Contributed by Carmen Cox. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
I have become increasingly aware that my idea of what culture is is not nearly as simple as I’d like it to be. I have begun to realize that culture is not a salad–you cannot pick and choose the pieces you like and flick out the grape tomatoes and other icky bits of the salad you don’t like. When we consider culture, we like to think of the beautiful things: the dancing, the food, the wisdom, the color. And culture certainly does encompass all of that–but there are also bland sides and there are ugly sides. They are the parts we don’t want to taint the dreams we’ve had of places before we reach them.
However, I never really dreamed of Serbia before I came here. What makes Serbia different from the few other countries I’ve visited is that I had no previous notion of what to expect before I arrived. Rather than having lines that allowed me to carefully color my perspectives in between them, I only arrived with a blank page where I’ve been throwing down blobs of color with as much planned intention as a four year old–a smudge of purple here, an unsightly blotch of brown there. I can admire some corners of the picture but most of it is messy with colors running into each other, disregarding any kind of order or symmetry. The overall picture isn’t pretty (or at least certainly not in a conventional manner) but it is interesting.
Unfortunately, I hate the word interesting because one, it is quite possibly the laziest adjective in the history of the world and two, it gives absolutely no character to the subject nor the user (except that the user is either lazy or boring or both).
So what is my picture and more importantly, what does it say of my outlook on Serbia? I’m not sure if I can say yet. I know that I admire the openness of the people I’ve met and talked to. Unlike in the United States, people don’t feel so obligated to cover up the parts that may not be so pretty to everyone they meet. People talk matter-of-factly about how Serbia is a poor country. Physical features aren’t waxed, toned, and bleached to death to fit in with whatever thin, white, hairless person people are supposed to look like nowadays. And the pursuit of working ever harder and being ever better that has infiltrated almost every aspect of U.S. lifestyle are gladly traded for things many of us have forgotten how to do. Here, people remember how to eat and drink and chat and stroll.
But I have also come to learn that drivers in Belgrade are some of the most terrifying people I’ve ever seen. People smoke to a degree that borders on competitive. (Such a degree of unhealthiness is appalling to someone from the United States, a country that prides itself in the health and vigor of its people.) And I continue to be more perplexed than anything by the depth of distrust and dislike towards the Roma, a people that have lived in the region since the thirteenth century.
All of these different pieces paint the picture I’m trying to create so that I may figure out what Serbia is in my head, but it is frustrating trying to make sense of it, trying to erase the parts I shouldn’t put down and tweaking the parts that need to be highlighted.
All my attempts of being open to newness, of looking for the good and sympathetic towards the reasons behind the bad, of being aware of where I am from, of keeping a check on my own perspective are what makes the concept of culture so difficult to keep neatly tucked away in my head. I’ve already thought of a thousand things wrong with how I described what I like and don’t like in Serbia and I am tempted to simply delete everything I just wrote.
But perhaps the complexity is a good thing. Different elements of culture and different cultures themselves cannot be categorized into good or bad, better or worse. It’s much too simple. Culture is not a salad and more than just not being able to take out parts I don’t like, I cannot distinguish parts at all without including the network of past stories and neighboring parts in which it is nestled. I don’t think the wholeness of a particular culture can ever be teased into simpler bits without something being taken away. Serbia is more than a list of parts, a list of comparisons and contrasts with the U.S.- it is something in itself, a place in which people have lived their entire lives, through the tumultuous and the peaceful.
I have been worrying of how wrong my idea of Serbia may be when I leave here. I want it to be correct somehow, reflecting the time and effort I took to ask and listen and think, to imply that I have not judged or assumed but rather shown full respect and consideration of this part of the world I visited. But I think it is gross to use such carefully chosen words like “respect” and “consideration” with regards to something as indefinable as searching for understanding in the people of a place that is new. It makes it feel too constructed. I think the sincerity of attempting to understand can only be grown organically, implied by the flaws that follow honesty and uniqueness.
P.S. I had suggested in my last post a sincere hope that I could write something that makes sense and is easy to follow, but I think I have failed miserably. If you’d like the condensed version of all the nonsense I just wrote, it’s basically as follows: culture is complex, I’m too stubborn to fully accept this and although I tried to use salad as a clever metaphor to illustrate my aversion to things that are defined as merely a sum of its parts, I also just really don’t like salad.