Why Bother?

7 Reasons to Study Cultures Around the World

What I share today is inspired by my dear, small town, untraveled Grandma Smith, who has been the only person bold and kind enough yet to just come out and say, “I don’t get it – what the point of your blog is.” Probably a lot of you have thought that too, and it’s OK! I talked with her about why I love to study different cultures and kinds of interactions with people around the world, but as she pointed out – she doesn’t meet a lot of people from around the world. “Plus,” here comes my favorite argument that made me laugh from the truthfulness of the statement, “if I want to see or know about China, I can just look on YouTube or TV. I’m not gonna go there.”

Touché, Grandma, touché.

And I totally get it! She’s not wrong! Heck, I can feel the same way about many places that I just don’t think I’ll ever see. Heaven knows my husband has no interest in a few of the places I’ve tried to convince him to go to.

So why do it – study different cultures? Here are a few of the reasons I have come up with.

1. Internet Interactions.

I’m going to take the first swing at the very argument I already allowed, which is that we may never travel to a place, but we don’t have to anymore. That doesn’t just mean that we don’t have to go there to learn about it. We also don’t have to physically be there to share ideas and information with people from another place. With the internet and social media growing the way it is, we don’t have to travel to interact with different people at all anymore! Our online presence requires just as much cultural knowledge as being a world traveler does today! Never before has it been so important to really be a world citizen and have some awareness of things not just within our own communities and countries.

2. Educated Conversation/Opinion.

This is a no-judgement zone, but when I say, “yeah, I lived in Russia for a bit,” there are two different types of responses. The first is something about how “rough” it must have been with the weather, language, or to deal with Russians. The second is a much more specific type of question with key words even as simple as “U.S. relationships, Kremlin, Russian grandmas, adoptions, VISA renewals, etc.” While the first examples are great questions – because let me tell you, it was FREEZING and Russians can be very different than Americans – the questions I really get excited about are those second ones that show that people have some knowledge of what was actually happening when I was there! I don’t feel the pressure of needing to be their most honest account of what Russia was like and try to paint the picture of a whole, complex country. Instead, we can talk about things as they are and just tell my stories.

This also goes hand-in-hand with the number one. The internet, especially FaceBook lately (for us “old folks”, I’ve been told the kids don’t use it these days), is crawling with debates about politics of both national and foreign affairs. When we pause to read the comments on some of these discussion strands, you can always find a few things:

a. the troll, who is just trying to mess with people and pick a fight by asking questions or making insinuating remarks to get people’s blood boiling, but not really adding solutions to the conversation;

b. the passionate word-soldier, who whole-heartedly defends a position and refuses to back down, even if a really good point or question against them is brought up;

c. the life-long student, who has studied the issue, knows the stats, has references they share, can describe the politics and some group of people’s general opinions on it, and yet is joining the conversation saying they want to understand more.

I mean, do I really need to ask which one we all admire and want to be? I have two friends come to mind who are exactly Type C, and I also have a few who are definitely Type B. I myself, probably float between the two, honestly. But when I don’t know where I stand on an issue, the Type C’s are the ones whose opinions I truly respect.

The more I focus on learning about people around the world lately, the more I feel myself leaning towards being a Type C. I have more diverse resources that I have learned to trust, and opinions just a search or text away, and I try to find reliable information before joining discussions. Hopefully the end result is that I am becoming better able to analyze how solutions will affect a wider spectrum of people.

3. Global Service/Charities.

Did you know that around the world, there are many humanitarian projects that lure in anyone with the wealth, resources, and good heart to help build homes, schools, and fundraise; but then they pocket any money handed out and make sure their residents look just as starved and destitute for the next batch of lovable suckers to come through trying to help?! Isn’t that disgusting?! I just learned that recently and was appalled.

So I started to pay more attention, and began looking for keywords to see which countries are actually making changes, enforcing laws, experiencing population growth and return of past refugees. It has absolutely caught my attention every time I have seen a headline with something from the above examples after reading about these humanitarian hustles. We should also consider churches, Red Cross-type organizations, and other places that give a report of their spendings to see where our money is most trusted when trying to help a cause.

4. Family History.

I love how popular the new DNA testing kits have become! People have used these kits to fill in the blanks about questions of ancestors, health, and even research for genetic diseases. Many people have shared stories online of how they found out that their ancestors were from an entirely different country than they had grown up believing.

My favorite story on the AncestryDNA website is about a man who thought he was German. He wore traditional German clothes in a German dance troupe and everything. After some research and a confirmation by the dna test, he discovered his roots were actually Scottish. The catchline on the front page for this story? “So I turned in my lederhosen for a kilt!” Say what? Now . you understand why I even read his story in the first place, right?

If that title doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will! I thought it was hilarious, but also was so impressed at whatever drives him to really connect with his ancestors and involve himself in some way in the culture of his bloodline. For many people this is a huge way to understand themselves, feel a purpose, and even take measures to be more healthy as they understand the kind of people and blood they come from. And there’s no way you’re entire lineage is only from one place, which should encourage you to learn about multiple different places and the time periods in which your ancestors lived in different parts of the Earth.

5. More Holidays!

If you’re one of those people looking to celebrate things like half-birthdays, best friend days, and Chick-Fil-A dress-up days, then I have another suggestion for you. Study cultures, of course! I have discovered so many new holidays every month that I can’t keep up with them! Did you know that Judaism has a holiday to celebrate Queen Esther’s miraculous rescue of the Jews? Or that there is a great Saint Milarepa celebrated by Hindus? And most countries have some sort of war heroes and victories celebrated monthly as well! When you expand your horizons to all the corners of the Earth, every week of the year has a holiday to celebrate something/someone worthwhile and good!

6. Friends and Travel

The old American dream was to build your white picket fence and happily stay inside it with a yard full of kids, and occasional explorations out into the wilderness spaces of the Wild West. But the new American dream is to travel the entire world over and bring home as many new friends as possible. Do I really have to convince you that the new people you meet when you leave home will be 100 times more exotic, entertaining and memorable than any old road trip? Studying cultures definitely gives that boldness needed to interact with a total stranger. Again, if you know something important about the place, then of course you’re more likely to stand up and say, “Hey, are you from Russia? I’ve been reading about the sanctions there, and….” as opposed to saying, “So you’re a Russian? You must be loving this Arizona weather, right?”

7. Cultivating Our Own Culture

I talked about this in “What Is Culture?” As we are driven to learn more about different people, we’ll start to find out about amazing traditions, holidays, and ways of expressing ourselves that would never have otherwise been open to us. We can then start to cultivate and improve the culture around us, which I think is the absolute most important part of all of this. We can really make a difference as we better understand and become more understanding of others. That’s what studying cultures really offers – an opportunity to connect with people, find ourselves, and make a difference.

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Wu Zetian: The Mysterious Empress of China

Friends! I have been reading, watching documentaries and learning about Wu Zetian all week to top off what previous interests I had in her! You might say I’m a little obsessed by now, and am stoked to share an abbreviated overview of what I learned! Not only does she give us an insight to a period of China’s traditions and history, she also allows us an opportunity to debate and teach leadership skills! I hope you enjoy!

Set the Scene:

In a country highly influenced by Confucian beliefs, women of China are known for having endured some extraordinary expectations in their dress, family roles, and general inferiority to men. Confucian beliefs strongly pushed the idea that women are subject to a lower standing than men.

According to Khan Academy’s discussion of Confucianism and Daoism’s influence over women,

“a woman’s first obedience is to her father before she is married, to her husband while she is married, and to her son after her husband dies. During the course of their lives, women were dependent on their male kin, but they had different levels of power depending on their age and influence over male family members. Mothers of influential older sons, for example, exercised far greater control over household affairs than a younger son’s new bride.”

Women and Families in Classical Society

Then there was the foot-binding practice, of course. Young girls would have to bend their toes in and wrap them so tightly that their bones would actually break and grow improperly, preventing their feet from ever reaching a normal size. This was highly favored when seeking a wife. So much so, that they actually created a type of grading system for women’s feet.

The highest praise a woman could get, was to achieve the “Golden Lotus”, which meant her feet were three inches long! Three inches! Just for referrence, I just measured my women’s size 9 shoes to be about 7 inches long! If you have a Cabbage Patch or Build-A-Bear, the doll’s shoes will be closer to 3 inches than yours.

Nearly as admirable as the status of Golden Lotus though, was the Silver Lotus, which was laiden on those girls who could manage to walk on a 4-inch foot.

Finally, the “big feet”, or Iron Lotus, qualification was merely anything over that 4-5 inch mark. We’d all be laughed at and called Sasquatch today. But back then, this was the fashion and very important to many when finding suitors!

So where did this terrible, painful tradition all begin?

Legend tells of a woman named Yao Niang, a dancer in the Emperor’s court. The Emperor was so infatuated with her tiny, bound feet that he constructed a 6 foot lotus, draped with ribbons and other beautiful things for her to dance on. Thus, came about the term “lotus feet”. Lotuses, being like the rose of Chinese culture, epitomizing all things beautiful and lovely.

Wu Zetian

But where does Empress Wu Zetian come into all this foot binding and Confucianism business? Well, she doesn’t really! Rather, she shatters all of these images of women and carves her own path, which is what makes her remarkable! But it also makes her one of the most controversially debated among women rulers in history. As the first Chinese woman to rule an empire, she did something momentous and really gave women a time to grow and be free. At the same time though, she has been accused of terrible things to make her position possible. Watch this short video by the Smithsonian of what has been uncovered from her era – some of the very limited hard evidence of her reign!

In a world that was “meant” to be ruled by men and generally oppressed the women, she took the reigns and led China through their Golden Age! Especially a golden age for women. The biggest problem for the poor woman’s reputation today is that there just isn’t a lot recorded that anyone can say is fact about her character. Scholars know she was not born to a wealthy family, but a lot of the rest of her story is truly a mystery. It is assumed that she was extraordinarily beautiful, and educated as well, to have landed a position in the emperors house. But how did she get from a maid to the Empress? How did she overcome the competition and create a standing for herself to rule against all odds? There’s a lot of debate and some rumors, but so many biased records just don’t seem clear.

She was cast as being one of the most evil rulers China had ever seen, attributed with committing disgustingly heartless crimes against anyone in her way, even family. Some of these accusations include being a temptress, murdering family and court members, poisoning the emperor himself, and so forth.

The Smithsonian magazine breaks down some of the issues of her historical portrayal though:

Just how accurate this picture of Wu is remains a matter of debate. One reason, as we have already had cause to note in this blog, is the official nature and lack of diversity among the sources that survive for early Chinese history; another is that imperial history was written to provide lessons for future rulers, and as such tended to be weighted heavily against usurpers (which Wu was) and anyone who offended the Confucian sensibilities of the scholars who labored over them (which Wu did simply by being a woman). A third problem is that the empress, who was well aware of both these biases, was not averse to tampering with the record herself; a fourth is that some other accounts of her reign were written by relatives who had good cause to loathe her. It is a challenge to recover real people from this morass of bias.

The Demonization of Empress Wu Zetian

Basically, she underwent the kind of social media that we see celebrities face today. The people recording her history had motives to manipulate the truth, and their strong words about her suggest that they probably did. Without personally meeting her, it feels almost impossible to conclude what her actual character was. All we can know for sure is that she was not welcome as a ruler, overstepped her boundaries/duties as a woman at the time, and wanted that throne.

Good and Determined Empress, or Vile Usurper?

With the official records so skewed, how do the general people of China feel towards Wu Zetian today?

First we must understand that while the court and most inner circles of the government wrote despicable things about her integrity and more personal affairs (true or not), she did manage to uphold all of her duties to the state.

As far as what made a good ruler, Confucian beliefs held that:

Tests of the good ruler were social stability, population growth (a reflection of ancient statecraft where the good ruler was one who could attract people from other states), and ability to create conditions that fostered the people’s welfare.

Introduction to Confucian Thought

Under her reign those close to her may have been targeted, but common people prospered, the military was effective, education and skills were spreading to previously overlooked people (aka women), the population growth at the time was good. All these things point towards a praiseworthy leader, regardless of individual integrity, according to Confucianism. This feeling is still strongly met today. I have asked dozens and dozens of my Chinese students whether they believe the Empress to have been good or bad, and I can only think of one time when a student couldn’t make up her mind. The rest immediately vouch for her effectiveness in bringing about a prosperous nation. I have even tried to debate with some and swing their opinion, but they’ve stood their ground.

Do you want to join the debate? Check out some more resources about Wu Zetian here to better decide what you think:

What do you think?? Do you think that personal integrity is as vital in a good leader as the peace and accomplishments of the nation under their reign? Or can you be a bad, overly ambitious person, but still reign well?

You can start talking about leadership skills with your children when they are still very young! They should definitely have regular conversations about what kind of good qualities they can achieve as they attend their first pre-school and kindergarten classes. Here are some activity-led discussions you can use to praise your child’s existing leadership skills and help them to want expand to be more like other great leaders too! Just sign up for the newsletter to gain access to all my free printables and activities using the form below!

What are some other ways you can talk about being a leader with your children? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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C is for China Celebrates Chinese New Year!

Wei-wei! And welcome to the first post on our exploration of China! I’m so excited to share with you some of the symbols, folklore and traditions surrounding Chinese holidays!

I’ve mentioned before that I teach for a Chinese-based company called VIPKID, which connects students in China to native English speakers. In my almost two years with VIPKID, I have taught well over 800 students in over 100 different cities, and enlisted their answers and interests to compile some things to share about China.

There are so many things that I have learned about China while teaching these students and interacting with their families, such as:

  • They do not use their hands/fingers to count to 10 the same way we do in America!
  • Many schools require uniforms sporting a red sash.
  • The five stars on their flag represent the four social classes of their country under communism.
  • They are very well aware of other countries and symbols around the world. Young students can match flags to their respective countries and locate them on maps, and spend time learning about what they might see or do when traveling to many countries.
  • They also tend to call their parents “mama” and ”papa”.

But these are just a few random things that came to mind first. My absolute favorite thing to discuss with Chinese students is their holidays, because each one is so meaningful and full of symbols and tradition. Whether it is the biggest week of the year – Chinese New Year, or the Dragon Boat and Mid-autumn Festivals, these celebrators can really go all out. Since holiday traditions teach us a ton about a people’s culture, that’s what I’ll focus on this month!

And don’t forget to look for my free printables in the secret folder if you’ve already signed up for my newsletter, or you can join at the bottom of the page!

Chinese New Year.

Before we get too far, there is a small note I’d like to make for a discussion idea with your elementary, or probably middle school kids. While most the rest of the world celebrates holidays on a “solar calendar”, or a calendar that counts our Earth’s rotations around the sun, China traditionally follows a “lunar calendar”, or a calendar that follows the moon’s rotations around our Earth. If you check your calendar to see when Chinese New Year is, you might instead find it marked as “Lunar New Year”, or in other sources the week of celebration is called “Spring Festival”. We will talk about a couple of other major Chinese and lunar holidays later this month.

To go into more detail about lunar calendars would take a whole unit, but this means that, by sticking to tradition, Chinese New Year is not January 1st. Instead, it comes in February.

AND THIS MONTH IS FEBRUARY! Soooo HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR on February 5, 2019!!! Let’s talk about it.

Symbols.

Some of my students, typically the boys, still insist that red just symbolizes blood and war. However, when it comes down to tradition and Chinese New Year, the red color seen everywhere acts as a symbol of good luck, wealth and happiness. Things you might see in red include, well, everything. Lanterns, clothes, envelopes, candles, and other decorations.

Lions and dragons are also a powerful symbol in China. They represent power, good fortune, and strength to ward off evil.

Traditions and Folklore.

Fireworks and Nian.

Fireworks are said to have originally been used to ward off an evil monster called Nian. There are so many variations of this story, but the gist is always that loud noises and fire scared the monster away. So, every New Year fireworks are shot into the sky to remind the monster to stay away. In this cute clip I found on Youtube, the story also adds that Nian was afraid of the color red.

The Lion Dance.

Another symbol they use for chasing away evil and inviting good luck to their lives is the amazing lion dance! You may recognize the costumes that are occasionally mistaken for dragons. At least, I used to think they were dragon costumes. I’m not the only one, right?

This dance is not reserved only for Chinese New Year though. The lion dance represents good luck, power, fortune, and the lion chases away evil in the dance, so it is performed at all kinds of events! Weddings, store openings, and many other events marking the beginning of something celebrate with a lion dance.

Funny enough, I asked a student just this morning if he enjoys watching the Lion Dance, and he said, “No, it is just so boring. The lion just dances and dances (while showing me with his hand how the “lion” moves in a circle) and I don’t do anything. And the music is so loud.” Maybe for someone who sees it every year, and multiple times a year even, it may be uninteresting, but the one time I saw it performed in Korea, it was amazing! I would highly recommend going if you ever have a chance to witness a lion dance.

Hong Bao.

Hong Bao are those awesome red envelopes that people give each other with money in them on Chinese New Year. The red envelopes also act as symbols of wealth, prosperity and good fortune for the upcoming year. I’d feel pretty fortunate starting the new year off with an envelope of money too though, wouldn’t you? Generally these envelopes are given from parents/grandparents to children, and is a very highly anticipated part of the season.

They are so highly anticipated that I decided to make one for my Chinese students to give them some silly rewards and surprises, and will put a little surprise in one for my son on Chinese New Year too! Check out all my free Chinese New Year printables by filling out the email form at the bottom of this page!

Temples.

The main religion of China is Buddhism. In fact, China has the largest population of Buddhists in the World! Which makes sense because, well, China is huge. This means that on a holiday as big as Chinese New Year, the temples and pagodas are bound to be packed. The holiday itself is more of an ethnic holiday than a religious event, but many people still take the time to go to the temple as another ritualistic layer of inviting good luck and fortune for the upcoming year.

Now, the extent of my Chinese adventures have been a layover in an airport in Shanghai, but based on all the Buddhist temples I explored in South Korea with my husband, I am determined to visit more. So what is my really big plan this year to celebrate Chinese New Year?? Go to the Buddhist Temple down the road, of course!! I can’t even tell you how much I am looking forward to it. I’ve been planning it ever since my friend showed me a photo of her visit there last year and I’m finally going! Check around online and you may find a Buddhist temple open to visitors to come reverently visit and you can see the fun Chinese New Year decor and activities for yourself!

Zodiac Signs: The Year of the Pig!

Now, you can’t make it through an entire blog about Chinese New Year without mentioning the Zodiac Signs! So to start, a few things I learned about where they originated, and what they mean:

  • “Zodiac” has multiple translations that I found. If you really want to read some detailed and interesting stuff about zodiac signs, check out this webpage. I’m no expert able to validate everything on this page, but what I will share did check out with other sources. For someone not usually interested in horoscopes, it had me hooked and sharing “Did you know…”s with my husband! But that’s off track. My favorite definition of “zodiac” was “circle of animals”, which just makes sense because that’s how its always represented – a pie with each slice containing an image of an animal. Another, more detailed, definition says that the zodiac “is the term used to describe the circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude that are centred upon the ecliptic – the path of the sun.”
  • There are different zodiac traditions older than the Chinese.
  • The Chinese zodiac is significant because it is based on a 12 year cycle, with each year being represented by one of these animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
  • This year celebrates The Year of the Pig!

If you know someone born in 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, or 2019, then you know someone born in a year of the pig! Here’s where the zodiac horoscopes get complicated though. Not all Chinese zodiac pig years have the same horoscope! What? I know. The 12 year cycles also go through a cycle of elements (fire, water, earth, etc..). For more information on your Chinese zodiac horoscopes, you can start by checking out this website.

The Chinese also have a fun legend for children about the origin of the zodiac. It goes something like this:

The Great Jade Emperor wanted to find a way to help people track the years better, and decided to name each year after an animal. He invited many animals to come to the palace for the opportunity to become a zodiac symbol. The rat and cat were great friends, but the rat was also very ambitious and cunning, and was able to sneak away, leaving his friend asleep to miss the race. When the animals arrived at the palace, they were told that they would have a great race across a river. Again, using his cunning, the rat secured a ride across the river with the powerful ox. Before the ox could climb up the river bank though, the rat jumped from the ox’s head, racing forward and finishing first! Because of this, the rat was rewarded to become the first zodiac sign, and the ox became the second, and so forth.

You can find printouts of this story all over the internet, or buy it in many different forms at just about any bookseller.

Th-th-th-th-that’s All, Folks!

Get it? Porky the Pig? And it’s the year of the pig… 🙂

Are you so excited to celebrate Chinese New Year now?! If you need some stuff to do it, sign up with your email below (if you haven’t yet) to get access to my newsletter and free printables that will include all things Chinese New Year (hong bao, banners, pig masks, and a cute card/picture)!

Also, tell me: what are some traditions you and your children enjoy? What stories do you tell on different holidays, and why are the stories so special to you?

The folder will contain: cute card/picture, 2 hong bao envelopes, pig mask, AND a Chinese New Year banner! (Plus other printables found in “A Lesson on Respect..” and “Where in the World Do I Live?” and more!)

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