherever they relocate, their culture comes with them; but often their children find it difficult to form a cultural identity. As we become increasingly mobile, I think we need to recognise that culture is rooted in places and that relocating inevitably changes our cultural identity.
Japan taught me a lot about place – about focusing on “this place” and “this moment.” There is for example an expression in the Zen tradition which literary means “one time, one meeting (一期一会).” It emphasises the unique quality of each place and each moment. Shinto shrines also encourage a focus on place; they invite visitors to become aware of Kami (神unknown, hidden spirit-souls) that dwell in particular places of interest.
Kami are both many (“8 millions”) and one; they are both individual entities and parts of a whole. They dwell in the sacred areas around shrines, in objects of worship, but also in trees, stones, mountains, rivers, and occasionally people. Some shrines are dedicated to popular Kami, such as Inari, the Kami of fertility, rice, agriculture and industry; but in each shrine, people worship a particular form of this Kami, which can only be encountered in one particular place. One could say that they don’t worship “Inari”, but “this Inari.” The presence and the benevolence of Kami should not be taken for granted: it is by walking through a large wooden torii gate at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, by climbing steps, by walking through the forest, by being open to the beauty and energy of the place that surrounds the shrine and having a “reverential attitude with a feeling of awe” (Yamakage, 2006, p.75) that one may experience the presence of Kami.
When we pay our respect to “this Kami”, we engage with the spirit of the place and form a bond with it. We form an internal representation of the place and, as with transitional objects, something of our psyche is experienced in the place itself. This process involves a reduction in psychic resistance and a lowering of consciousness. It can happen willingly, but it is often triggered by illness, accidents or synchronistic events. Jung in Africa was for example never as close to the spirit of Africa, as when he suffered from a form of dengue and dreamed that a black man was making his hair “kinky” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1995, p.302). The thought of “going black” frightened him, and he was determined to return to Europe; but during his illness – when his psychic resistance was weakened – he experienced the beginning of a participation mystique with Africa which could have started the process of making it his home.
A place becomes a home when we allow ourselves to be transformed by its spirit.
As we have a “reverential attitude with a feeling of awe” towards place, we willingly reduce our psychic resistance and encounter its spirit. We may become infected by collective, unconscious elements – we may “go black” and our hair may become “kinky” – but this is necessary to make a home: a place becomes a home when we allow ourselves to be transformed by its spirit.
When I first visited Shinto shrines in my early twenties, I had an inflated idea of being a citizen of the world; writing my thesis helped me realise that home can only be in one place at a time. As I continue to drink English tea in France and eat Alsatian biscuits in England – my psyche looks for ways of creating continuity, but I have become more aware of the potency of the place where I happen to be. I know that I need to greet the local gods and to ask myself: do I have enough of a “reverential attitude with a feeling of awe”?
Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind. 2nd Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY
Jung, C.G., Jaffé A. (ed), (1995). Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Fontana Press, London
Yamakage M. (2006). The Essence of Shinto, Kodansha International, Tokyo, Japan