Culture, Culture

In the chapter on culture in the 2nd edition of my book (Chapter 4), I make the point that cultural values and perspectives are embedded deep within us, and that, many times, (perhaps always) it is difficult to even recognize what they are or even that they are there.  In her book review for the Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy (June, 2011), Karen Hammell made the statement that I had made “clear efforts” to include diversity in the 2nd edition, and yet, as she further stated, the predominance in the literature and text “presumes a certain freedom from economic, social, cultural, physical and political constraints.”  How difficult it is to position ourselves beyond or outside of our own cultural perspectives and world view.

One look at the photograph in the header for this blog will affirm the difficulties in trying to be inclusive, for the photo of a main street in the USA is probably about as “Western” as it could possibly be.  I see this now, but I did not “see” it when I was picking out the photo for the blog.  Of course I can change the photo, and likely will change it at some point, but, for now, I’m not quite ready to let go of it — I do like its everyday-ness, Western though it is.  [Note:  Since this posting was written, I have added a street scene from Morocco for a header; the two photos will randomly alternate.]

I would  like to hear from any of you about your own experiences of suddenly recognizing an aspect of your own cultural world.  Is research going on in our profession that specifically addresses cultural perspectives — perhaps as they are present in therapist/client relationships or in medical systems or in teaching?  How do we help students to become aware and sensitive to their own culture and that of others?

2 thoughts on “Culture, Culture

  1. Thank you, Betty; what a wonderful place in the digital universe you’ve created here! I am so happy to have discovered it and equally thrilled to participate in the discussions and exchange of ideas. First of all, I want to say how refreshing it is to come to a place where issues that are at the core of our experiences of daily living and (therefore) also at the core of our professional interests, can be talked about ‘matter-of-fact-ly’, hopefully unencumbered by the cultural rules that often shape and suggest what is a credible opinion (reliable and valid!). I appreciate how your blog entries are short – without much (if any) ‘academic-speak’ but just long enough and interesting to elicit some deeper thoughts- and the desire to respond with an anecdote or thought of my own.

    When I saw the header/image of this blog, the first thought that came to mind was ‘wow, that looks like a pretty place- I think my family would enjoy living in a place like that!’ It looks clean, comfortable, safe, familiar; and I could probably find a good ice-cream shop. Well your piece got me thinking… about maybe moving back to the Far east again – or someplace off of this continent! It struck me that its been almost a decade since I left my post as a professor in Japan to take a job on the East coast of America (this author considers everything above and below the 49th Parallel to be ‘America’! or North America), and then later to Toronto. People who are familiar with my ‘river’ would know that I was born and raised in Japan, moved with my family to Canada, and then after qualifying as an occupational therapist, had lived and worked back in Japan for two stretches of time. It was during the last stretch of time I was in Japan that I got to really grapple with the concept of ‘culture’ and how it held some profound implications for how knowledge, philosophy, theory and practice are constructed and advanced in my profession of occupational therapy.

    I had been acculturated into American life and into my professional being as an (American) OT. The pattern of values, shared experiences with colleagues, friends and family and as a citizen etc., and conceptions of ‘normal’ came together in a way that made Chuo Dori (‘Main Street’) appear extraordinary, frightening and well… far from a place that I would want myself and my family to live. There was too much traffic, far too many neon signs, pollution, and people. The following years in Japan would take me through a different pattern of experiences – one that transformed my conceptions of ‘normal’ to be more and more at ease with daily life there. And as Chuo Dori gradually became rather ordinary and mundane to me, something else – something wonderful, began to happen. Occupational therapy, its ideas, theory, founding philosophies, practice norms, etc, as well as the largely American context where so much of it had originated and from where it all was exported from, began to look and feel exotic, ‘different’ and extra-ordinary.

    Colleagues who are familiar with my work know that my inner conflicts and irritations experienced during this period of transformation, where my feet were planted each in two different spheres of experience, is what fueled my scholarly contributions to the field of occupational therapy in the last decade. My comparison of Main street and Chuo Dori, and questioning how (really important) ideas made in one cultural context fit or resonate meaningfully when taken to another, different context, is presented in the article “the Issue is… toward culturally relevant epistemologies in occupational therapy” which appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of AJOT in 2003.

    As much as it may be to be amused by the remarkable features that differentiate Main Street from Chuo Dori, there is a greater set of issues in this that I believe faces our profession going forward. My fear is about what happens when people (especially those of considerable influence take Chuo Dori to be ‘normal’ (and even ‘Ideal’) and believe that Main Street over in some other context of knowing ought to ‘rescued’ and ‘fixed’ to look and function more like Chuo Dori. This is not new, friends… wars, colonization and conquests of ‘other’ peoples and lands have been explained or justified as attempts to ‘cultivate’, ‘normalize’, civilize and ‘better’ the other.

    I think a similar pattern exists in our day to day and professional lives – wherever and whenever we are faced with differences we have difficulty reconciling with our conceptions of ‘normal’. When the good folks on Main Street discover or determine that ‘occupation’, ‘ability’, ‘individual agency’ autonomy, etc etc are some of the things that make Main Street so wonderful (so wonderful that the masses of people just haven’t found these truisms yet) and proceed to live, relate, make rules, construct equipment, with great intentions to ensure that everyone else gets it too… we run squarely into the ominous wall of ‘diversity and inclusion’. Is ‘occupation’ necessary for well-being in daily life? Aren’t we all ‘occupational beings’? Well, from Main Street, it sure looks that way! In our zeal to spread the good news, have we forgotten to first ask some fundamental questions? – like: who is making the label or distinction? Are the labels universally true? and does it look the same from Chuo Dori? Will these complex terms resonate as it does with us (or do we just have to do a better job of explaining it to them?) Diversity in how our colleagues around the world have conceptualized what we think Main Street refers to as ‘occupation’ is a study in itself. Most of the ideas, theory, philosophy and practice methods deemed worth knowing and doing in our profession happen to appear in the English language and have originated from locations and shared spheres of experiences where English is spoken.

    At the beginning of this -what now has meta-morphed into a lengthy diatribe, I expressed a desire to move back to Chuo Dori; to what has become unfamiliar again and ‘different’. Ten years of being acculturated back into American life through the intensive cultural mortar & pestle of Western Academe has blurred my vista of this profession I love, and has dulled the edge of the critique and insights I had to contribute to our way forward.

    I believe that we (Occupational therapists and students) need to foster an appreciation for the unfamiliar and the ‘different’, to contest truisms and to support experiences that bring us into a better appreciation for how the same truisms are comprehended from another vantage, worldview or sphere of experience.

    I am writing this from my hotel room in Zagreb, Croatia on the eve of a series of talks that the courageous occupational therapists of Hrvatska (professional membership n=250) have sponsored. As I strolled down The Ilica (‘Main Street’) today, which bisects the upper town and lower town, I couldn’t help but marvel at how beautiful, remarkable and extraordinary everything looked.


    • Michael:

      As you may have noticed (having pulled up this blog) my original header photograph of “main street” USA now has a companion photo of main street Tanger, Morocco. I can see how one could easily collect photos of “main street” from around the world as expressions of culture and habitat and occupational participation in our daily lives. The Chuo Dori of Japan and the Ilica of Croatia that you refer to in your above comment, and the main streets of Morocco and the United States in the photos for this blog, are but beginnings that help us appreciate “the unfamiliar and the ‘different'” in our lives.

      I found your comments about the shifting feelings of comfort and discomfort you experienced over the past years — as you lived with and moved back and forth between “main streets” in both the U.S. and Japan — to be compelling and eye-opening. Hence the additional photo for the header here — direct from Morocco via our daughter who is traveling in that region and who is keeping us in the loop with her Blackberry. The photo just sort of fell into my lap two days ago, just as I was reading back through your comments and thinking more about the main streets of my life. Just how many ways does a “main street” reflect our culture and everyday occupation and our well-being in daily life? Betty


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