Learning Unfamiliar Cultures
January 15, 2009 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Please help me learn more about cultures different from my own?

Like many, I am excited about the opportunities for change coming from the new Obama administration beginning next week. Getting in the spirit of that change, it will undoubtedly be useful to learn more about cultures unlike my own. I'm looking for books, films, television, web sites that can expand knowledge and bridge cultural divides. For demographic purposes, I am a fifty-something white American male with no religious affiliation.

I would like to learn more about the African-American community, the Hispanic-American immigrant community, religious turmoil that makes peace in the Middle East seemingly insurmountable, and fundamentalist terrorism by all religious stripes so confounding. If you're from Asia or the South Pacific, tell me about societal shifts that are occurring where you are. Hope for change starts with understanding. Please give me some ideas.
posted by netbros to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Take what is remaining of your 401k and travel.
posted by Funmonkey1 at 7:44 AM on January 15, 2009

Books, films etc are nice, but nothing beats mixing with real live people. Your profile says you live in North Carolina, so I'm sure there's plenty of black churches and neighborhoods you can visit. Churches can be especially warm and welcoming.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:57 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Food! Food is the great gateway to other cultures. Visit "ethnic" restaurants (small family owned places are obviously the best) and try new things, get cookbooks and shop for exotic ingredients. Through this, you'll meet new and different people and learn while having fun.
posted by bluefrog at 8:08 AM on January 15, 2009

Volunteer with a group that reaches out to diverse communities, especially any that involve actual activities with people. That could mean delivering food to the needy, being a Big Brother, Red Cross, Goodwill, etc.
posted by HeyAllie at 8:20 AM on January 15, 2009

I'm a fan of history books - if you peruse Amazon, you can find other ppl's lists for the top books dealing with those specific issues.

I'm Chinese - born in the US but spent a bit of time living in Beijing - and seriously, there is so much history to the place that you could spend years studying it and also studying the rapid changes that are going on now.

Check out native blogs, too.

Personally, I feel you can't really get a full understanding of a culture unless you live there and really immerse yourself - sometimes even a cluster of months isn't enough.

But at least books are affordable and it sounds like you're looking to fulfill an intellectual side as well (understanding the underlying issues) so I'd check those out first.
posted by HolyWood at 8:20 AM on January 15, 2009

Try visiting your local library and look for lesser-known old films like "How tasty was my little Frenchman". There may also be national geographic magazines and documentary style videos.
posted by big open mouth at 8:52 AM on January 15, 2009

Films, food and travel.
posted by fire&wings at 9:26 AM on January 15, 2009

I personally find useful to try to understand what "the Other culture" means and what were the processes that lead to the divide. It serves as a kind of basic framework which makes us look critically at the ways "other" cultures are fed to us. So with that in mind and regarding terrorism and the muslim world:

I'd recommend Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence (the book, not just the essay linked below):

The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world. The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorization of human beings, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence.

And Edward Said's "Orientalism": "My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. . . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge".
posted by lucia__is__dada at 9:26 AM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've learned quite a bit about other cultures by reading fiction, believe it or not. Have a look at this thread for some good book ideas.
posted by triggerfinger at 1:15 PM on January 15, 2009

I like what you're doing, and the spirit in which you're doing it. You seem to have already figured it out, but just to spell it out - do a lot of listening and thinking. A culture is huge - even those within it don't understand it all at times. Learn what you can, but realize you will not ever truly know it. You'll know a version of it. A piece or a slice of it. Expect contradictions, lots of contradictions, and don't be surprised when you come across them.

Keep in mind, no matter how hard it seems at first, that other people's practices are just different, not better, not worse. Don't overly worship some practice you learn about, and also don't look down on some group of people because of something you learn. It will take a lot of listening and many years, but you'll have such a greater understanding of human life.

If I were you, I'd start off with something I was interested in. One thing that intrigues you. Don't try to take in the whole building, as it were, focus on just one brick that seems interesting to you.
posted by cashman at 8:34 PM on January 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know this question is a little old now, but I just joined Metafilter.

You might be interested in the Global Voices blog, which links to blog posts from around the world.

I'm also a big fan of travel shows and podcasts.

Movies are good too, but as someone who speaks multiple languages and who has a tendency to compare the original language of the movie with the subtitles, I've often noticed that something gets lost in the translation.
posted by larkin123 at 2:38 PM on March 18, 2009

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