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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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.


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!


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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