Cultural Absorption
By A.D. Freudenheim

21 October 2002

There is a story in Indian mythology about a fight between two knights, whose struggle is said to symbolize the strength and vitality of Indian (Hindu) culture. The 'knight of iron' challenges the 'knight of light' to a duel; although neither vanquishes the other - the 'knight of iron' is well-protected by his body armor, if rattled by the blow; the 'knight of light' is unscathed by the attack, which passes through his essence leaving him unharmed - the 'knight of light' is considered the clear victor because he is able to withstand completely the impact of any blows. Likewise, through thousand years of periodic rule by a variety of invading nations - and the imposition of new languages, foods, and customs that come with the invaders - the story of India is like story of the 'knight of light': the core cultural and religious observances remain intact.

In many ways, the city of New York might seem to be the exact opposite of such a parable; what, after all, is the core culture of New York City? Instead, it is precisely the paradox of New York that makes it the standard bearer for cultural strength and vitality in the United States. The whole earth is represented here. Although every immigrant brings with them the customs and cultural needs of their homeland, the essence of New York - its energy and diversity, the fact that everyone is different and yet in many ways the same - is only strengthened by the addition of these new ideas, perspectives, and needs.

I was reminded of this Indian myth because of the large numbers of people one can see carrying yoga mats around the city these days. (Moreover, anyone who reads women's magazines, health magazines, or local weekly newspapers knows that the volume of articles and advertising for yoga-related activities has blossomed in the last few years.) Yoga is not new to America, but there seems to be a new wave of interest spurred by some unknown set of sources - and inevitably, someone will criticize the yoga trend, and there will be a backlash against it. But a core group of New Yorkers who continue to practice some form of yoga will likely remain and find their lives enriched by the experience, while the remainder of New Yorkers go about their lives unaware that there even was an issue. (I count myself among the former group, since I too drift in and out of practicing yoga in various forms.)

In truth, though, the visual reminder of the yoga mats is really quite superficial in a place like New York; it marks only one small segment of the life of the city. The wealth of restaurants representing (just about) every ethnic group around the globe offers better insight into New York's diversity. Where else can you find this diversity of food? Add to that culinary range the fact that almost every restaurant in the city relies on Hispanic labor, and you have a picture not only of the realities of the labor market here, but of the belief by small, downscale restaurant owners that they can access the same pool of labor resources to aid their survival as their upscale brethren. It is similar to having a heavily Irish police force, as in much of the 19th and 20th centuries, or mostly Korean-owned grocery stores for the last few decades: it is a flavor of New York that will change over time, but where the essence remains intact.

With all of this diversity, what is more difficult is practicing a similar level of open-mindedness individually. In a city with so many options, it is easy to get stuck taking advantage of almost none of them. Life in New York can be a cliché, a life lived based on the notion that anyone could do just about anything - most of us but never do. This is why walking around the city is one of my favorite activities; on foot, a person can experience the change in neighborhoods, cuisines, stores, and activities, be reminded of the blessed diversity in which we live and have the opportunity to sample things at will. Then, at the end of the day, there is always the Irish pub on the corner where one can stop for a drink; and for now, it is even run by an Irishman.

Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.