Saturday, January 7, 2017

Not Everyone Wants to be Westernized

It's easy to wear blinders in a cultural way. That's because what we see everyday seems the "normal" way, as if everyone on earth had the same values, experiences, care and woes. 

It's also easy to think that other kinds of lifeways disappeared long ago, that there are no more hunter and gatherers, no more people living in the depths of forests or the plains of the steppe, nobody roaming around with herds of animals, or that no one is actually planting their own crops as a way to eat other than make money. 

But none this is true.

Anthropologists are there to remind us that there are many ways to make a living, and that some of these ways have been around a lot longer than the Industrial Revolution. More interesting, and less academic, The New York Times also keeps reminding us there's a big world out there and we are only one small part of it.

In September, the paper published an article about the Yugur and Uighur of China, cultures that most Chinese don't even know about. 

"The history of the Yugurs tells of the wax and wane and missing of cultures, dictated by geography and migration and the choices made by societies. The influence of a variety of nomadic steppe cultures in what is today northern China is a towering part of Asian history up the the 20th century," writes reporter Edward Wong.

Following the historical complexity of these cultures and their religions requires a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, and even that might not be enough, but the end result is clear. "We don't have the written language anymore," said a manager of a handicraft workshop who once worked in the Sunan Country cultural office. "If we don't preserve the oral language, then it will quickly disappear. If we don't preserve handmade crafts or the techniques of making things by hand, then there's nothing special about us." (And what's so special about Western culture, one might ask).

In December, Jon Emont and Surgey Ponomarev wrote in The Times about endemic Mentawai people on the Mentawai Islands on Indonesia. Many of these people still live in the forest, and some of those who have relocated to villages on the outskirts of the forest want to go back. Noting that he would soon leave his wife, children and everything else to return to the forest and care for his aging parents who refuse to leave, Petrus Sekalour said, "Personally I prefer living in the forest. I'm happier there. I don't have to stress about finding work every day." Or finding something to eat or someone to talk to. 

According to the article, the Mentawai  traditional religion is not affected in any way by Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, nor Muslim beliefs. Even with Western medical care available, the forest Mentawai  still rely on shamans. They tend pigs and carry on without all the trappings of Western culture that we think everyone wants. But they don't. Why don't they? "The older generation is happier than we are," says Mr. Sekaliou, which might be a hint. 

This then is the real anthropological lesson. Not only are there other cultures and other lifestyles in operation across the globe, some of those people have it better than we do. Sometimes a lot better, all things considered. 

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