Every country has its own complex history, culinary tradition, spiritual expression (or three); its psycho-social reaction to trauma, methods to educate, and medical treatments; dances, songs, artistic oeuvre; political organ, scientific tradition, brick-a-brack house, street food, topiary, dog breed, orchid… This is all just people, us, trying to make sense of what we’ve got.
From my respective box, I offer a solution to my aunt Ellie’s question about ethically depicting another culture to an American audience: characterize the “odd” habits of the “others” as the commonplace. Because that’s precisely what they are – a commonplace you just don’t understand, yet.
And it doesn’t just count for what “is,” but also for what “will be.” Cultural expression and movement in Moldova is like what we can observe happening in America today. I’ll take a semantic example of the word “woke.” The first time I encountered the term, it was in “Meet the Woke Misogynist,” an article published on Splinter written by Nona Willis Aronowitz.1
I had never encountered the term before my sabbatical from America, and so it’s been disconcerting watching its popularization from such a distance. Someone told me that this descriptor is hot on our college campuses, and a fancy of (as my good friend described) “the hyper-liberal left.” And I’ve merely noticed as “woke” wove through internet posts in feminist media, the LGBTQ+ media, and concerning the Black Lives Matters movement…
The word’s root seemed easy to figure – some dudes obviously “woke up” to the idea that women are, you know, people with needs and shit.
But, oops! Not quite.
The folks at Merriam-Webster have taken notice of the new slang, too. Acknowledging the difficulty of tracking the origins of slang, MW categorizes the term as a product of “African American Vernacular English.” It sprang into wide “social awareness” in 2008, when Erykah Badu released the song “Master Teacher.” Then, immediately following Michael Brown’s murder in 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement co-opted the term to instigate active awareness.2 The internet is now the “woke” propagator. There are social media spheres entirely dedicated to the concept, even a movement predicated on hashtags that holds a faddish social weight.3 As it transitioned to trend, the term began to appeal to the teenage spectrum, where it was adopted with more of a joking nuance. Then, only a few weeks ago, I saw the term on Facebook, slung in sarcasm at a “progressive” or “libertarian” or whatever that person would identify as. He was encouraged to give those “less evolved among us” a chance to creep along slowly.
What was once the literal expression of “staying awake” developed into a “niche” word speaking to (the dream of) social progress, only to be appropriated with a more popular spin by the wider audience and slip into the coat of mockery. 4 This one is wearing a monocle.
But there it is – that evolution. What once signified a greater solidarity and pushed the envelope as an emblem of a social movement is now being used as a derogatory term. The sludge thickens in our moldy alphabet soup. Think about the origins of hippie, hipster, dude, feminist, punk, farm-to-table…
These terms were once strange to us Americans, too – but they have become (and others have the potential to become) commonplace. Of course these terms are influenced by our country’s history and a specific cultural context. But there is no reason to counter that another cultural practice or idea “just wouldn’t settle” like these words do – look, Americans love Cinco de Mayo. And because America is such a geographically, ethnically and – dare I say it – culturally diverse place, we may have a unique advantage to embracing new ideas.
A new cultural concept may be strange or uncomfortable in a certain American context. But a new American in a different cultural context may be a strange or uncomfortable presence. A foreign cultural paradigms (going both ways) will inevitably be met with resistance, and possibly outright rejection – but this is the nature of ideas and traditions. And this is what makes them commonplace. At its root, “exotic” is merely new or different.
Moldova is no stranger to these evolutions. The country’s semantic history is a product of geographic location, ethnic migration, imperialism (Ottoman, some might argue Romanian, Russian) and globalization. America’s worldly fingers have of course stretched this far, dropping word-grenades with shrapnel blasts. Although some English words have been adopted as previously undefined concepts, my host mother recently commented with not such insignificant ire that Moldovans are adopting English words into their Russian uselessly. For example, instead of expressing the idea of a training with the term “обучение,” they’re using the Anglophonic “трейнинг” more commonly. Presentations haven’t escaped unscathed, either, with the “презентация” left in their wake. Anna Nikolaevna questioned – why in the world is this necessary when the word “представление” is both perfectly understood and perfectly serviceable?
I can’t possibly hit on globalization, here – my penknife is no match for this jabberwock. But I will make one final point: in our delightfully connected internet age, our pre-teen petri dish pet projects are slowly morphing into that algae-attacked plastic pool in your relative’s back yard. We’ve all been dumped into that larger space, but the walls aren’t growing. Our species can continue to propagate, but it only makes the world a smaller place.
I’ll reiterate my answer to Ellie’s question of ethics with this in mind: we must communicate that somewhere, something “exotic” is commonplace. We can widen our perspectives and adopt this. Considering our connectedness, whether you read this or not, this idea’s hue would likely bleed through to you, too. It’s not the first time someone’s entreated us to “look outside of ourselves,” for starters. And it’s the nature of these ideas – the unconscious passing of concepts, funneled subtly through our social circles. You might call it “cultural learning” – or at least acknowledge our specifically human virus, with groupthink (not the “current”) as the conduit. It’s just up to you to stay woke and consider it.
*A shout-out to Ellie for giving me the idea for this post’s series, and to Eric for the comments and excellent insight
1Aronowitz, Nona Willis. “Meet the Woke Misogynist.” Splinter News. 3/12/2017. http://splinternews.com/meet-the-woke-misogynist-1793859082
2“Stay Woke: The new sense of woke is gaining popularity.” Merriam Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/woke-meaning-origin.
3Prado, Daisy. “’Woke Twitter’ Can Be Problematic. Here’s How.” Huffington Post. 5/8/2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-woke-twitter-can-be-problematic_us_5910c559e4b0f71180724740.
4Pulliam-Moore, Charles. “How ‘woke’ went from black activist watchword to teen internet slang.” 1/8/2016. Splinter News. https://splinternews.com/how-woke-went-from-black-activist-watchword-to-teen-int-1793853989.