Intangible Cultural Heritage: What Foods Does UNESCO Deem Worthy of Singling Out?

We can divine so much about a culture from their monuments, homes, pottery, and other physical objects and structures left behind.

From Incan temples to Egyptian pyramids, archeologists and other anthropologists are able to piece together the values and norms of past cultures through the tangible cultural heritage they created and built.

In other words, tangible objects – the visible branches of the cultural baobab – allow experts to infer theories about the culture’s invisible roots.

Intangible cultural heritage does the same.

So, what aspects of cultural heritage are considered “intangible”?

Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as including:

“traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”

Moreover, in order to check all of UNESCO’s boxes, intangible cultural heritage must be a) traditional, contemporary and living at the same time; b) inclusive; c) representative, and; d) community-based.

Food falls into this category.

What Can Food Tell Us About A Culture?

“The best couscous is my mother’s.”

Recently in 2020, UNESCO approved couscous as an intangible cultural heritage of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.

The four North African countries submitted a joint application for their signature dish which originates with the indigenous Berber culture.

Their successful application put couscous on the map, not only as an item of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage, but as an “example of international cooperation.”   

Made of durum wheat, corn, or barley, the preparation of couscous involves a ceremonial process, beginning with its cultivation and ending with its consumption.

After the cereal is grown, semolina is made by grounding the seeds. It is then rolled by hand – with plenty of olive oil – and steamed over a special tool called a couscoussière.

Apostrophekola-real, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Large batches of couscous are often made in a big bowl, as the semolina might be eaten over days and in various ways.

Seasoned often according to regional preferences, variations include couscous mixed in with a meat stew, with chickpeas, with various veggies, with turned milk.

Image by Patou Ricard from Pixabay 

A special seasoning blend called Ras El Hanout, which combines over a dozen spices, some specific to the region, is often mixed in.

The importance of couscous in every aspect of North African culinary life means that the dish is brought out for nearly every traditional occasion – weddings, family reunions, holidays – as well as for basic daily meals.

What rice is to many Asian countries, couscous is to North Africa. The versatility of the dish is part of its cultural heritage.

Gastronomical Dishes & Methods

Whether its the tradition of Korean kimchi-making, known as kimjang, or the art of Neapolitan pizza-making, known as pizzaiuolo, every culture has their own food traditions that could be considered intangible cultural heritage.

What are yours?

The Heroes of Our Own Story: How Cultural Bias Enters into the Teaching of History

We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

And with this desire comes bias.

When entering a new culture, learning to read between the lines of what is taught about the culture’s history will help you better understand their cultural perspective

You may still agree with and believe in the historical interpretation of your own culture, but getting to the roots of another culture means getting to know their view of themselves, which is never more apparent than in their teaching of history.

This knowledge will give you insight into the “why” of cultural norms, values, and traditions in your host country.

To gain this knowledge, learning what is taught is important; but, sometimes, learning what is expressly not taught is even more so.

Russia and North America

“Back in the USSR…”

While it’s obvious that Russian and Western cultures view things differently, what may not be so obvious is their extraordinarily different interpretations of history.

North Americans often view their liberal values of freedom and individualism with pride, and that is reflective in their teaching of history.

They view Marxist ideals and communist values as restrictive on individual liberties and enterprise.

Russian history, however, is taught from a Marxist viewpoint.

It teaches that the American working class – and overseas labor from American corporations – is exploitative.

Like Americans, their view of their own history is also one of pride.

They present their communist system as more egalitarian, distributing wealth more fairly amongst the working class.

While American historians present Russia as oppressive, so do Russian historians present America.

And from an outsider’s perspective, if you’re being honest with yourself and viewing these arguments and their history objectively, you can see truth in both…however, you’re probably more biased toward the history that aligns with your own values and norms.

Japan and China

Japan and China are two other examples of nationalist takes on history.

The Japanese take pride in their long and glorious empire. However, the tragic recent history of WWII and the events surrounding it is often deemphasized in classrooms.

Mariko Oi, a Japanese teacher who studied abroad in Australia, puts this into perspective:

“Japanese people often fail to understand why neighboring countries harbor a grudge over events that happened in the 1930s and ‘40s. The reason, in many cases, is that they barely learned any 20th century history. I myself only got a full picture when I left Japan…” 

According to Oi, only 5 percent of her Japanese textbook (19 out of 357 pages) dealt with the recent history of WWII and the events that led up to it from 1931 to 1945.

A single line was dedicated to the Rape of Nanjing (also known as the Nanjing Massacre) which occurred during the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 when Japan invaded China. That war too was given but a single page.

On the other side of the East China Sea, Chinese students are taught in detail about Japanese war crimes and about the Rape of Nanjing in particular.

And as for other WWII enemies, the subject receives different treatment in American textbooks versus Japanese textbooks. 

The Manhattan Project is often heroically emphasized by American historians who detail the justifications for dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Mariko Oi’s Japanese textbook again, a single sentence is dedicated to this event.

Cultural Bias in Ourselves

The point of all this is that a nation tends to have a specific view of itself. 

And, in doing so, that nation will cast itself and its history in the best light while deemphasizing certain aspects that today bring shame. 

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize within ourselves. We’d like to think we’re “above” it.

But in the end, we all want to be “right”; we want our values to be right, our norms to be right, and our version of history to be right.

We want to be the heroes of our own story.

When Religion Meets History: Confucian & Communism in Chinese Culture

“If you can revive the ancient and use it to understand the modern, then you are worthy to be a teacher.” – Confucius

History. Religion. Language.

We’ve been talking about these cornerstones of culture the past few weeks, taking them one at a time.

But what happens when they meet?

And how can you, as Confucius says, understand the modern by reviving the ancient?

Welcome to the Beijing Olympics

It was 2008. Beijing, China. Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“Friends have come from afar, how happy we are.”

A quote by the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was presented at the fore.

Later, the Bird’s Nest was invaded by 3,000 Confucian disciples. The performers held bamboo slips, upon which some read the ancient Chinese character, “He,” which means harmony.

The religious philosophy of Confucianism was present at the international ceremony, as the great philosopher represents the Chinese mind.

Alive from 552 to 479 BC, “The Uncrowned King” remains today, 1,500 years later, Chinese history’s most influential person.

He is so influential that his traditional ideas and teachings remain a part of modern Chinese thought.

A Culture Influenced By Religion and History

Although Confucius was once deemed “The Number One Hooligan Old Kong” by Mao’s Red Guards, the Communist Party realized that the great philosopher might be useful for their agenda.

Only, instead of true harmony in the way Confucian taught, the Communist Party Confucius emphasizes obedience and loyalty. He bucks Western ideals and pushes for authoritarian rule.

“Harmony” – a Confucian concept – is used a lot by Communists; harmony, meaning no dissent.

The true Confucian take on harmony, however, is one in which each person in a society works together toward prosperity. 

A research paper entitled, “The Relevance of Confucian Philosophy to Modern Concepts of Leadership and Followership,” explains Confucius’ views as follows:

“Confucius observed that because society is a weave of relationships between individuals, a healthy community depends upon an attitude of human caring among its members.”

By cherry-picking and restructuring Confucian values, the party is able to create a version of a modern political system that it can say is based on the traditional past.

In this way, Chinese history and religion tell us why a nationalistic central government, guided by moral individuals who have the people’s best interests at heart, is the way China chooses to be led – and to become a major world power.

History and religion tell us why a democratic Western political system does not sit well culturally in China.

This demonstrates that, in the end, to truly understand the ways and mentalities of your host country and its people, you must study its history and religion – and also the ways in which that history and religion might be politicized in the modern world.

“Tolerance Ends Where Harm Begins”: The Boundaries of Active Cultural Tolerance

As with everything, even active tolerance has its limits.

Certain cultural traditions are inhumane and do not have a place in today’s world (or in past worlds either).

Examples spring to mind: corporal punishment in schools; female circumcision; adultery resulting in the death penalty by stoning.

Must we apply active tolerance toward such norms in order to be culturally sensitive?

The answer is no.

The legitimization of such cultural traditions is criminal.

But, to many, where to draw the line of tolerance is not strictly defined.

The Line for Tolerance

The best definition for the boundaries between tolerance and intolerance regarding culture comes from Randy Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times.

In his column, “The Ethicist,” he explains why we should not tolerate all norms for the sake of religious and cultural respect, writing,

“Tolerance ends where harms begins.”

Actions and behaviors do not get a free pass simply because they are deeply ingrained in a culture’s history and tradition.

While some actions may conflict with moral barriers cross-culturally – like the polygamy in certain cultures discussed in last week’s post – the question is whether or not there is explicit harm as a result of the action.

My father did see some harm in the fact that polygamy could lead to forced marriages of underage girls, and he focused on remedying that by building the affected women a shelter. However, he found consenting polygamous relationships were not, in and of themselves, harmful, so he chose to actively tolerate them, as doing the opposite would directly harm all women involved.

However, as Cohen states, harm – both physical and psychological – is where you might draw the line.

Active or passive cultural tolerance should end there.

The Line for Tolerance is Not Universal

Search Wikipedia, the largest human knowledge repository, for the term, “tolerance,” and you will find, in accordance to the many philosophers who’ve written upon the topic, the idea of the “right of man.”

The “right of man” is the basic human right to live without being harmed by others.

As there is no universal line for tolerance, you are on your own to draw it for yourself when living and working in a foreign culture.

But isn’t this where you should draw that red line?

Asking yourself whether or not physical or psychological harm is done in regards to another culture’s norm or value is the delineation of tolerance.

Keeping your personal integrity intact means knowing your boundaries of tolerance.

Staying within these boundaries will fortify your own beliefs and values while allowing for your understanding and acceptance to explore to the very edges of those boundaries.

10 Cultural Universals: Rituals, Seeing Darkness in a Whole New Light

Bhutan is known as the happiest country on Earth.

And yet, the peaceful Buddhist nation, sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas, is preoccupied with death.

People of Bhutanese culture think about death five times a day. And, surprisingly, this doesn’t provoke negativity or darkness; it brings happiness and joy.

The Bhutanese understand that death and life walk hand-in-hand. And their quasi-celebration of death is best represented in their rituals.

Rituals, Values, Beliefs

Rituals, tied in with values and beliefs, are part of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Rituals are shared events, often traditional, that are unique to a given group or community.

As UNESCO puts it:

“They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events…to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory.”

How do Bhutanese rituals reaffirm their identity and demonstrate their perception of death?

Death Ritual

Death rituals in Bhutan are so enriching, because Buddhists believe not in death, but in reincarnation. Therefore, the focus is on the rebirth of the soul into a new life; not on the death and ultimate termination of the departed’s life here on Earth.

According to Eric Weiner’s BBC article, “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness”:

“Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals.”

The rituals during this 49-day period are performed to help ensure that the departed soul improves its state in rebirth. Although praying happens every day of these 49 days, the more elaborate rituals occur on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th after the departed’s passing.

Rituals include 108 prayer flags being erected in the deceased’s honor. The local astrologer is also asked for their recommendation on a favorable cremation day prior to the 7th day ritual.

The gewa, or “feast of giving,” occurs on the 21st day. One person from each household in the village attends the feast.

In a wonderful article, written by Kunzang Choden, Choden explains how Buddhist beliefs inform these rituals:

“Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.”

These acts are also a sort of grief cleanse for the living, with one man calling the 49-day process “better than any antidepressant.”

And the death rituals do not end at the 49th day. Every year for three years following a death, prayer flags are erected in the departed’s honor, with rice, alcohol, and other items offered up by family, friends, and other attendees.

This is how values, beliefs, and rituals can blend into a culturally-rich experience that caters to the soul.

10 Cultural Universals: Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements

Last week, we talked about the dignity of food culture with tips from Anthony Bourdain.

This week, we’ll discuss another topic within the same theme of cultural fundamentals: clothing.

Grouped together with food, shelter, and transport, clothing is one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

It’s easy to understand why.

Clothing viscerally represents culture in a way that’s often traditional, fashionable, and practical, all at once.

Clothing tradition also evolves with the times, as we’ll discuss in the section below, entitled “Cultural Clothing Movements.”

Tradition

In many parts of the world, traditional clothing has gone by the wayside, traded in for modern Western clothing.

Or, in some cases, traditional dress is worn only for special occasions, like births, weddings, funerals, or other big life events.

In some parts of the world, however, traditional clothing is still everyday wear.

For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Newar people of Nepal wearing traditional woven clothing in everyday life.

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Women’s dress is called Kurta Suruwal and includes a patterned blouse, covered by a draped scarf, and loose pants cinched around the ankles.

If married, women also wear Tika – a red powder – on the browline of their forehead.

Fashion

Many Nepali men, on the other hand, have transitioned to Western wear. It’s more common to see men wearing jeans and t-shirts or button-ups than it is to see them in traditional garb.

In this way, some part of Nepali culture has moved away from the traditional to what might be considered modern fashion.

Cultural Clothing Movements

Sometimes, culture evolves as social freedoms do. Often, it takes a movement to progress these changes.

For instance, in the case of forced hijab in Iran.

For nearly forty years, Iranian social codes have obliged women to wear the hijab in public. This has been Iranian law since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

But recently, with the help of social media, widespread protest of forced hijab has compelled some to shed or revolt against this cultural tradition.

This protest is not a complete rejection of the tradition or the hijab, itself. Rather, many believe it should be a woman’s right to choose whether she wears the hijab or not.

Masih Alinejad is one of the advocates driving this movement for social change. Alinejad started a Facebook page in 2014 called My Stealthy Freedom, in which she posts pics of Iranian women out in public, removing their hijabs.

While the regime has cracked down on the revolt, the campaign for freeing women of forced hijab is going strong and may just result in a cultural clothing revolution.

This is how clothing traditions evolve and how culture, inevitably, changes.

10 Cultural Universals: Rites of Passage & Familial Roles

Last week in our ten-part series of the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about family structures.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion of family by identifying the roles of family members and rites of passage across two cultures.

Let’s travel to Mexico and Algeria to experience them both.

Familial Roles

Roles of family members form the structure and the line of authority within a family.

Mexico

The Mexican family is patriarchal and follows traditional gender roles. The father is the authoritarian figure, while the wife is generally submissive.

This cultural trend is believed to have developed from the 16th century Spanish conquistadors’ treatment of native women. After they’d been impregnated, they were treated with violence and threats of abuse in order to be made subservient.

The resulting “mestizo” children grew up with this devaluation of women normalized, which evolved the roles that exist today, particularly the concept of “machismo.”

Algeria

In Berber culture, traditional gender roles also reign supreme, with men working outside the home and women tending the house and raising the children. The eldest son steps into the authoritarian role of financial caregiver in place of the father, when he retires or passes away.

Grandparents, as well, play an important story-telling role in Berber society.

In the recent past, the entire family – often three or four generations – would gather around the elkanoun (fireplace) and listen to stories of morality told by the grandmother and grandfather.

The stories served as educational guides for their family, especially the young children.

Rites of Passage

Mexico/Latin America

A quinceañera is a rite of passage in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South American countries.

During this huge 15th birthday party, which is both a social and religious event, the family celebrates the young woman’s passage from girlhood to womanhood. The celebration is also meant to highlight how meaningful society and family are in the life of women.

A mass, attended by her family and godparents, commences the celebration, followed by a large party with music, dancing, and food.

During the party, the young woman might present her younger sister with a doll as a symbolic gesture of passing from childhood to adulthood.

Algeria

In Algeria, a boy’s first haircut is celebrated with a big party to which all of the family is invited.

The wisest, oldest male member of the family – usually the grandpa on the dad’s side – cuts the first strand, and a traditional bread called lamsemen is cooked and placed on the young boy’s head.

Often, the grandma says to the child, “You will be strong and fat, like the bread.”

During Carem (Ramadan) the first time a child fasts, they are placed on the roof of the house during the Call to Prayer. There, they eat their meal – a special dish of eggs and bercoukes.

These are just a few important rites of passage and familial roles across cultures. Next week, we’ll talk about FCTS (food, clothing, transport, and shelter), some of the very basic aspects of culture.

The Baobab Theory of Culture

Most folks who are interested in culture have heard about the Iceberg Theory.

The phrase was coined by Ernest Hemingway and applies to his style of writing – a.k.a. the theory of omission. But it also applies to culture.

The idea is that the deeper meaning of a story is below the surface. Or, in the theme of our blog, the deeper meaning of a culture…

Like an iceberg, that which we see of culture only makes up a small portion of the whole. What lies below is even more astounding and impactful.

But I’d like to expand on the Iceberg Theory and compare culture to a baobab.

The Baobab

We talked last week about the mythical baobab tree.

For the purpose of this theory, the baobab’s huge trunk and canopy will represent the visible part of culture.

Traditional clothing, food, art, architecture, language, gestures, appearance, behavior – this is all represented in the visible part of the baobab.

Behavior is often regulated by norms. Folkways, mores, taboos and laws are all represented above the surface.

The small branches at the edges of the canopy represent folkways, the most flexible of the norms. As the branches extend toward the trunk, they become thicker and more rigid. These are a society’s mores. They’re stricter and often based in deeper values.

And the trunk, itself? This represents a culture’s taboos and laws. Punishment for those who do not adhere to these two sets of norms is the most severe. Society members must comply, or they’ll be ostracized or imprisoned.

Know Before Traveling

While knowing the baobab – or the visible part of a culture – is only the beginning of full-on cross-cultural integration, this basic intro would probably be enough for brief travel to a foreign country or a short business trip.

For instance, if you’re traveling to Greece, it would be nice to know that their official working day ends during the early afternoon. Moreover, when formal events are held at work, they are often attended by only employees of the same rank.

Or if you’re on business in the UK, you’ll find that business culture there is quite direct. You’ll also find that the Brits are often on first-name basis with fellow colleagues and superiors. This may seem in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of their formality.

On the other hand, if business takes you to Portugal, you might be addressed very formally as “doutor” (doctor), whether you have a doctorate or not. Everyone with a university degree is honored with this title. You’ll also find that nepotism isn’t an issue in Portugal, as business and personal relationships are often intertwined.

Below the Surface

While all of these aspects are visible parts of the cultural baobab, this begs the question: what lies below the earth?

In the baobab’s case, an enormous network of roots spread into the soil as a culture’s underlying invisible values. We’ll talk about these roots next week.