A short essay on Ethnocentrism and how it relates to body adornment, gift-giving, culture, and societies, with the main example of The Hmong people, who first emigrated to the United States in the 1980s.
Body adornment is enacted in American culture by the wearing of jewelry, piercing (nose, eyelids, belly button, etc.), tattoos, and the application of makeup, to name a few. American culture tends to focus on beauty and body adornment as a way to heighten or accent beauty in both males and females. Body adornment can also be a social or political statement. For instance, a tattoo of a swastika could be a way of supporting neo-nazism. Multiple ear piercing could be a way for a teenager to express his/her freedom or individuality or conversely, a way to express conformity within one’s peer group. On the other hand, in another culture, on another continent, say Tanzania or Zambia in Africa, body adornment may take on a more religious connotation or be related to a spiritual doctrine. Traditionally, Orthodox Jews cannot be buried in a Hebrew cemetery if they have a tattoo, for instance.
Gift-giving traditionally in American culture involves the giving of a gift and a written or verbal “thank you” from the receiver. In Turkey, however, when receiving a gift the receiver must deny the gift twice before accepting it, and then a re-gifting is also necessary. This sets up the invariable gifting and re-gifting cycle.
Society is a weaving together of individuals that share a common culture or sub-culture while culture is a set of values and beliefs: what may be taught in one’s own culture, right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable. The relation between culture and society thereby becomes the fact that society may borrow from other cultures either within its boundaries or abroad. For example, Feng Shui obsession from everything to modern homes to baseball stadiums has been borrowed from Chinese culture.
Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to another. For example, believing bathing once a day is the only right and best way to live. Ethnocentrism can become a problem when an individual or group is prejudicial, discriminatory, or close-minded because of their belief that their culture is superior and to do something a different way is the “wrong” way. In Turkey, bathing every day and having multiple “fruity” odors is offensive to Turkish people and is considered rude, uncouth, wasteful, and could lead to being evicted from your apartment.
The Hmong are said to be the “least successful refugees” largely because of the apparent notion that they are unable to assimilate into American society. A sociologist by the name of Anne Fadiman outlines several important points in her research of the Hmong. Hmong were observed planting vegetables in public parks, washing rice in their toilets, and were unable to gain employment based on their inability to speak English. The prejudicial and unsympathetic view was that the Hmong were too “primitive” to catch up to modern American society as a whole. There is, indeed, evidence to refute these notions and 180,000 Hmong are doing well, and are resilient because of six reasons. One, Strong religion. Two, the love of freedom. Three, keeping and practicing their traditional customs. Four, little intermarriage. Five, previous experience with adverse weather and living conditions. Six, previous experiences with war as a strengthening device. It would seem readily apparent that the Hmong are employed, more and more educated, loyal to their culture, hard-working, and imminently resourceful.
The government attempted to bus the Hmong out to different parts of the country not taking into account that this breaking up of their culture would cause confusion, isolation, depression, and economic hardship for the many Hmong (similar to the slaves that were brought from Africa in the late 17th Century, taken away from family, friends, culture, community and even the languages which they understood). The government did not take into account the close-knit culture of the Hmong people or the fact, that most Hmong people live with their entire family for most of their lives. Years later, when the Hmong no longer had to be sponsored by American strangers and could sponsor themselves because of relatives that had been living here for years already, the Hmong were able to re-group and form tightly knit groups once again among their people. This re-grouping was key in healing many of the stereotypes and problems that the Hmong first faced when they first came to the US.