Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Culture Talk

The Disney Channel marked St. Patrick’s Day 2011 with an afterschool movie about a boy who was searching for his culture. He soon discovered his dad was from Cleveland and his mother was a Leprechaun. Our three children immediately noted the similarities between his family and ours.  Obviously.  Just for the record that makes their father the Leprechaun. On the other hand, Leprechauns are tiny and magical - perhaps I wouldn’t mind!
In his search for “culture” our young protagonist encounters all sorts of meaningful quandaries about what is important and what isn’t. Then he falls down a chute in a potato chip factory and ends up in a mystical battle for his freedom! What did you expect? I told you it was a Disney movie!
In spite of the ridiculous storyline, powerful questions were asked. Does where you come from even matter? If it does matter, what matters about it? When you decide it does or does not matter what do you do with it?
I’ll let you know up front that I’ve found no one who can answer these questions. I wrestle with them nearly every day. I’ve even considered giving up the struggle and declaring none of it matters! But that, my friends, is a slippery slope not worth going down, trust me.
Let me express how inadequate I feel in this debate. I have a degree in psychology and communications. I excelled in my argumentation classes. Then I go and marry an Eskimo and none of it helps! Imagine my frustration.
Fifteen years of marriage has taught me what smarter people learn a lot quicker – I know very little ABOUT ANYTHING. For example, let’s take conflict as a topic. I thought I was well-versed but then discovered I was lacking half the playbook. Here’s a quick tutorial to catch you up on the very little bit I’ve figured out about conflict in the Yupik culture. It won’t take long.
First, avoid conflict whenever possible. I love a good fight as much as the next gal so this one has been tough. In all my recent self-exploration I’ve discovered I actually pick fights when I’m lonely. That’s just great!
Commence feeling sorry for Gary here.
In perspective, avoiding conflict makes sense when you think about it. If you live in a small village in rural Alaska, it’s not a good idea to make enemies. Not only do you have to live around them but you also might find your life is in their hands in the near future.  There’s a lesson there. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
The second thing I’ve learned is that if conflict cannot be avoided, do it quickly and assume it will change the relationship. If it’s not worth that risk, continue avoiding conflict.
Hmm…this is where I draw the line. Can we talk here? I mean, literally, can we just talk about this? I remember a family issue with one of Gary’s relatives that affected Colton. I went to my mother in law and asked how to address it so as to not to offend. Her answer was simple.
“You can’t,” she said. “Anything you say will damage the relationship.”
I was stunned. I should have listened. She was right. End of story.
This is an aspect of culture I don’t accept. Granted, conflict avoidance is appropriate and healthy in many cases, but there have to be ways to engage in conflict and walk thru to the other side with a stronger relationship. So we work to find a balance; a new interpretation for our family that makes sense.
That’s not so different than everyone else, is it?
Now let’s talk about talking. I’m a talker. There, I’ve said it. As if you hadn’t figured that out on your own! I’m a talker who married into a culture that still understands the slight raise of the eyebrows in combination with a lift of the chin means “yes.” Needless to say, I have too many words.
I remember sitting in the family room with my future father in law. I have no idea what I was talking about, but I know I was talking – a lot apparently. He turned to me with a smile and said the only words he spoke that entire evening.
“You talk a lot.”
Yes. Yes I do. I talk a lot! That’s who I am, I thought. I’m a talker! What’s wrong with that? I was lonely so I wanted to pick a fight.  
Thankfully I didn’t and instead learned to relax and be a bit quieter. Let’s face it, he was right. I spent so much time talking that I couldn’t be bothered to listen. I’ve since learned that silence serves me well, when I remember to employ it.
What do I teach our children about all this? I can readily admit that I have no idea.
The hardest thing about combining two cultures, I’ve discovered, is that it requires both parties to grow and change. Which leads me back to my earlier question, is that really any different than any other marriage? So is culture really important at all?
You tell me. Is it important how you celebrate holidays? My side of the family sings Happy Birthday over the phone to each other. I make my children do it! It would just feel wrong not to. Why do we bother to keep family traditions alive? What do you just let go away?
Would your opinion change if you knew the very tradition you were letting go, was in risk of dying forever? And so we try to teach our children the Yupik language, we take them berry picking and fishing; we eat foods from the land –even when they’re not vegetarian! We tell the stories, we enjoy the art, and we sing Happy Birthday over the phone!
We do that and much more, just like you do with your children and your culture. We do that so they will know who they are.
We all want to be known, truly known, for who we are. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what food you eat, you have an innate, God-given need to be known and to be loved. That’s the unifying factor.  It doesn’t mean we don’t change – in fact, we must. It simply means that we are all created as unique and wonderful beings that have immeasurable intrinsic value.
That, my friends, is why I started blogging. What better way to talk all I want, even pick a fight from time to time, without pushing my husband over the proverbial edge?
  …have I mentioned there is amazing folklore about little people who live underground in Southwest Alaska? I can’t wait to tell you all about it! Oh! And I have to tell you about the lake monster!  And about the Chythlook plant that looks like marijuana! Don’t let me forget to tell you about the first time I met Gary’s aunt Helen! And I must tell you about the time…


  1. LOL- I was reading this for my class. I have to teach avoiding conflict for a Yup'ik value or Native value.

    I got to the end and thought gee sounds like my relatives.

    I looked at your name and thought gee could that be Chythlook's from Alegnakik?


    My mom's from DLG.

  2. Haha! Ok, I was momentarily tempted to lie shamelessly! In spite of the fact that if you the rest of my blog I clearly identify our family! Hahaha! Yes. The Chythlooks from Aleknagik and Dillingham!

  3. I really enjoy your writing. You have a clear, engaging style.