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  • Writer's pictureSpira

Importance of preserving culture but not identity

The philosophy of yoga is very much occupied with finding “true self”, but what that means can be quite tricky to figure out. We are changing and the world around us is certainly changing whether or not we wish for a change. The story you are about to read is a day in a yogi’s life examining the topic of identity and self through cultural identity. This yogi happens to be an immigrant, naturalized citizen to the USA. This yogi is me, Dora your teacher.


I was driving to Spira when I heard this editorial piece on NPR. It was a student’s journalism piece about culture and history in Seattle’s central district. I am probably not going to do much justice to this work right now, and I do apologize for this fact. To summarize the editorial was about how this student found a subbasement in her 1920s Central district house. This curious structure plunged her into a history research about the past of the neighborhood. It turns out that the central district and more specifically Jackson Street was the hub of a vibrant African American Jazz culture. At this point the student orator of this story fell silent and she asked; where is all this now? She identified herself as “Black and Brazilian”, her mother being African American who had grown up in this neighborhood and watched the changes. She watched how her culture started disappearing. To paraphrase what she said: With the rapid changes and gentrification that is going on in the central district how do we preserve some of the precious and valuable history of this area?

At this point I realized that I got choked up. The sensation surprised me quite a bit and right away I started laughing while speaking out loud to myself. “OK Dora, why are you getting choked up over this?” Then it dawned on me.  Ever since I immigrated to this country I have been facing the same dilemma. It was empathy that I felt.

How do I preserve my culture?

Dora gyerek

You guessed it. Was it the hair that gave it away?


I remained in this fog of homesickness and it was in this spirit that I took a shopping trip to Bellevue. For those of you who associate Bellevue with Bellevue Mall on Main St with all the fancy schmancy well organized, well lit stores….yeah, that is NOT my Bellevue. I love Bellevue, but my Bellevue starts with 140th St. and includes Crossroads Mall. I can spend a whole day wandering from store to store, it is an international delight. You can find anything from Europe to Asia to Latin America and Africa, little hole in the wall restaurants and stores one after the other hidden in strip malls or street corners. One thing you don’t see though is many American born individuals walking the street, it is almost like this side of Bellevue is ‘our’ secret and by ‘our’ I mean us, immigrants.

My first stop is the International Market, which is a lovely name for a Russian grocery store that happens to carry some other Easter European goodies as well. It is funny, when I lived in Hungary, Russia seemed far away and by no means did we have a friendly sentiment towards one and other. But now, thousands of miles away from home, this Russian store is one of many links to home. Seeing Russian faces makes me feel closer to home. Interesting how distance allows our differences to mend.  I stocked up on fermented cucumbers (not pickled in vinegar, but fermented by the sunlight and sourdough bread with spices, just like my grandma used to do in little jars during summer time.) Got my favorite Hungarian salami, cheese from Finland and canned sour cherries from Croatia. Yes, I can already hear the “keep it local” Seattle crowd swearing at me. 🙂 For full disclosure, when it comes to fresh daily groceries I do try to buy from Washington state, but these little gems of goodies represent my past and my identity. In my eyes they are worth every ounce of energy that it took to bring them here. It is a piece of home, from a familiar culture that means the world to my heart and soul.

My second stop was Mayuri’s Indian grocery where I get my spices, okra (for some reason you cannot get decent okra in American stores) lentils and many other little things. I love Mayuri’s. It is super cluttered, every inch of the store is utilized for inventory and organized in that totally utilitarian way. It smells of the mixture of cleaning detergent and spices. In other words to someone who grew up behind the iron curtain in Eastern Europe, it is a little piece of home. I know it is weird, you could not find more different cultures from India to Hungary, but once you are in US where everything is so well organized, this familiar clutter is lovely to visit. Yes the content of the store is “foreign” to me, it is full of exotic spices and vegetables that I learned to appreciate later on my life once I came to America. But it is the magical organized clutter, this specific “organization skill” that creates the comfy feeling. It reminds me of the grocery stores that I grew up with back in Hungary. Of course time has passed and now when I visit home I find more and more of the large, nice, well organized supermarkets of the west. So this store is more and more like time travel. Here is the thing, even if you stay geographically in the same place (that is you don’t shift countries) you still can never go home. The world changes and just like the young journalist experienced here in Seattle, our past has a way of disappearing.

My next shop was the Middle Eastern store where I bought the nicest handmade Mango wood trunk for coffee table from Pakistan. Finally on the way home I stopped at the used bookstore in Crossroads mall, a must for me if I am in the area. I got gelato at the Italian place and very much exhausted from the emotional ups and downs from the day, I sat down inside the mall watching the happenings at the food court that also contains chess tables. I smiled, the designer of this mall really knew local people of east Bellevue. Chess is a popular pastime in many countries that feeds the population of this area. There was a chess table in every park in Hungary. I have memories of seeing retired old folks spending a quiet afternoon with their friends playing chess. The park would be silent, the young generations would be holding hands and kissing while the old generation played chess. Whenever I am at Crossroads I get transported in space and time, I smile at how the world changes and how in some ways stays the same.


Katalin and Dora (Mom and Daughter)

with mom…

Finally I got home and right away got into a mad home reorganization. I knew exactly where I wanted to place my trunk coffee table, but all of a sudden the carpet did not work. This started a domino effect of ‘absolutely necessary’ interior re-design. By the time I was done I had transformed the living room from a beige-minimalist-modern-American style into a colorful-multinational-splendor. I had placed my grandfather’s handmade Persian rugs in the middle of the room.  My grandma’s handmade tablecloth found a corner spot, folk art, vases and crystals form the ‘old country’ found their place in more prevalent areas all over the room. My past literally crept out of the cabinet, consciously or unconsciously I still don’t know.

Finally happy and satisfied I sat down in my very ‘homey’ new living room surrounded by my past along with my sliced fermented cucumbers and salami cheese sandwich. I sunk into the couch and picked up my favorite magazine, The Economist. I started reading, Syria and Isis, Russia and Ukraine. I lowered my paper and looked around. National Identity, History and Culture, I spent the whole afternoon peacefully hopping from one culture to another feeling at home, welcomed and in peace in all of them. Now I read that the very same thing that initiated my afternoon, a need for cultural identity is killing people. Of course all these issues are much more complex than simply identity, there is socio-economic, geopolitical, historical and educational issues all mixed up with it, but in some level it is about identity.


All of a sudden the feeling of homesickness transferred into a feeling of new national gratitude about being a new American. Earning this citizenship in a country where though things are not perfect, we can live in relative multinational peace. Too often nowadays we hear about what is wrong with United States, the lack of respect for history, ethnic conflicts, immigration problems and socio-economic inequality. There is truth in all of these problems, but we overlook and don’t often celebrate all that is good. The fact that a Russian and Hungarian gets along. The fact that a Pakistani shops in the Indian store, the fact that we all made a new home in this new country. This is one of the most multinational nations in Earth and we manage to live in relative peace. Yes, things are far from perfect but when we see the pain and brutality and differences that identity create elsewhere in the world we should feel a sense of gratitude that we live here. Of course there are horrible closed minded, racist folks everywhere. But there is one big difference here in the United States, sooner or later somebody will speak up and demand a change. And change comes and change is demanded because in the United States along with the horrible closed minded folks there is also a wonderfully strong culture that demands peace, that demands equality and will fight to achieve equality. Change comes, if we look at this from a historical perspective, change comes amazingly quickly to this progressing nation, and of course looking at it from the point of view of minorities, changes never comes fast enough… but I do feel this is a progressing nation. We are not complete, we are not perfect but we are progressing and with every new birth and every new immigrant hopefully we are progressing toward even more multicultural peace.

In that second I realized why I love to live here. Yes I do miss the homogeneity of my mother land. I do miss my cultural identity, but in exchange I gained a window into many other cultures. To me American culture does not mean hot dogs and baseball. It means being able to visit 5 cultures in one afternoon and being welcomed equally to all the stores. It means enriching my SELF with experiences from other cultures. Of course all that takes a willingness to CHANGE SELF. We are a composite of our past and our present. Like layers of sand, the layers of time adds new layers to our self-identity and only the emotionally blind does not recognize the change in one’s own nature from one year to the next.


Just as I was basking in my new happiness that I finally turned this sentimental afternoon into a victory of new identity I realized that my very much American husband is going to return home soon. He was going to return home to what must seem to him an ethnic and colorful living room. All of a sudden my ‘ethic old self’ came roaring back into my mind already preparing a self-defense to the new interior design with a cultural identity argument.


To my surprise my husband came home and he liked the changes that I made. So much for making assumptions based on national identities.

Maybe the best thing to do is to remember that we are all human first and thus we all experience the human existence. Our national identity is very much in flux, it is the result of our past combined with our present. In our case, my past is a little bit Hungarian and as a result my husband’s present is a little bit Hungarian now too. So in essence we are all human mutts of many cultures.

Buddhist philosophy talks about the dangers of ‘labeling’. To explain, if you look at a tree you can see all that is unique about that one particular tree. The second you ‘label’ the tree let’s say oak, now you see a tree that belongs to the oak family and may not see its uniqueness. Though there is a good lesson in this philosophy the fact remains that language by its very nature is ‘labeling’ and many philosophers have argued that without language there is no reason or human thinking. This will leave us with an interesting dilemma. We need to categorize things that is how we understand the world, but maybe in the back of our head we should remember that we were the ones who made these definitions. Though definitions are helpful we are much more complex than a simple definition.

By that definition, I am not Hungarian, I am somebody who is made up of experiences from Hungary, India, and United States (mostly) but also through my travels and friends I’ve picked up little pieces from many other sources. For inner peace and for world peace it is important to realize that we are ever changing and we all belong to the human race, not one culture can define any one of us anymore. We can hold onto cultures from our experiences as long as we tell stories. This is not just for immigrants, like I mentioned above, the world changes even if you stay in one place. It is thus every parent’s, every educator’s, every artist’s job to tell stories of the “world when I used to be young” to research and learn about history, to teach our children and neighbor what we are about. Once we’ve passed on our stories we should embrace change and one another because that is the only way to live in peace and understanding in this world.

In conclusion, after this long day of self-searching I realized, we need to preserve our history not our self-identity. If we try to hold on tight to our imaginary self we will miss out on the present moments and that leads to conflict both inside and outside the self.

Dora – September 8 2014


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