The riddle that is culture


Culture Academy seeks to share stories that show the strange, interesting, and beautiful ways in which travel inspires us all. Mindy Tauberg is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Here she talks about her experiences studying abroad in Japan inspired her to explore culture the eyes of Muslim and Jewish Americans. 

When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester studying abroad in Japan. I had already declared my double majors in anthropology and East Asian studies/Japanese, and I was thrilled to finally be doing the kind of traveling that would enable me to experience what I was learning about in books and classrooms for myself. I was also excited that I would be in Japan studying at an international university for Bunka no Hi, or Culture Day. This national holiday is celebrated in most parts of Japan by promoting traditional Japanese arts and culture through special events and festivals. At the university I attended, students hailed from about 40 different countries, so instead of celebrating just Japanese culture, the school’s Bunka no Hi celebration was a huge matsuri (festival) for sharing and learning about cultures all over the world.


Of course, in order to make this amazing event happen, many students had to volunteer their time and energy to teach other students about the food, dress, arts, and ways of life in their respective countries. When it came time to volunteer, I was the first American on the list to host the culture booth for my nation. This would be a part of the fair where students could walk from booth to booth and learn a little bit about the culture of each nation exhibited. Americans were the best represented nationality at the university after Japanese, so I had no doubt that soon others would sign up and we could get to work. I waited, and waited…and waited. But no other Americans came forward. So I took the initiative to start recruiting other American students. When I started asking around, it became clear to me why not one of the 400 other American students had volunteered. “America doesn’t have a culture!” my fellow students told me, again and again.

The Riddle of American Culture

As an anthropology student, this really frustrated me. Culture, by its very definition, includes the sorts of things we take for granted as not cultural, but natural. Everyone is a part of at least one culture, and many of us are part of many cultures. This is especially true of Americans, because of our history as a nation of immigrants.

Eventually, I found a couple of friends who were willing to help me out with the culture booth. On the day of the festival, hosting the American culture booth turned out to be not only an opportunity for international students to learn about American culture, but also an opportunity for us Americans to learn about the assumptions others have about America. We were a Hawaiian American, an American with Chinese ancestry, and a Jewish American (me). None of us fit the blonde haired, blue eyed image of Americans that other international students imagined. When I was asked how I celebrate Christmas, my answer—I don’t—surprised Japanese students. (Christmas is celebrated in Japan, not as a religious holiday but as a time to do something special with a loved one, almost like Valentine’s Day.) My Chinese American friend’s very presence at the booth caused some confusion—how could she be both Chinese and American?

From Many, One

To me, these seeming contradictions are at the heart of American culture. We come from many different cultural backgrounds, but we share common values and a way of life that amount to a uniquely American culture. This idea is even our motto, written on our currency: “E pluribus unum,” “From many, one.” Through this experience, I became fascinated with the idea of America as a culture of many cultures, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Since my semester in Japan, I have become an anthropologist studying the ways in which Muslim and Jewish Americans are working to bridge the rifts between their communities. I love learning about how Jews went from being an immigrant Other to another colorful piece in the American quilt, and I love being involved in my Muslim neighbors’ communities as they go through this process themselves. When my fellow students told me that America doesn’t have a culture, perhaps they meant that America doesn’t have any one single culture, and that is true. But it’s also a part of the riddle that is culture: no culture in the world is a single coherent unit. Trying to unknot that riddle is what makes studying culture so intriguing to me. One day I hope to become a college professor myself, so that I can help students understand that all of us are a part of at least one culture, and culture is a part of all of us.


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