Culture Clashes

In the 70s we played picture lottery with our children, a game whose purpose isn't just to find the winner, but to have a good time.  (If the purpose had been to find the winner, we could have finished it much quicker by determining the order of the pieces and then examine the last pieces: who gets the last one, who the last but one, etc.?).
   Back then we noted with satisfaction that the game was educational as the pieces had pictures from all over the world: famous buildings from all continents (the Great Chinese Wall, the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building, etc.); grand panoramas and views (e.g. the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, the Sahara); and typical examples of how life is lived in other parts of the world (Aborigines in Australia, Native Indians in Bolivia, Inuits in Greenland, Nomads in Africa, etc.) - all in their "natural" surroundings and representatives of a culture which has been adapted to climate and geography through centuries.
   Both the caller and the other participants in the game thus increased their knowledge of the world, at any rate on this superficial level of recognition.

Downtown Aalborg, Denmark, is a mix of beautiful old restored buildings, some of which date from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - the kind that tourists are shown as "typical" of our country in glossy brochures - and modern buildings in today's architectural style.  Both types of buildings house what epitomize our present civilization: offices, shops and restaurants, even residences, and thus they present an adequate picture of the Denmark of today that we live in with memories of our cultural past that are always present since we are daily reminded of them.
   Sometimes when wandering the streets of the inner city, I feel as if living in two different worlds, past and present, as the old buildings stamped with the years of their making on the front and the narrow lanes between them ooze with history.  Yet, the physical appearance of the buildings and the daily life in them form a symbiosis - they "fit" one another, and usually, out of habit, we don't pay too much attention to this fact apart from enjoying the union of the old with the new.

Once my physician had his offices in one of the old buildings, and the waiting time often flew away as I realized that his waiting room used to be the bedroom of one of the early residents, complete with fire-place and other "relics".  As a result I was often transported 350-plus years back in time and imagined the occupants in nightcaps and -dresses in front of the old box bed and enjoyed the "continuity" in the room much the same way I enjoy standing by my father's writing desk or when using my Grandmother's old baking dish.

Still – the veneration for the times of old is not total: how often have I felt a sense of discomfort when banners and posters announcing today's best buy have been hoisted directly in front of or next to these beautiful old houses that emanate history.
   How can the city of Aalborg invest in the preservation of these buildings and at the same time allow the disfiguring of them?  Is this a misunderstood gesture of "live and let live" because the businesses make the tax revenue that preserve the buildings?  Is the municipality afraid of setting limits for economic life?  Or is it to avoid any moldy feeling of  living in "museums" - or is it just a result of barbaric foolishness?

Yesterday I saw an interesting silhouette standing in front of these images of Danish architecture: an African woman from the desert, clad in a typical attire of her region: a long cloak that covered her head, face, and most of her body.  Indeed a "stranger".

The word alone sets all alarm bells off, and I feel the shame rising to my cheeks:   human worth, human rights, humanism, respect for the individual being, ethno-centrism, the global village, the good Samaritan ..., - in just a few seconds all kinds of thoughts race through my head and compete to "explain" to me my initial surprise at seeing the woman in these surroundings and the ensuing instinctive penance.
   I know full well that there are refugees and immigrants in Aalborg and that many of them come to the center to change busses there and that their attire is traditional, perhaps religious, a thing not changed because of a change of address.
   My own clothes are not very ”trendy”.  Even if I was given them for free, I wouldn't exchange my present clothes with anything other than what I have gotten used to as being "me": a casual style in which an element of usefulness is dominant (e.g. lots of pockets). In that way I'm just like the woman.
   Still: a McCloud cowboy i New York, a Texan in a ten gallon hat in Dublin, an Inuit wearing kamiks in Rome…?  Everybody can wear what they like, but if I moved to Africa, I would probably start wearing what everybody else is wearing, i.e. a practical dress tailored to the climate and culture instead of my teacher's look of the 70s.

Two questions arise from this:
   1) are we (but) what we look like - are the material outer "things" we consume an
       adequate expression of our culture?  or
   2) are the thoughts we think, our scheme of things, the common denominator for
       what we call our "culture"?
   In both instances the African woman falls outside - she is not Denmark.

But a multi-cultural society, then?  We are already a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, and the fact that I can still be surprised at that is but my own fault.
   But, our integration programs focus on leveling multiethnic/-cultural differences.
   NB ”integration” – and not "information", i.e. we do not inform immigrants of "our" way of life (whatever that is) because we want to respect the others' way of life, but because we want them to adapt to our ways.
   But to expect from them that they should venerate the old buildings in Aalborg would be too much and absurd.

So, those who will and can enjoy the historical continuity, and those who cannot, or will not, just pass – among them a great number of Danes whose families have lived here for centuries.  If they don't feel any veneration, how can we ask it of immigrants?

There's much pointing to the only solution possible: that I must change my perspective of the world, and that as soon as possible.  I must learn to accept that eventually my sense of "living history" around me will be obsolete.  At any rate, one can't build one's perception of cultures on the stereotypes shown in the picture lottery.
   There's just one problem: the people in the pictures are still living in the same places and in the same ways in agreement with their history and traditions.  Only, some of them have moved to Denmark.
   Heaven knows how they perceive themselves in these new surroundings?

See also "Traditional and Future Values"

October 2000
Erik Moldrup