On the difference between heritage and culture

Growing up in Missouri

I’ve lived in the Midwest all of my life. I grew up down the road from a Walmart. I lived next to a barn. My first crush was Paul Rudd in Clueless. I memorized the choreography to Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More TimeI watched American Idol only for the auditions. I begged for (and later donated) the latest Hollister jeans. I used to go into the store just to smell the fragrances. My favorite food is baked mac-n-cheese.

I took Spanish and French in high school. I excelled at neither. I can recite a few phrases in my parents’ respective languages. I speak English. And I love English. I love it so much that I majored in it. I took courses on British Lit and Shakespeare; I learned to love early American Gothic novels. American writers. American directors, even.

But I can never get away from the question, “Where are you from?”

“Well,” I say, “I lived in Kansas City until I was 10. Then my family moved to Joplin. I moved back to KC when I started college.”

“Right, but where are you from, from?”

From, from. Have you ever heard a word so much that the sound of it floats away from the meaning? It becomes a collection of consonants and vowels pushed out of a voice box behind the hatch in someone’s face who wants to know where I’m from, from.

Where am I from, from? That feels more like code for “What is your ancestry?” or “What is your genetic heritage? You don’t look much like other people I’ve seen and I’d like to categorize you in my mind somewhere under other.” And so often, I indulge them in their false renderings of my exotic background. I say,

“My mom is from the Philippines and my dad is from Greece. Yes, I’ve been to both. No, I don’t speak either. Yes, some of my family lives there. Yes, the food is good. No, I can’t take you with me next time I go.”

Last week, I had a conversation like this triggered by my name alone. This is the gist of the phone interview:

“That’s awesome! I’m so excited to have a multicultural staff. So-and-so is from India. I am Czech. I keep telling her to take me to India one day. My husband and I are dying to go to Greece…”

In my imagination, I interrupted to ask if there would be any time in this interview to discuss my qualifications for the job. Of course, I didn’t. But every time I meet a new person, I’m holding my breath for the inevitable “Where are you from?”

The truth is, I’ve never known how to answer. I still love my parents’ cultures, the languages they speak and the foods they make. I’m happy to share that. I like my features—a mix between mom and dad. I’m proud of my heritage. But I’m from, from the U.S.

The difference between heritage and culture

I’ve grown tired of the confusion between heritage and culture. So, what’s the difference? Heritage is the legacy people inherit from previous generations. Culture refers to the social knowledge we gain from living in a specific place.

Heritage

I love my heritage, but I don’t tout it as “awesome.” It’s not a feature of me that I chose for myself. It comes from elements I cannot control. My heritage reminds me what my parents, and many others, have been through to live in the U.S. It makes me want to learn the language and the recipes of my ancestors. It reminds me to pass the legacy on for generations to come. Heritage makes me appreciate the long history and happenstances that resulted in me being me.

Culture

Culture, on the other hand, is acquired over time. It is learned through social interactions. My social world is made of more than just my parents. I’ve had schoolmates, teachers, friends, crushes, music, television, the internet. They all melt together to build my understanding of culture, and that understanding has taught me how to relate to others.

Why it Matters

The most frustrating part of encountering this question isn’t so much about having to talk about my heritage. I’m not offended when someone wants to get to know me. I understand that my outward appearance does give some indication that I am, in fact, not “white.” I don’t expect people to never ask me about my heritage.

However, I cannot be your cultural sage of all things Filipino or Greek. Frankly, I’m just as much a tourist in these countries as the next American. I’ve lived in the U.S. my entire life. I can’t tell you about the Greek recession, or the Filipino president. If you’re asking me, you probably know more than I do. I know even less about the loosely related countries that tend to pop up in conversation. I’ve never been to Japan, or India, or Turkey. Other countries are just as foreign to me as they are to you.

I also get frustrated by the tendency to completely glaze over my upbringing as an American. Fixating on that one, tiny aspect of my personality totally undermines the fact that I grew up with all of the same things most kids my age did, like Nintendo and Rocket Power. I had a Razr for a cell phone. I used to cut my own bangs and paint my nails black.

And my parents have lived and worked here for over 30 years. They love the Beatles and Stevie Nicks. They saw the OJ trial. They bought Tommy Bahama and shopped the department store after-Christmas sales. They love fireworks. They eat burgers. They mow the lawn. They vote. They pay their taxes. Why can’t they be American, too?

I don’t denounce my heritage or my culture. I need both to make me, me. But I want people to understand the line between the two. I want my heritage to be my part of my background, not center stage. I want to be seen as an American as much as anything else. My personality is more formed by my surroundings than it is by the nations my parents haven’t lived in for over 30 years. I’m not a diversity point or a token ethnic friend. I’m more than my heritage. If you want to know about me, stop asking about my parents. I have their phone numbers if you want them.