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Culture is Never Static the Exotic is Now

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Culture is Never Static the Exotic is Now

There is a certain tendency to talk of cultures as if they are fixed devices. I do it often. It is perhaps the hallmark of ethnology. The only way of making any sense of a time, a people, or a place is to speak as if all three are static masterpieces that grew out of years of toil, but never change.
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Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Brooklyn, New York City- December 7, 2008
Travelogue Travel Photos
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This is not true. Cultures, people, and places are always changing through the onward roll of time. I am different today than I was last year, I know this, but it is still difficult to grasp the fact that everybody else in the world is also changing. The world is continually rotating upon its axis.

It is OK when cultures change, the surface effects of mono-culturizing are never permanent, and the dying off of ancient traditions is a normal part of the human drama:

That which is not useful will become obsolete.

I enjoy reading about the ways of ancient culture, I enjoy studying old-time knowledge, I love folklore and old stories. I love these things because they enrich the present, they enrich my life. I am selfish. I wish for old cultures to be preserved because I want to experience them and increase my own knowledge. I want cultures to be strikingly different and at odds with each other because this makes for a richer traveling experience. But this approach makes me impervious to the wisdom and knowledge that always sits right before me.

New ways will inevitably become old ways. What now seems stagnant, faceless, and bland will soon diversify again in full bloom.

I watched a National Geographic program on the flight from Portland back to New York City about Antarctica. There was a brief interview with a kid who fancied himself a linguist who grew so disgusted with the fact that languages are dying so rapidly all over the earth that he moved to Antarctica. I felt compelled to say that the dying of languages is normal, it has always happened. It needs to happen for cultures to move on, to change, and to adapt. This has been going on for 60 thousand years and will continue on for 60 thousand more. Now is not the end point of anything, we cannot claim to be sitting on the height-chair of history, peering down at a world that was once more interesting.

The world is always interesting, now is just as interesting as any other time. Culture is just as diverse even as they seem to fade. Mass groupings of cultures go through periods of diversity – isolation, division, separation – and then periods of absorption – openness, exchange, unity. This has always been the Path of development. Stronger cultures impact and change less powerful cultures, this is normal. This has always been the case, and a quick look at the historic expansions of empires shows this blatantly:

A group of people grow powerful and export their dominion (culture), weaker peoples are toppled and their ways and languages are lost to history. But all powers soon fade away, empires crumble, and smaller populations splinter and develop their own ways of life again. New culture, new languages, new world-views, religions, superstitions, societal hatreds, opinions, and organizational schemes invariable rise out of the ashes of dying empires. Culture is always changing, and it is my impression that no one point is any better than any other. The mono-culturalizing aspects of imperial cultures are short lived, and will eventually lead to new diversity.

I am not worried when a language dies. It was obviously not a useful way to communicate any longer. It obviously failed to serve its purpose and was discarded. I weep because I will never be able to hear the sounds of the ancient tongue, and I know that science will be deprived of another building block to intrigue us with explanations of linguistic phenomenon, but, in the end, my feelings of pity are selfish.

I want to live in a diversified world. I want to travel to a place and be disgusted with their habits and taken aback by their view of the world. This is how I learn. I intuitively do not like traveling half way across the world to have the same conversations with people who essentially have the same outlook as the people of my own small farming town in the USA. I intuitively have the urge to have my mind blown. But if I travel like this I miss the show. What is interesting is the isness of a people and a place, and not the samenesses or the differentness. Travel in the modern world is perhaps for the subtle observer.

All cultures are, essentially, the same, and all people are different.

“My interest was simply as a wandering observer, seeing once again that in the course of time, all great cities and their kings and their artifacts and their splendor and their pomps turn into dust.” -Paul Theroux

To preserve the manifestations of culture for the benefit of yourself and future humanity is noble, but to preserve an antiquated notion of culture as a service to those who discarded it is perhaps arrogant. The American Indian tourist pow wow is corny, to say the least. To purposely try to shape, stop, or change the course of something as organic and ever morphing as culture is perhaps a silly profession. Culture can not be duplicated, it cannot be grasped, it cannot be rebirthed, it is like a river: you can see it, you can touch it, but you cannot grab onto it and hold it still. Culture is always moving, always changing, and is not the sum of its manifestations.

Get out of the way, and let the river take its course.

I have often looked with surprise at how people devalue the traditional rounds of their own culture but admire the tangible traditions of others. If I were to design a room, if I were to put pictures and posters on the wall (I have never actually done this before), I would deck it out in “old-time” Asian images. I would put Japanese sumi paintings on the walls and tatami mats upon the floors, images of Krishna at the foot of my sleeping and cushions all around. But when I am in the rooms of friends in Asia I find paintings of old London upon the walls next to reproductions of the French impressionists, Jack Kerouac in the bookshelves next to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, stiff back chairs, spoons and forks, and ornate fireplace mantles. Or worse, posters of American pop stars all over.

“You like Britney Spears?”

“Who?”

“You watch CSI?”

“What?”

The exotic is always the far away. The mental playground of what could be on the other side of the hill.

My friend Bicycle Luke once told me that I have been traveling so long that I have lost track of the world. I laughed, because he was right, but the world that I have lost track of is the one that I am running away from.

I find myself again running away from the ebbs and flows of majority culture and am intentionally wrapping myself in the shrouds of the minority. I again find myself trying to run and catch an idea of cultural difference, of the exotic, of a Shangrila. But the isness of a place is always more interesting than the dream. To take off the goggles and to see the world as it is, is to be surprised.

“Let yourself be surprised!” I once heard an anthropologist scold a stubborn student who pouted about being taking on a field trip to a tourist market in Jaipur. He didn’t take this advice, but I did, and it cumulated in an invitation into the home of a man who was still a master woodcarver even though he focused his work on making trinkets for tourists. I was surprised, and I learned a lot. The isness of a place is always more interesting than the dream. Shangrila is a subtle state. Shangrila is everywhere on earth.

The exotic changes faster than I can run, and the only thing that I can do is enjoy what is here, now, right in front of me, because that is the real exotic. Because Shangrila is a dream, the exotic is always right in front of me, if there ever was such a thing. Traveling and dreaming come from the same place, are devised of the same means, though never meet the same ends. A dream is a dream, what is in front of me is the real dream.

The world has always changed all the time, and this is alright. Goodbye languages, goodbye ancient craftsmen, and hello now. The dichotomy has always been the same. Now is not the end point of history. Now is only one bump on a rocky road.

But it is the dreaming that keeps me running.

Shangrila, I laugh
Is nothing but Han Chinese
in masks

Links to previous travelogue entries:
Publishing PDF Magazine
News Media and Travel
Office Pranks

Culture is Never Static the Exotic is Now

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Filed under: Anthropology, Culture and Society, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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