The unbearable strangeness of culture

Cultural filters are important for being able to function in a society. You have to be able to filter out the unimportant from the important and focus on that which society deems relevant. Without said cultural filters, every time I see a man here on the street with a second-hand American shirt that says “Kiss me, I’m Irish”, or when we celebrate a birthday party for an adult with a Hello-Kitty pink birthday banner, or when for the 100th time someone sings the theme song from “Titanic” at the local bar on karaoke night and everyone joins in for the chorus, I would be so distracted by the irony of the situation to appreciate the uniqueness of it. To some extent you have to “go native”, you have to accept that your reality is just one reality, you have to understand the difference between what a thing is and what a thing means. You have to strip the things of their material symbolism and see them for their ontological function. A banner with “Happy Birthday” on it is just that; the giant, creepy-looking, animated, Japanese cat on the pastel pink background doesn’t actually change its function.

Every so often however, this gets challenged for me. Like this Saturday: occasionally my friends and I here go to the next biggest town to break up the monotony of Somoto and to dance. When we arrived at our usual bar, it turned out that there was going to be a live rock band from Estelí. Having come so far already we decided to pay the cover and check them out. The poster for the rock band looked pretty much like any hard rock poster you would see in most parts of the world. All four members dressed in black, one of them shirtless with black eye-makeup, a cross visible on his chest. None of them were smiling. Judging by their attire and attitude, I was already anticipating incomprehensible words and bad covers of Iron Maiden.

An hour later found I found myself biting my lip to stop myself from laughing too hard while the main singer stood on the table next to me, one cowboy boot on the chair, the other on the table,  his long black hair covering his face, metal studded leather wristbands on his hands,  his sunglasses obscuring his cajole streaked eyes, blurting out the lyrics to “Eye of the Tiger” . He had this thing, when he hit the high notes, of lending his voice this opra-esque fluctuation, making it sound like some Native American war cry. It wasn’t even bad, maybe that is what got to me. The band was musically quite good, the singer hit all the notes consistently, but I think it was just the seriousness of the situation. No one else in the bar thought that this was, in the slightest, at least somewhat comical. In fact the only thing comical for them was the white girl at the table, silently shaking with fits of laughter and tears streaming down her face. For everyone else there, this was just another typical Saturday night in Northern Nicaragua.

It is random moments like those, the tears in the fabric of culture,  the moments that challenge my own cultural perception, that allow me to really appreciate how much of a layer culture really is, and how so much of what gives our life meaning is purely cultural. It is moments like those that I fully grasp the wondrous, comical, ironic, and strange situations that I so often find myself in and realize the full extent of power that exists in breaking free of those cultural constraints.It is moments like those, rare moments of clarity among so much strangeness, that I finally feel the almost unbearable lightness of this being in this world.

My sister sent me a great quote that sums it up well:

“The habitualness of travelling lulls the spirit to sleep; you get used to everything, the exquisite exotic landscapes as much as the unusual faces. But in certain moments, when the spirit awakens and finds itself again you suddenly become amazed at the foreignness of that which surrounds you.”

“Die Reisegewohnheit schläfert den Geist ein; man gewöhnt sich an alles, an die erlesensten exotischen Landschaften ebenso wie an die außergewöhnlichsten Gesichter. Doch in bestimmten Augenblicken, wenn der Geist erwacht und sich selbst wiederfindet, ist man plötzlich verblüfft über die Fremdartigkeit dessen, was um einen ist”

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