When someone inquires about my culture, I momentarily go into a state of confusion.
I grew up in Canada, and am a second-generation child of immigrant parents; my mother from Jamaica, and my father from Ghana. However, I was not taught the language of either, so I cannot converse in broken-down English–Patois, nor can I speak twi. I can’t fry up a dumpling dish, and vaguely understand the food chemistry behind fufu and banku. And all I can do is give an aloof smile in response to the insider cultural jokes of both lands.
Many in my father’s family had a somewhat “sink or swim” mentality when it came to teaching me the ways of the land. They would spout out full-blown twi and expect me to understand, only to realize by my baffled face that I did not speak their dialect, and then they would feign utter shock and displeasure.
Finding Your Roots
When I entered the young adult phase of my life, I began to experience a longing to better connect with my roots. That’s why in the year of 2014, I made the decision to leave my full-time job and travel with my father to the “motherland.” The yearning desire I had to visit could not be explained. But stepping foot onto West African soil started to make things clearer for me. Upon arrival, I was instantly overcome with the feeling that I was home. I had last visited Ghana as a child many years ago, but the people, the culture, the way of life, even the very smell brought up feelings of nostalgia.
Living in North America, I came to a point where I struggled to understand who I was as a person. I found that I couldn’t deny that I understood little about West African culture; it was all strange and new to me. This manifested itself in many ways when I was in Ghana: My poorly timed questions, my rambling English tongue, my awkwardness with twi phonetics, my overly exaggerated looks at the women in the market who balance products on their head, and even my sheer love of privacy and lack of understanding of what community really means. Still, somewhere deep within, there was a part of me that resonated with the culture, and sought to understand it.
Culture: What Would Jesus Do?
A large part of self-identity is connected with culture, which may be why I had difficulties with this growing up. But when it comes to multiculturalism in Canada and all over the world, it is imperative we learn how to see culture as a form of integration, not separation. Unity can be reflected in diversity.
Unfortunately, what we so often see in our world today is people using culture as a means to divide themselves from others. Even within the same country, we sometimes see divisions between others because of racial backgrounds, languages, and customs.
When it comes to this point, a most radical approach was taken by Jesus Himself during His earthly ministry. He was willing to remove cultural barriers in order to reach hearts. When Jesus interacted with the woman at the well, He was not at all daunted by the fact that she was a Samaritan, and furthermore, He did not allow any preconceived ideas to color His thinking.
But the Jewish leaders’ misguided philosophy was greatly prevalent among the people. When Jesus first began talking to the woman mentioned in John 4, she demonstrated initial surprise. In verse 9, the popular sentiment that Jews and Samaritans were not to mix was made clear by the woman’s remark: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” Even so, Jesus responds: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10, NIV)
In this statement, Christ was making it clear that there was no prejudicial bias keeping him from offering the gift of living water to this woman. The gifts He offers are those available for all. This is something that He sought to teach his disciples and what He seeks to teach us as well.
When we allow divisions to arise due to culture, customs, race, or traditions, we end up putting up walls that were never meant to be. This prevents us from truly connecting as human beings, and rather as brothers and sisters. This is why Christ’s ministry was so significant; He sought to tear down the cultural divides that separate us. He clearly understood that any work done for the saving of mankind would be hindered if these divisions were allowed to exist, especially among His people. That’s why in Matthew 12:25, He says, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
At the end of the day, no matter the colour of our skin, we all have the same blood. Malachi 2:10 tells us: “Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?” This point is further emphasised in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Making Room for Culture Without Division
There are over 200 ethnic groups represented in the city I live — Toronto, Ontario — and the ethnic diversity is constantly growing. With this comes the importance of having a system in place that addresses the various cultural needs. It goes beyond enacting a policy; there needs to be a desire and appreciation for other’s cultures that springs from an atmosphere welcoming of all kinds of people, no matter where they are from.
This is something that must be developed over time, but it first begins with awareness. After my trip to Ghana, I grew to have more of a love for the country than ever before. When out on the streets of Toronto, I tote a brightly-coloured kente backpack that seems to attract attention from fellow West Africans; there are others that I sometimes catch giving a curious eye. Though I do not speak the language of my homeland, I have chosen to identify with it.
And so it must be with us. We may not completely understand or relate to the cultures of our fellow brethren, but even as we choose to reach out to them, we must be willing to learn. This is the first step in a beautiful process, one where we begin to finally see what it means to be united in spirit, mind and purpose; we are all one in Christ.