Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Cultural Appreciation

“Hi. My name's Ross and I'm from Central Jersey.” That's how most of my introductions went freshman year. The distinction was important; I wasn't from North Jersey and I wasn't from South Jersey. I was from that belt of New Jersey that was too far from New York and Philadelphia to have an infatuation with either of those cities. I was never so specific about my home state or so adamant in my pride in it until I left. In fact, looking back now, I think my own personal entry in my middle school year book mentions something about wanting to live in Delaware when I grew up. Why Delaware? I can't recall now, but I definitely know better after driving through it on my way to and from Loyola. Since leaving the Garden State for school in Maryland, I have felt it's pulse in my veins and know an appreciation for New Jersey that others cannot appreciate or understand.
Of course, the typical New Jersey pride is born in a storm of downward looks and rhetorical jabs. Oh, you're from New Jersey... which mall? What is that smell anyway? These jokes are pretty much par for the course as any resident can tell you. That same resident can tell you that there's more to Jersey than the Turnpike, factories, and dumps. People from the other states don't necessarily know what a Wawa is or why it's the most magical convenience store in existence. They don't recognize most every scene from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (and can't claim Kal Penn as a alumnus of their high school). They don't even realize the joy that a pork roll, egg, and cheese can deliver in an authentic diner.
In some small imitation of what Epeli Hau'ofa and Albert Wendt describe in their articles, I have assumed the distinct New Jersey culture into my system. The legends and stories that they refer to remind me of the magazine Weird N.J.. This publication is entirely composed of reader submissions. Topics range from travel stories down back roads and into abandoned buildings to ghost stories to interviews with local legends to old man bars. The amazing thing about this tome is that none of it is necessarily factual and the beauty of it is that it doesn't really matter. Just about any native can turn to a random page and remark to himself or herself, “Hey! I remember everyone talking about that when we were kids”. Every article and story in the magazine a part of the legend of New Jersey just as the origin myths are part of the history of the Maori people.
I sympathize with Wendt when he states in his article “Pacific Maps and Fiction(s)” that his maps are “cultural, artistic, literary/language, spiritual, philosophical, cinematic, mythological, dream, emotional maps”(60). It is very apparent that the individual cultures of the South Pacific are historically inclined to bind all aspects of life into a single, cohesive unit. History and legend are the same thing and family genealogies easily extend back into the legendary. It is not such a difficult leap to come to the conclusion that it is because of this inclination that Wendt's people were so completely won over by European colonizers. He admits that he is “Samoan yet a product of the process of colonialism”(Wendt 63). He learned English by reading the Bible and European history while studying in New Zealand. Fortunately, Wendt was able to retain his own cultural identity and gained a greater appreciation for it through his experiences abroad.
Hau'ofa takes this idea of the individual culture and goes in the opposite direction with it, emphasizing the universal. Most outside observers claim that the South Pacific is merely an assortment of small, weak, unrelated islands. Surprisingly, much of the indigenous population has also adopted this view, including the author. Up to a point. He looks to the legends and traditions of his people to deny the claim that those of the South Pacific are not ““people from outer islands,” as social scientists would say, but as kakai mei tahi or just tahi “people from the sea””(Hau'ofa 31). Hau'ofa proposes that within this unity lies the answer to their economic and diplomatic problems.
This idea of an ever-expanding and all-inclusive culture appears to be common to all the distinct cultures of Oceania. In The Whale Rider the reader bears witness to the joining of past and present, real and myth, secular and religious in the small focal point of Kahu. In addition, Rawiri, the narrator expands his realm of knowledge into Australia and Papau New Guinea, accepting the parts that appeal to him and acknowledging those that he may not agree with but cannot change. In general, the holistic lives of the islands and nations is a marvel that may seem alien at first glance, but can ultimately be appreciated by anyone; even a college student from New Jersey.

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