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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Column: Of culture and earwax

There are two types of earwax in this world: dry and flaky, and wet and sticky.

Which type you get is controlled by a single gene – the ATP-binding cassette C11 gene – so now would be a nice time to call your parents and thank them for your waxy secretions. While some groups are more evenly divided, almost all East Asians have the dry, flaky kind and almost all whites and blacks have the wet, sticky kind.

I have both types.

A quick examination of my last name and fluffy hair reveals that I’m multi-racial – Japanese, Chinese, European (Heinz 57-style) and American Indian.

Fellow columnist and bush-league badmintonist Michelle Rick is multi-racial, too (I have no idea what kind of earwax she has though). Last week, she wrote about how much it grinds her gears when strangers ask for an ethnic ID before knowing her name.

Personally, I like it when people ask about my ethnicity. It’s a sign that 1) we’re all friendly enough folks here in Davis that we can strike up conversations out of interest in one another, and 2) the person inquiring doesn’t think race is a taboo topic – probably because they don’t think it has any bearing on one’s worth as a person.

Of course, everyone is entitled to a few pet peeves. Mine is when someone asks, “What’s your nationality?” at which point I whip out my U.S. passport, outline when each branch of my family tree immigrated and declare my American citizenship. You’re better off using a term like “ethnic background” – though this, too, is inexact.

In fact, the terminology used in these issues – race, ethnicity, culture – can get pretty confusing (so forgive any foibles I myself make here). Even more dangerous, the ideas themselves can get confused. I think that’s what Michelle is talking about when she says people look at her race and make assumptions about her culture. There’s a significant correlation between race and culture, but it’s not an unbreakable bond. And we certainly can’t reliably decide how to relate to someone culturally by assessing them racially.

Even so, just because it’s not easy to perceive someone’s culture (or even our own) doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. When we’re kids, our teachers tell us “culture” is the collection of fun facts about people who celebrate different holidays than we do.

It’s more than that, though. Our culture informs what we think about the world and – perhaps more significantly – how we think about the world. Moreover, it impacts how we relate to others and how we understand ourselves.

All this stuff has been rocking my world lately. Just as Michelle described putting each other into neat little race boxes, I started putting myself into a single culture box – the Caucasian American one. I can’t count how many times I’ve described my ethnic heritage to people and then added “but I’m pretty whitewashed.”

But two weeks ago, at a talk explaining worldview differences among several cultural groups, I started to realize: I’m not just a white person who happens to be really tan and always takes off her shoes indoors. I’ve internalized some much more significant aspects of East Asian culture, and not recognizing this till now has had consequences.

For instance, sometimes when my white friends would talk about their great relationships with their dads, I’d get a little jealous. Why didn’t my dad call me “sweetie” and say “I love you” all the time? Why is it so hard for me to hug him? My (Caucasian) mom does all that mushy stuff – why doesn’t he? And a tiny voice would whisper, “Maybe … maybe he doesn’t love you all that much.” A louder voice would then say, “That’s ridiculous. Of course he loves you. Now, go read up on current events in Iran so you can earn his respect.”

So why doesn’t my father express affection this way? Well, golly, maybe it’s because he’s Asian. Instead of expressing love verbally or physically, he shows it through actions, like fixing my bike or putting his hard-earned money away ever since I was born so I could go to college. He loves me the way our culture loves. Understanding this made a big difference in my life – because, well, it kind of matters if you think your parents love you or not. (Disclaimer: If you’re Chinese and exchange X’s and O’s with your dad, that’s great. I’m just talking broad cultural trends here.)

Looking through the lens of culture won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it’s a start. I guess it’s finally time for me to embrace both my dry, flaky side as well as my wet, sticky one. Wow, that was gross.

BETH SEKISHIRO hasn’t yet found anything in the scientific literature confirming that codominance in earwax type is possible, but she swears she has both types! If you are fancy-dancy scientist and want to be the first to document this phenomenon, contact her at blseki@ucdavis.edu.


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