Finding the beauty in different cultures

David Shumway is one of our regular community contributors.

The world is a complicated place. As recently as a few hundred years ago, local societies were homogeneous, often consisting of a single race, culture, and ethnicity. Occasional incomers were accepted only to the extent they assimilated.

Today with easy travel and immigration, we’ve become more accepting. Our large port cities have long had ethnic neighborhoods with imported cultures, and now even small towns have their enclaves.

These neighborhoods are American; their nationality is American. So how do we distinguish them? Nationality, culture, ethnicity. These define us as a group, and, to varying degrees, affect how others relate to us even before we are known individually.

Due to our exceptional freedom, opportunities and democracy, America is undoubtedly the most coveted nation on Earth, and as a result probably the most diverse.

Which raises the question: What is an American?

I like descriptions such as African-American or Japanese-American. They recognize and celebrate the heritage while declaring the allegiance, and allow the rest to better understand them. We can’t expect immigrants to completely renounce hundreds of years of familial history when they opt to change countries and allegiance. (But the term (religion)-American is not helpful; what does a Christian-American look like?)

What helps us accurately and fairly describe an individual? Race seems obvious, but has been so misused and misinterpreted as to have little positive benefit.

Descriptions are often confusing because of stereotyping. Some of us may have difficulty imagining a Hindu as a Scotsman, for example, or a black Scandinavian citizen as a Swede. Is every citizen of Mexico Mexican? How do we envision someone from China, Somalia, or Great Britain? Or a Sikh, a Jew, a Muslim? We may very well be wrong. So nationality is vastly important, but often a misleading descriptor.

So, ethnicity or culture? The dictionary definitions are similar. We seem to be born and belong ethnically, while our subsequent learned customs and behavior define our culture. We are born ethnic, into a culture.

Opinion: Ethnicity is best. Whatever our nationality, whatever culture we may be raised in, we bring our ethnicity with us; it identifies us as we identify with it.

Which brings us to A World A’Fair, Dayton’s wonderful, cheerful, annual celebration of heritage. Participants are Americans, but they proudly present, and do not want to forget, their ethnic origins and cultural history.

Some of us still believe that to be truly an “American” as a nationality, one must speak English without an accent, like football (the kind with helmets), and eat fried chicken and hot dogs. That’s unfortunate. Most of us like pasta, tacos, wurst … and now also sushi, falafel, spanakopita and arepas.

Which brings us back to A World A’Fair. We sample real ethnic foods which have traveled here, and glimpse various cultures in an entertaining theatrical way.

So, nationality is important but not an accurate descriptor. As immigrants we bring our ethnicity with us; our culture we may leave behind or even store away to be brought out on special occasions …

… like World A’Fair, which happens May 20-22 downtown. Visit, learn, and enjoy.