26 December 2002 2002 nian 12 yue 26 hao

Editorial: The Unqualified Cultural Ambassador

Although I'm travelling to China as a teacher, I am unofficially a student too: my goal is to learn about the country's culture and language.

It's not unimaginable that many of the people I come in contact with, both inside and outside the classroom, will likewise be interested in learning about my culture. After all, I have heard from many sources about China's fascination with the West. Yet I'm worried that I don't know enough about my own culture to play the role of Encylopaedia Australiana.

Sure, I know about cricket and Christmas, but that's just the impersonal side of culture that you could learn from a travel brochure. As individuals we do not choose to celebrate Christmas, we are sucked into it with annual inevitability, but what does it actually mean to us? Besides, it's easy to confuse culture with tradition. Sometimes culture is a response to tradition: this year my parents decorated a ficus, which usually stands in a pot outside their house, to serve as a Christmas tree.

Take cooking, for example. I like cooking, and I hope to learn how to make some of the local cuisine of Liaoning province. Not things like roast duck and birds nest soup, but what people actually eat every day. I'd love to swap recipes, but I can't actually cook much "Australian" food! I usually cook stir-fries, curries, pasta, and other "foreign" (especially Asian) food. Admittedly, a lot of other Australians eat these dishes too, but not many of them would make it into "The True Blue Aussie Cookbook" if such a book was ever compiled.

As for popular culture, my students will probably know the top 40 better than I do (since I never listen to commercial radio), I haven't seen Titanic, and clothing fashions are not even something that register on my cultural radar.

On the other hand, perhaps it will be a good opportunity to dispel that common myth of homogeneity which we sometimes assume of foreign cultures. So, if I tell my students "Many Australians like to watch television in the evening," I can also point out that I lived without a TV for a year and suffered no ill effects.

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