The knowledge of self: sometimes that is what we, as humans, must boil down to in order to find our place in the world. When we feel lost, we ask ourselves where we made a wrong turn or what can we do or change to move forward. These are the questions clients will often come to a counselor seeking help finding the answers to. It is important we have asked enough questions about ourselves to be able to direct someone along the right path. To this end, intimate knowledge of one’s own culture and what formed it can be useful. A Culture map is useful for this. It can be done many ways, I have chosen a narrative, but it can also be done as a diagram, a story or many other formats.
Most definitions of culture revolve around a group or an individual’s heritage, language, arts, scholarship, traditions, rituals, religious influences and behaviors or beliefs. There are many obvious answers to some of these questions. Using myself as an example, I will try to give you a cultural map of my background that encompasses a few of the questions I feel are important to answer.
Language seems simple at first. I am a born American citizen from California who speaks an Americanized form of English. However, we can take this a step further and say I grew up learning a Southern Californian regional dialect of Americanized English, which grew more refined through dramatic training and scholarly pursuit. So this grows complicated already. I was raised in a specific region with specific regional slang and accent. However, this was altered as I grew older thanks to vocal training for a theatre career and my continuing pursuit of knowledge. These had the effect of changing my accent, altering the vocabulary I used and the contexts in which I used them. To add more complexity, being from Southern California, I was often influenced by the Mexican subculture that permeated the border with the influx of immigrants. So, some word I knew and used in life were Mexican-Spanish and the regional foods were peppered with Mexican twists. At this point in my life, I have become such a fan of Japanese Animation that a good amount of Japanese phrases have trickled into my current verbiage and I am deciding whether to learn Japanese and Japanese history. You could see the effect that might have upon my culture of language if I were to do so. Strangely, the most obvious of influences on my language had very little impact on my language; my family. My mother was native Filipina and my father heavily Germanic yet I learned virtually nothing about the languages growing up.
Looking at family, it should seem simple to answer the question of cultural heritage, but it isn’t as simple as my parent’s backgrounds. Yes, I can see that my ideas about family and the importance of its role in life is more influenced by my mother’s Filipino background than most American families, however my knowledge of Filipino traditions and beliefs is strictly limited to the few things that caught my fancy growing up; the foods, some greetings — that’s all. Furthermore, I rejected some of the chances to learn more simply because I wanted to feel like a normal white American kid. Yet as I grew up, I began to appreciate the differences my heritage gave me — and others. First it was a simple desire to stand up for the equality of the minorities around me. Having realized I was gay early in my life I had a feeling of kinship with those who were different. As a result, when college came I joined every minority group I could: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Students, Student Organization of Latinos, Black United Students and was president of the Multi-Cultural Club. It was later, at a conference, that I realized I was only standing for equality and was not trying to understand the different minorities. In effect, I was holding on dearly to my own sense of self and my perceptions of those around me. A much wiser person challenged my ideals at that conference and I really began to understand how naÃ¯ve I had been. It was then that I decided I must learn more about those I claimed to stand with and started actually asking questions, hanging out outside of club activities and later took history classes that were not Eurocentric. So while a good portion of me is influenced by my American upbringing, I have let myself experience the heritages of those around me and have grown from understanding them a little.
I began reading when I was very young. I was reading full novels like “The Black Stallion” by the time I was in first grade. Having been molested sexually when I was 5 by a relative, I was already feeling different from other children and didn’t quite understand them. As a result I retreated into books, worlds where innocence was rewarded and good triumphed over great odds. Books began to form the core of my philosophy of life at that time. I was ensconced in my own world where heroes were chivalrous and kind and friendship meant something. I remember the day I realized how important friends were; the day I read Bridge To Terabithia. I was about 8 and the death of Jesse’s friend Leslie was the first time I confronted death. My mother found heard me crying and ran to find out what was wrong. I didn’t realize then that through the book, Leslie was my friend too, someone who didn’t quite fit in with everyone else and it had a major impact on the way I saw friendship. From that day on, even today, friends are precious to me in a way some people I know cannot understand. I strove to show everyone I could kindness and compassion and was seen as weird by a lot of my peers growing up. During a long phase in my teen years, I began experimenting with different religions, hoping to find one that felt right to me. In the course of that exploration I came across a tenet of the Wiccan faith. It says, “an as it harms none, do as ye will”. My philosophy became twofold; be myself as long as I tried to avoid harm to anyone else and that friendship was the glue that held the moments of life together and made them more meaningful than just time passing. In college I was able to confront my past molestation and my strong feelings about protecting children and helping them fulfill their potential was added to my way of life. That is about where my philosophy of life lay today.
The single biggest influence in my life has been the arts. In eighth grade I discovered my voice by making it into the school musical and taking drama for the first time. It was the singular defining moment of my life. I found myself able to make people laugh, feel tense, or change their ways of thinking. It was a realization of the power a person could hold in their voice, their body or their imaginations. On the other side of it was the feeling of finally fitting in, of being adulated and the incredible closeness a cast feels by the time a show opens. Those were all great reasons to make me feel freer than I ever had but as I continued in theatre I discovered I could use the theatre to explore my own differences and issues. I could channel my emotions into a safe character that exposed the rawest edges of my psyche. I was able to play characters that explored my feelings about my abuse, my loneliness and being gay and then play characters where every day was a song and dance and happiness was always the light at the end. Theatre was to become my dream and would lead to my entry into psychology. To learn about what motivates people I played in shows I took psychology. I was able to learn more about myself and discovered that my second love was learning about the inner workings of the mind and used that discovering I had a talent for listening to people. Thus was born my desire to be a counselor. Most of my recent life has now been driven by those two influences; I believe that both theatre and psychology have the ability to heal and change people and I celebrate both.
I used to place a much higher importance on traditions such as Christmas. It has always been a time for sharing with family and friends. Unfortunately, they seem to have lost as much meaning as time has separated me from my closest friends and family by distance. I do appreciate and celebrate certain traditions related to older times or European traditions. I celebrate the Solstice and Boxing Day but don’t know many typical Americans who do so. I think it came from reading books set in Europe. All in all, the isolation I currently experience has diminished the number and importance of many holidays and traditions I once held in high importance. I am sure this will probably change as time passes.
This is just a few examples of the things that have formed my culture as I have grown. All of these events have had impact on my mental health, my outlook on life, my passions and will continue to influence my future growth. It is these kind of influences that is important to take into account of one’s self as a counselor and also to realize that our clients may have as much backstory influencing them as we do. We should avoid forcing our ideals on to them as we meet and understand them where they are in order to guide them in their paths to solve the questions they have about themselves.