What is Culture?

By Myles Ashitey ‘22

Whether I choose to acknowledge it or not, Ghanaian culture has permeated every aspect of my life. Through Sunday services, extravagant birthday celebrations, and even more extravagant wedding ceremonies, I’ve found a community of people eager to embrace the traditions that have lasted for generations. I can’t lie. It’s comforting having people with similar experiences in your inner circle. No matter how strange your background may feel, there’s someone with a similar story to tell.

Whether we realize it or not, our mannerisms, language, and preferences stem from our influences. Influences, in turn, can be derived from literature, upbringing, music—the list is nearly endless. Culture falls under the scope of influence as well. It is an amalgamation of the traditions that we follow and lessons that we learn (all of which are derived from the people who have lived out the culture before us). Culture is capable of augmenting our perceptions of life. It adds value to our experiences. From origin stories to recounts of past encounters, each experience molds the custom into what people live out today. My aunt recounts stories of her seeing her younger siblings tied on her mother’s back in a cloth. To this day, she does the same thing with her children. My father prepares Ghanaian porridge the same way his parents taught him to decades earlier

But rarely do people adopt a lifestyle simply by reading about it online or learning about it through conversation with a friend. Rather, lifestyles are ingrained in us over a period of time. People demonstrate more similarities in the formative years of life because they have yet to be exposed to the various influences of the world. As people age and become more cognizant of the world around them, they are able to “pick and choose” their influences so as to create a lifestyle that is right for them. When diverse cultures interact and coexist, diversity becomes possible.

Ghanaian women and childMy appreciation for culture stems from my family, but I do not laud them for their influences upon my life. Their devotion, however, is admirable. I am among the first generation in my family to have been born in the United States. My grandparents were the first in the family to emigrate to the United States. Originally from a small village in Ghana, my grandmother, along with a fair number of her sons and daughters, ventured here with hopes of financial opportunity. She tells me that her initial perception of the U.S. was flawed; it was not all she envisioned it to be. It was better. The western world surpassed her wildest expectations, and she maintained a career as a nurse’s aide for decades. My relatives tell me Sisi (as we refer to her as) has upheld the same endearing nature she left Ghana with almost fifty years ago. Her values never wavered; she remains a devout Christian and still cherishes strong family bonds. She consumes the same meals. She speaks the same language. Surprisingly, even her sense of style has not changed much. And while I am conscious that this is a reality many immigrants live on a daily basis, I never fail to be surprised that she maintained her culture in a nation that appeared to have few traces of it. She is thankful that she is able to contribute to the diversity that we as a nation pride ourselves on today.

I perceive my culture as an amalgamation of the cultures around me. Being raised by a West African family but being raised in the U.S. always made it difficult to find a balance between the traditions of my ancestors and the traditions that I looked to adopt. Eventually, I learned that I shouldn’t feel shackled to the culture of my people. While I have found it beneficial to draw from parts of Ghanaian tradition, much of what has sculpted me into the person that you see today are outside influences: from friends, teachers, mentors, etc. I am a product of the environment around me.