I Spy Something … Cultural

This week I had the opportunity to welcome my friend Edina to Wisconsin from Europe. I met Edina during my stay as an exchange student in Belgium. She is Hungarian and goes to school in Brussels; we met in our French class. This semester Edina is studying abroad in Wisconsin. I invited her to stay with my family in Milwaukee before moving to Madison. Edina found everything—my home, my family, my conversational habits—to be very “American”. I was at a loss for what this meant. What does Edina see that I fail to notice?

Edina sees my life through the enthusiastic eyes of a traveler. When I travel, everything has a magic about it: the food, the people, the buildings around me. As a traveler, I prime myself to accept the world as different, always offering something to learn. But by reserving my sense of fascination for the foreign, I pigeonhole my definition of culture; I overlook what I know as ordinary. Edina opens my eyes to my own surroundings. She makes me realize that so much of what I take for granted, such as my casual conversation with retail employees and the way I smile in photographs, is actually a product of society. My daily life teems with culture, both of the American and Wisconsinite variety.

Case in point: last fall one of my study abroad program directors, Daniel, came to Madison to visit his Badger exchange students. Daniel said he wanted to go to dinner somewhere typical of Wisconsin. We ended up eating at the Essen Haus which, for those hailing outside Madison, is a very traditional German restaurant/bar. Coincidentally, the night we went also hosted a live polka band; and let’s say that polka is certainly not uncommon in parts of Wisconsin. My father’s family is 100% Polish, so I have spent a fair amount of time pretending to polka myself. As we were doing the chicken dance in the middle of the bar, I realized that this was a very weirdly Wisconsin experience. My program director certainly felt the state culture; I had just taken it for granted. 

It has taken the keen eyes of outsiders for me to realize that culture happens everywhere. It is present both at home and abroad, in my country and in my state. And even the ordinary offers something to be learned. Sometimes we just have to open our eyes in fascination to the experiences life has to offer. We must adopt the enthusiastic eyes of a traveler to realize the adventures happening before us everyday.

-lb

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~ by Lindsay Bembenek on January 16, 2010.

One Response to “I Spy Something … Cultural”

  1. This reminds me of when a friend of mine from Miami came with me to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. He was fascinated by our “basement culture”, where people generally will hang out in their parents’ basement on weekends. No one has basements in Miami because there is so much water in the soil even a couple feet down. But it was interesting that something I take for granted was only known to him through Thats 70’s Show (which is set in Wisconsin).

    -dp

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