Recognizing Culture

Importance of recognizing culture

I’ve always had trouble recognizing culture, even in my own life. When someone asks me about my culture, they’re met with a blank stare as I panic internally and consider how much to tell them.

I speak a bit of Cantonese, but I’m also half Vietnamese. My mom is Buddhist, but my dad is agnostic. My friends outside of Walnut care too little about their academics, but my friends at Walnut are easily the opposite. The majority of my cousins are Christian, but the most I do in regards to religion is pray to my ancestors a couple of times a year at the shrine my grandma keeps tucked in the corner of the living room. Case in point: I realized that I’m surrounded by a multitude of cultures: few of which I actually know about, but more importantly, few of which I’ve truly bothered learning about.

The effort that we put into learning about the cultures that surround us on a daily basis has a direct correlation with our ability to understand each other. Growing up in a city as culturally diverse as Walnut has given me the opportunity to learn about and acknowledge a wide variety of cultures outside of my own. Outside of Walnut, the aforementioned cultures have been grossly oversimplified to, “He’s Chinese.” When I first heard that, I thought, “They aren’t wrong,” and consequently brushed the comment to the side. Such stereotyping reduces a culture’s countless aspects and oversimplifies it far more than necessary. We have yet to realize that America is not a melting pot of cultures that have melded into one, but rather a salad bowl that contains a plethora of cultures. The absence of this realization has in turn lead to an inability to recognize culture.

But I’m guilty of hastily generalizing and misinterpreting culture as well. Exhibit A: Lunar New Year. For many years it was simply Chinese New Year to me. And I loved it, partly because it meant I got to see my cousins, but mostly because it was one of the few opportunities I had to taste savory, mouthwatering roast duck, feel the satisfying crunch of crispy roast pork and finish the meal off with the mellow warmth of lotus soup. As I grew older, I began to realize it was less about food or seeing my cousins and more about celebrating a cultural event for a group that places a heavy emphasis on family.  

I remember wondering why the Vietnamese side of my family bothered celebrating the holiday since they clearly weren’t Chinese. I just assumed Chinese New Year to them was like Christmas to the general populace: an opportunity for a family dinner and gifting, another crass misinterpretation of culture on my part. But soon, I realized that Chinese New Year was simply the beginning of the lunar calendar, making the phrase “Chinese New Year” nothing more than the mainstream term used to refer to Lunar New Year.  

On Friday, Aug. 24, the state of California recognized Lunar New Year as an official holiday. The officiation of such a holiday, dubbed Lunar New Year rather than Chinese New Year, is a milestone in regards to recognizing cultures, especially since the majority of the California legislative body is non-Asian. From a personal standpoint, the title of Lunar New Year over Chinese New Year represents the acknowledgement of my Vietnamese heritage, which has generally received little to no attention from those who don’t know me personally. As a bi-ethnic Asian American, this recognition of both sides of my culture is among the first that I’ve ever experienced.

Recognizing culture is a matter of inclusivity. Not recognizing culture therefore hinders our ability to be not only inclusive, but also understanding of each other.

By Isaac Le, Staff writer
Editorial Cartoon by Amy Lo