What is culture?

The term culture itself is academically broadly defined and in no danger of misapplied, yet there seems to be an implicit, locally agreed upon criterion for what can be deemed cultural. This intrinsic collective idea is usually associated with the historical merit of the activity and eschews standard/official definitions.

Consider the examples below.

It is a Tuesday in February. A woman is standing out in the midday sun wearing a bedazzled bathing suit that cost more than some people make in a month. Soca music blasts. All around there are revelers, wining, grinding, all jamming to the beat, making their way down the road. Not just her fellow countrymen surround, tourists from everywhere are also exuberantly enjoying the experience. She probably feels energized, alive, a part of something bigger than just herself and these people.

Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

That feeling is perfectly understandable. This celebration is a relic of our past; a modern day continuation of an ancestral event. The masquerade and the purpose may not be along similar lines, but the preservation of festiveness, of letting loose of inhibitions, has allowed her to have that moment. Most would not dispute that this is culture at play.

It is Saturday morning. A man wakes up to the sound of Chutney music, loudly played by someone in his neighbourhood who assumes that they are providing everyone with entertainment. He shuffles outside, greeting most people he passes, lest his mother gets a call later that her child was not polite. At the doubles stall, he places his order and waits. Another patron is crying while eating, “Drive, Drive, I say no pepper you know”. He laughs along with everyone as he eats standing up.

Popular street food in Trinidad and Tobago

The seemingly mundane quotidian life of a T&T citizen, but all aspects of this experience are rooted in our country’s historical past. Most would agree that the scenario above was made possible by cultural elements.

But what about a scene in a posh café made possible by globalization?

A person is sitting on a chair in a U.S. based coffee chain’s T&T franchise. In their hand, a criminally hot, expensive caramel latte is cooling to a drinkable temperature. A Japanese brand laptop is on the table next to a South Korean brand smart phone. All around the ambient sounds of chatter are interrupted by polite baristas taking orders. Soft lighting, accents (most fake), pretentiously named beverages, and pastries of dubious origin; this is not what some people would accept as culture.

But it is culture nonetheless.

Culture: (n) 1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. 2. The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Source: the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Human intellectual achievement”; if we prosaically utilize this definition then sitting in a fancy coffee shop writing a thesis on a technologically advanced device is more “cultural” than wining in a glittery bikini. But we won’t do that because sometimes the stressed-out grad student is the carefree masquerader, and therein lies the beauty of acceptance.

What shapes culture?

Foreign influences may transform many of our provincial characteristics, but this is not a particularly novel occurrence, nor is it detrimental to our ways. History is rife with cultural appropriation and invasion. The enrichment brought on by encroachment has led to the glorious, endlessly engrossing intricacies of our modern societies. We enjoy the benefits of this inclusiveness on a daily basis, sometimes with no acknowledgement of that fact.

Perhaps we need to refocus our attitudes. We are humans, bound by the shared desire for community and interaction. Our culture is our ability to adapt and evolve, to not only celebrate our history but to move forward.