The Taipei 101. East Asian aesthetics and postmodern architecture. Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash

Cultures Aren’t Isolated Islands and That’s a Good Thing

There’s an idea, a conservative one, that adopting new ideas and aspects of other cultures is a bad idea, or even a sort of cultural betrayal. The irony is people who think like that live their daily lives relying on many ideas from other cultures and they don’t realize it. Their own culture wouldn’t be recognizable without those influences. It would be alien to them.

But it is a murky area of morality. When does cultural appreciation, or stealing a good idea, become cultural appropriation? I’m not going to get into that here. There are better, more knowledgeable writers than me who have written on this. But what most discussions about cultural appropriation don’t get into is how a surprising amount of your daily life exists as it does today because of cultures taking from each other over the centuries. How the ideas from one culture came to another may not always have been done with good intentions. Many peoples have conquered and in turn been conquered throughout history and conquerors often impose their own culture and values. But regardless of how it happened, the fact is it did happen, and now we live our lives with the results.

There’s a decent chance you’re reading this article while sipping a coffee or tea. Now take a guess at what you’d be sipping if Turkish invaders into Europe hadn’t brought coffee to Hungary, Vienna, and Malta during the period between 1526 and 1565, or if European traders hadn’t started importing tea from China in the early 1600s? You’d probably be sipping water, beer, or wine so still mostly fun, but not caffeinated fun.

Coffee and tea became so ingrained in Euro-American culture that an entire episode of the American Revolution featured tea imports and seemingly every street for the last century has at least one coffee shop. Today coffee is as American as Apple Pie (which actually comes from England), while the Brits are the great tea drinkers. A world where cultures are isolated from each other and stubbornly resist new ideas? Sounds awful.

Ok, but that’s just food and drink culture. It’s nothing practical you say? Here’s something practical for you in 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1… Numbers. Or, specifically, the symbols we use to write our base 10 number system. Those aren’t European. We generally call them the Arabic or Indo-Arabic Numerals. Their origins were in India and they spread into the Arabic world and then arrived in Europe gradually beginning in the Middle Ages around 980 when Pope Sylvester II started to spread their use in Europe. Later Leonardo Fibbianaci studied in Algeria and promoted their use in his book Liber Abaci in 1202.

“When my father, who had been appointed by his country as public notary in the customs at Bugia acting for the Pisan merchants going there, was in charge, he summoned me to him while I was still a child, and having an eye to usefulness and future convenience, desired me to stay there and receive instruction in the school of accounting. There, when I had been introduced to the art of the Indians’ nine symbols through remarkable teaching, knowledge of the art very soon pleased me above all else and I came to understand it.”

So what were Europeans using before that? X IX VIII VII VI V IV III II I… Roman numerals. There’s a good reason Europeans adopted Arabic numerals and it’s because, frankly, they’re superior and easier to work with for anything beyond basic arithmetic.

If you’re curious how Roman numeral math works then take a look. Basic arithmetic isn’t so difficult (it’s arguably even a bit easier!), but the more complex the math becomes, the more the Arabic numerals shine. You have the Indian and Islamic worlds to thank for improving our mathematical language. There are of course many, many more mathematical concepts that came from the Islamic and Indian worlds (also much of the scientific method!), but it’s hard to find something as core to a literary culture as writing and the symbols we use for writing.

How about influences on religion, ethics and morality? Well, everyone knows Abraham, Moses, and Jesus weren’t European. You can thank the long reach of the Roman Empire bringing ideas from the deserts back to the green fields and forests of Europe.

This isn’t a one way street either. There’s an example in art that’s near and dear to me. The Legend of Zelda is a game series produced in Japan by Japanese creators, but it has clear origins in European fantasy and myth–swords in stones, castles, fairies, and kidnapped princesses. But it also has strong Japanese influences in the series internal mythology and subtext. Japanese developers took European myths and archetypes, made something of their own with them with their own cultural background, then passed their creation back to Euro-American audiences so it could influence them in new ways. It’s a beautiful cycle.

The whole world is a cycle of ideas where cultures take something, make it their own and grow through it. Cultures aren’t islands and that’s a good thing. Be open to the odd ideas coming in. Let yourself try new things and experiment. You never know what new, foreign idea today could be so ingrained in daily life next century no one even thinks about where it came from. Don’t lock yourself into some foolish belief that your culture has a mythical “pure” form that was once unaltered by contamination. That mythical culture never existed and that’s a good thing.



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Noah Mullins

Noah Mullins

Musings on life, history, and humanity; and speculative fiction