Is this Culture?

Nightlife in Kuwait City

So I’m sitting in a Montreal-based coffee house franchise, using the free wi-fi network as I sip on my Earl Grey tea, and I’m wondering about culture.  Did I mention that I’m in Kuwait?  To get to my favorite couch seat in this café I walk approximately a half mile down the main ‘drag’ of my neighborhood, past numerous international bank branches, a handful of chain hotels, the H&M store and a supermarket advertizing BOGO sales.  On the days I feel strong of spirit I’m able to resist the lure of Dunkin Donuts.  Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut have frequently tempted me as well. Starbucks has never held any appeal for me, but it sits there expecting my love.  If I manage to get past the corner with the Johnny Rockets next to the Shake Shack I consider myself golden, and I am welcomed warmly by the Philippino wait staff at Café Supreme, who know me well enough by now to anticipate my menu choices. 

As I chair dance to the techno music playing overhead, I contemplate the fact that in the year + that I’ve been long-term visiting this country I’ve yet to have what I would consider an authentic Kuwaiti cultural experience.   This thought led me to even more contemplation on how I would define that thing that I’m seeking, the “authentic” experience: the Kuwaiti reality vs, well….what I’ve been experiencing. 

Culture, culture, culture…….we tend to define it in the negative.  We know what it ain’t.  If forced into a corner we would throw up art or music or food as examples of where we are supposed to find the unique aspects of a society.  But yet when I scan Webster’s online dictionary I have to go all the way down to definition 5b (past the cultivation & tillage explanations and beyond the aesthetic training and fine arts descriptions) before I find this….

: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time <popular culture> <southern culture>

So apparently even dictionaries have multiple ways of understanding the term.  I’m not alone in my confusion, but I am on my own in figuring it out as it relates to my current location.  I’d hoped to reach out to others in my situation, but I’ve struggled to make connections here. Kuwait is full of expats but almost devoid of community, and Kuwaiti citizens are not particularly open to developing friendships with foreigners.  My efforts to access the unique aspects of this country’s history and daily life have been restricted by my nationality and my gender.

And my limited access to a vehicle.  I have to be fair about that.  But I digress……this solo debate regarding my expectations of what I should find here is actually only the tip of the iceberg.  Ultimately I’ve become confused about the very concept of culture.  I’ve been living the life of an expat for over 17 years and it’s embarrassing that I am still trying to define the very thing that I’ve been seeking for almost two decades.  That isn’t normal, is it? 

In my roles as an educator, both in the US and abroad, I’ve been put through the paces of cultural sensitivity training, I’ve taken courses on how to identify my own cultural lenses, I’ve designed curriculum that blended the expectations of multiple communities, I’ve supervised multi-national staffs…..all these things focus on respecting culture, which in turn assumes a basic understanding of what culture is.  Yes?

So why am I so flummoxed?  Maybe it’s the “forest for the trees” argument.  I can’t see through the fast food branches.  Or perhaps I’m finally getting caught up in the globalization debate: I’m witnessing the McDonald’s empire expanding.  Or maybe this particular country is just too young, its citizens too inaccessible, its traditions in process……Or possibly I’m just not looking in the right places. 

In all my travels over the years this is the first time I’ve truly labored to find “culture” in a destination.  I’ve been at it here, on and off, for almost a year.  The temptation to resign myself to the international flavors and movie offerings is great. Baskin Robbins can always make me happy no matter the geography.  But I think I’m going to give it another go.  I’ve got a few more weeks remaining in my Kuwaiti experience and I’m going to charge through them with my eyes and ears more open to opportunities.  Wish me luck. 

And give me your thoughts on the topic.  Is globalization a type of tradition?  Do we need to reassess the ingredients that go into the ‘recipe’ of culture?  Can societies adopt elements of other communities and still maintain a unique identity?  Let me know what you think.  I’m all ears!