Essay: In today’s globalised world, should we seek to retain our unique cultural identity?


There is arguably nowhere in the world today that is left untainted by American footprints. More often than not, we happy to consume American products without batting an eyelid. Our unconscious desire to own an Abercrombie T-shirt, buy the latest Nike shoes or sip on a cup of Starbucks as we go about our activities suggest that we have grown to see these goods as a normal part of our lifestyle. While these influences may seem harmless, they can pose a direct threat to our local cultures if left unchecked. As American culture becomes increasingly popular and mainstream even among different local groups, there is a need to be more cautious of its impacts, especially if we wish to retain our unique cultural identity. It is still important for us to preserve our unique cultural identity amidst the homogenising cultural force of Americanisation. This is because every culture is unique and inherently valuable. Moreover, holding fast to our unique cultural identity can help us to better differentiate ourselves in an increasingly homogenised world.

As a result of globalisation, foreign cultures, in particular American culture, are fast encroaching into every society around the world. Foreign products are becoming ubiquitous and there can be a tendency to view them as superior. On top of the exposure on billboards and posters at the street level, we are constantly and subtly fed advertisements – many of which produced by resource-rich MNCs who can afford to do so – on our mobile devices. It is understandable that it can be tempting to simply do nothing, and allow such influences to take over, especially if people are willing parties to succumb to and embrace the foreign cultures. However, it is too fatalistic to accept fate as it is. It is no doubt a mammoth task to retain one’s culture against the barrage of such influences. However, we should not be daunted if we believe that it is a worthwhile undertaking. The enormity of the challenge should not deter our efforts in standing up for our own culture.

Every culture is unique in its own way – it contains a treasure trove of knowledge and also offers us precious insights into a people’s history and psyche. We often cannot help but feel a sense of loss when we look at pictures of the extinct dodo or an artist’s rendition of bygone ancient Wonders such as the Statue of Zeus or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. This is because every culture is inherently valuable and irreplaceable. In today’s world where many eat, breathe and live American, it is all the more pressing for us to be wary not to let American influences snuff out local cultures.

Besides, there are also tangible benefits that come with retaining our own unique culture. In today’s world, social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have, to some extent, created a new taste for the novel and exotic. Web content that scores the highest likes and shares are often those that contain elements that are out of the norm. In this regard, incorporating unique cultural elements can sometimes help to differentiate oneself. In 2012, Korean artiste Psy’s music video “Gangnam Style” became the first YouTube video to hit one billion views and was a wildly successful hit, arguably in part due to its unique cultural references to the lifestyle associated with the Gangnam district in Korea. Likewise, in 2015, Singapore’s artiste Chen Tianwen’s music video “Unbelievable” also went viral and even caught the attention of foreign publications like Huffington Post and the BBC. Its success was the result of its comedic use of Singlish, with phrases such as “stunned like vegetable” sounding particularly ridiculous and funny to both Singaporeans and native English speakers alike. In both instances, the unique cultural flavours helped the videos to differentiate themselves and win the hearts of many.

In the same light, retaining one’s unique cultural identity can also be helpful in boosting a country’s tourism. Travel is often glamourised on social media and people nowadays are on the lookout for experiences that are different from what they can get in their own country. While tourists in the past may be more interested in seeking familiarity in their travels, such as finding a MacDonald’s or Starbucks for their meals, many millennials today value artisanal and “indie” products. The appetite for travel is evident in the countless YouTube channels dedicated to the genre and the many YouTubers who make their living by making videos of their travels. YouTube star Nadine Sykora is one example, who reportedly earns a six-figure income documenting her travels to 50 countries around the world, and has garnered a large following online. This trend is advantageous to local cultures as their identity and way of life are in themselves attractive to others, by virtue of their uniqueness. Hence, this can be an added pragmatic incentive to retaining one’s unique culture.

Nevertheless, in our efforts to retain local cultures, we must not become too pedantic about new elements being absorbed into them. A static view of culture only serves to frustrate both those within and outside the culture. We live in a highly interconnected borderless world today and constantly interact with people, goods and ideas of different cultures. It is inevitable that in this interaction, some degree of assimilation and hybridisation will take place. Take for instance, the Chinese practice of giving out ang paos, or red packets, during the Lunar New Year. With the advent of cashless payment technology, many in China have adapted the practice to sending e-ang paos through mobile applications such as WeChat instead. While the form of giving out ang paos has changed, it can be argued that the core of the cultural practice is still retained. Therefore, retaining one’s cultural identity does not entail rigidly adhering to the traditional practices to the letter. Conversely, retaining one’s cultural identity in a rapidly evolving world can mean altering certain outward forms, without compromising the spirit behind the practices.

While the narrative of globalisation can initially appear to threaten unique cultural identities, it need not always be so. The influence of social media and a new appetite among the younger generation for what is different have made it more possible for us to retain our unique cultural identities, and we should do so not just because of the benefits, but also because of how they can enable us to better make sense of who we are in a rapidly changing world.

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