Sunday, March 27, 2011

Culture, Part V: Expectations

During my recent trip home, I was really shocked at the price of gasoline - more than $3.25/gallon US in most parts of Alabama. It's normal for gas prices to increase, and for Americans to grumble and complain about them. Olaf, my European friend, reminds me that we are complaining about nothing, as far as people in other Western nations are concerned. What isn't normal in the USA are long gas lines. In Pontianak, the city took to bicycles recently, when a local fuel crisis ensued as a result of an accident (never really explained) that prevented the state petroleum concern from delivering fuel into the harbor terminal. The result was something I hadn't seen since Hurricane Katrina paralyzed the southeastern USA in August 2005: marathon gas lines stretching several kilometers down the highway in front of every gas station. I was glad to be a walking, bike-riding foreigner who didn't have to worry so much, but also concerned that my friends and neighbors were spending so much time out in the heat. I could not believe that the international press had not picked up the story, but saw nothing on CNN or BBC. What I saw was a city of almost a million people, where everyone was leaving work at five o'clock in the afternoon, having dinner in line, and arriving home at around 3 A.M. the following day. Ten hours to get your fuel for the week. I began, at last, to glimpse our own future absent alternative fuels, mass transit subsidies, and a national energy policy for the USA. Folks, this is where we're headed, and you can make book on it... But beyond the politics of the impending U.S. fuel and transportation crisis - "Without Trucks, America Stops!" says the bumper sticker - lies the lesson for cultural studies. Why are people forming a line in the first place? Queuing up for gas or any other goods or services isn't an expectation with which we are born, and doesn't happen by instinct. "Every man for himself" or in other words, a melee, would be the natural state of things in this situation. We form an orderly line based on the cultural expectation that we will do so.

Lesson FIVE: Culture establishes the expected behavior for most any given situation, both positive and negative.

Of course, it's not all unpleasantness, like a terrible gas line. Culture will make you do a dragon dance, too.

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