Saturday, January 9, 2010

Culture and cultures

When my Mother and Dad lived in Afghanistan in the late 60's, Mom spent much of her time in the bazaars searching out hand-made, one-of-a-kind items crafted from wood, brass, stone, and wool. She treasured them for the hours of labor that went into them, and I still have much of what she got. At the end of her tenure there, her house staff bought her a present (These were people with almost no money). It was a pitcher, shaped in the form of a chicken, and made of translucent, pebble-grained, clear --- plastic. It was the ugliest thing I've ever seen
My Mother thanked them graciously, and then asked, "Why did you buy me this particular piece?" "Oh Memsahib," one of them answered, "There were three of them in the bazaar, and they were all exactly alike. And, if you dent it, you can push it back out. It is easy to clean and will last a long time."
What was undesirable to us was wonderful to them. The idea that you could produce a thousand items, all alike, was mind-boggling to them. We in the west desire the unique, the irregular, the one-off, but that's because we have the luxury of things that work the same way every time, of taps that turn on and and off, of reliable hot water, of flushing toilets, of synthetic motor oil and automatic furnaces and dishwashers and vacuum cleaners and toilet paper and....
If you don't have any of those things, they are wonders to you. I visit a mountain-man encampment every year and watch all the people playing at living in 1840, when a mountain man would have killed for a down-filled sleeping bag and a 30-30.
We want traditional people to stay traditional, for the Navajo to herd sheep and weave rugs and look colorful as they stand alongside the highways. By and large, they want hi-def TV and a brand new pickup. To heck with the charm, let them get warm in the winter.

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