How well do we all know our heritage? In a tech-centric world, where the Internet has become the true global tradition, people are fast losing the connections to their roots.
And Summer Song was no different!
Having spent a chunk of her life across North America and Singapore, far-removed from her native country, China, Summer felt disconnected from her heritage. And once she began travelling around the world and learning about the cultures of other people, the contrast hit her. She realised that she knew very little about her own culture.
“That started to propel me into learning more about my own heritage and also question my own identity,” says Summer. This led to an exploration of Chinese arts, culture and heritage and opened her eyes to their relevance to the world. She wanted to share her discoveries and present them in a way that resonated with today's audience. Combining her experience of organising experiential events at Fortune-500 companies and interest in Chinese arts and heritage, she founded CulturedGen, a cultural experience creator.
Summer elaborates, “We take traditional Chinese arts and heritage and transform them into modern pop-up experiences. They are multi-sensory, immersive, catering to the young international audience."
Summer defines culture as "how things are done in a specific place...it lies above a set of assumptions, values, beliefs, and it manifests itself through behaviour." The complexity of it drew Summer like a magnet. Culture, to Summer, is a dynamic entity, like humans. And cultural understanding is crucial, especially in today’s globalised world. “I think that just helps in promoting a better understanding of who you are. You have a clear understanding of the people around you...that helps facilitate an exchange so we can all learn a little bit more about ourselves and also about others,” she shares.
We no longer live in echo chambers of similar and shared beliefs, values, perspectives and experiences. We interact with people from different cultural backgrounds across professional and personal spheres every day. And to Summer this means that now "we're forced to question and to accept and to assimilate and exchange what we know versus what we don't know. And we have an opportunity to really explore and take the best from different cultures and from different worlds.”
Operatic Identities and other cultural experiences
To propel this cause of exploration, CulturedGen launched their first pop-up experience last year titled Operatic Identities, an immersive experience themed around China’s 200-year old Beijing opera. Using the opera as a canvas, the pop-up lent a modern twist to the traditional art and egged people to discover their own ‘operatic identities'. Through a journey of discovering different characters through their singing and acting styles, the installation also made the audience ‘taste the personalities' through custom-created 'baijiu' cocktails. “It's really a multi-sensory way for them to discover [the] Beijing opera but also to discover themselves and question who will represent them if they were to be in opera or what are their operating identities,” adds Summer.
CulturedGen is now working on a few cultural pop-ups slated for an end-of-year release. And Summer believes that curiosity for culture is a great place to begin learning about it. "There are just so many things happening, so many different ways to be exposed to different cultures and different heritage.” She also adds “travelling is probably the best way to learn and to immerse yourself in something that's completely different than what you're used to. I think food is also actually a very easy way to just have a little glimpse into other people's culture.”
Rethinking Cultural Stories
Speaking about culture, it is hard to ignore the cultural misappropriation that has become common in today’s world. Summer feels this is a topic we need to address as a work-in-progress. “A lot of times, culture is being politicised. So, when we think about us versus another group of people...a lot of times what gets mixed into this is power, interests, money... So, I think we're no longer seeing culture, we're not evaluating it just through the lens of arts, culture and heritage, but we're pulling in topics that are political or interest-driven that it just taints something that's so pure and so simple and so beautiful.”
But, how do we change this narrative on culture? How can we make cultural differences stand for peace instead of bias or violence? Summer feels that there is no one simple solution. She shares the example of China and how people portray it in the mainstream media based on their own perceptions and biases. And this is what she is trying to change with CulturedGen – set the story of various cultures straight. “Let's go back to the music, to the practices, to all these things so valuable to all of us, regardless of what culture or background you come from, and let's steer away from the politics and all of these things that might complicate or taint something that could be so valuable to everybody,” she summarises her vision.
Although this is not a one-person or one-time solution, Summer still thinks this pluralistic view can bring some balance. "We grew up within a culture that we're comfortable in and that really guided us, or we viewed the world through that lens of our culture of our upbringing of that worldview that is already established. And just knowing that that view has its biases, I think, that is the starting point very hard for people to accept. Even today, we want to believe that we're objective, we want to believe that we are open-minded, but the reality is, our judgments are clouded by our own biases, our own worldview.”
This deep knowledge of human frailty and culture translate into her culture-based introspective pop-ups. And this has defined a starting point for growth, albeit a big one. “I think it's hearing opposing views, entertaining opposing views and just giving that a little more thought, than dismissing them...I think one of the things that I do is there are certain views that I would disagree with, but I will force myself to listen or to read things I knew already I'm going to disagree with. But, I think, it takes extra effort to you know, to really push yourself and to expand your perspective.”
On Experiential Learning
“I think because I have the experience of living within different cultures, my own interest in other people's cultures really helped me in having a more diverse perspective on things. So now, it’s no longer a struggle, but really a blessing,” Summer shares. Apart from life experiences, Summer’s learning comes from reading, listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos. “I personally really value experiential learning, learning through doing, learning through experiences. So it's not just [learning] through reading or through listening, but being able to be hands-on, being able to be surrounded by, you know, that particular topic,” she shares. A curious personality fascinated by things she doesn’t know, she often reaches out to people for a cup of coffee and simply lets them talk about their experiences and add to her knowledge. “Sometimes people overlook the ability to draw connections from topics that seem to be so different or seemingly unconnected to what you're doing. You might be surprised by the inspiration or the things that you can learn or gain and that you can reapply to what you're working on,” she adds.
A fount of knowledge, NewCampus reached out to Summer to share her knowledge as a Class Host. “I'm really excited to be teaching,” she says.
Join us for Summer’s classes about cultural heritage, third-culture identity drawing from her personal experience, and current affairs to learn how to apply what we're observing from what's happening around the world into our daily lives.
Inspired by Summer’s journey? Learn from her in our upcoming class on Critical Thinking Through an Understanding of Politics and Global Affairs - 12 Feb