California Multicultural Society

Learning

What is culture? What is multiculturalism?

At age 26, I was fortunate to have been hired by a major electronics company to travel the world and buy companies on their behalf. On one trip, I traveled with my boss, a proud man of Spanish descent who graduated from U.C. Davis and received his MBA from Stanford University. He had worked for many years at Motorola and recently joined the company in a senior executive role reporting to the CEO. At the time, I was merely an analyst, a very junior position.

For our trip, we flew to Germany with the intent to visit many companies, one of which was an micro-electronics business that services the automotive industry and had BMW and Mercedes as their primary customers.

We arrived at the office and the meeting was overly cordial and uncomfortable. We couldn’t seem to get a straight answer about anything. They knew we wanted to acquire them and the combination could make a lot of sense. But, Americans do business very differently from the Germans. About 45 minutes into the meeting, the 75-year-old CEO stated he had to leave. We had traveled a long way to get nowhere.

We mentioned we were going to get a taxi back to the hotel and the CEO kindly offered to drop us off. While in the elevator, the CEO asked me, “So where is your family from?” I proudly responded that my mother’s side was German and I named the city in which she was born. The old man’s eye’s lit up. His reaction was palpable. His guard came down. His face changed: I was one of his kindred.

We got down to the sedan and he curtly told my boss to sit in front with the driver. My boss sheepishly complied and walked to the front as I embarrassingly took the power play seat in the back with the CEO.  For the first 15-20 minutes of the drive, the CEO talked to me about the regions my family was from and proudly shared what foods came from those regions and what the people from there were known for. He was joyous to share that my family came from the white asparagus capitol of the world. I was shocked! “THAT’S why we ate so much white asparagus at home! Wow! I never knew!” The old man just laughed.

Finally, in a rare moment, he looked at me and finally said, “Look, I understand your company wants to acquire mine. I like you. I don’t like the Spaniard. So let me just tell you the truth: we will never sell to your company. We are a German company. I am 75-years old and I want to employ Germans and keep manufacturing in Germany. I don’t want to be bought by an American company and have my manufacturing moved to Asia or Mexico. I want to remain a true German company. So thank you for coming and expressing interest in our business. We are honored. But we cannot proceed forward any further on these discussions.” My title, My degrees, and my role meant nothing to this guy. All that mattered was that I was German.

Trust at the speed of culture and identity?

What is culture?

Culture is the series of social norms, which can be directly tied to a community. Community can be defined by geography, nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and more. It can be a combination of these.

Identity is personal. Culture helps solidify a person’s identity. It normalizes it. Culture can reveal identity in the most subtle moments.

What is Multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism is the recognition that more than one culture exists. That may be an obvious statement, but it is surprising how easily that can be forgotten.

The academic study of multiculturalism focuses on “the petite narrative” and highlighting of the factions within factions within our society.

But true multiculturalism is a celebration of all cultures and the welcoming of others to “peer in” and understand what lies beneath the surface in an effort to celebrate that which makes us who we are: language, arts, foods, holidays, and so much more.

Perhaps, if we understand the many cultures that exist today, we can show compassion and love and respect for one another without fear. That is the hope of the California Multicultural Society.

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