Imagine yourself shaking a bottle of seawater with sand in it. After two minutes, the sand sinks to the bottom of the cup, the suspended gray impurities float in the middle, and the surface layer water is clear. 

It’s almost like ‘culture’. This word is nearly incapable of stirring any particular emotional response when one sees it because of its overuse and mostly its abstraction. When “the bottle is shaken,” that is, when society works lively, various social factors are dissolved and soaked in a culture; thus, people usually forget their independent existence. Turning back to the metaphor of a bottle of seawater–: in the ocean where there is a constant movement and tremor, materials are wrapped together, colors overlap, and layers are nested upon layers. But once the seawater is taken out of the ocean and placed in stillness, what becomes visible is only the sand – because it’s colored, tangible, distinct, and difficult to dissolve. 

Problems arise when one wants to take the tangible out of a culture.W: when a specimen is ‘studied,” it is taken out of the living; when a culture is under examination, it is removed from the specific context in which it operates, which means it is left in repose. Repose allows the visible part of a culture – clothing, buildings, patterns of weaving, color palettes, etc. – to stand out like the sand does in a bottle of seawater. But the intangible: the social distance, the definition of humor, shame, or respect, the archetypes in stories and literature.. they are off the attention.

It could be more pronounced in some cultures than in others. Perhaps the more it deviates from people’s perception of a neutral form of  “modern culture”, the more a fetishism towards the superficial aspect of a culture will be there. The intangible and almost transparent component is overlooked when the eye-catching parts are upfront. Just like when you are looking at a static bottle of seawater, the sands are probably the first thing that pops up. People are recognizing the sand instead of recognizing the seawater as a whole, which is understandable. 

Cultural exchange activities, when focusing on making art crafts, visiting tourist attractions, or making traditional dishes, are good, in a way, of introducing a culture to outsiders. But nearly, material objects are the most reproductive products in capitalist scenarios. One can get as many spectacles as one wants if there’s enough demand out there to encourage the producers. The difference between producing a T-shirt with Chinese characters and with Egyptian hieroglyphs on it, is only the mold of machines in an assembly line. There could even be fictional cultural traditions from sci-fi series sold to the fans. If people restrain themselves to the level of material spectacles, all cultures are the same, just like trademarks on colorful goods. 

It’s the origins which generated the tangible traditions that shine and live. And yet noticing the origins requires seeing a certain culture as a whole – not as the sand, but as a whole bottle of seawater. It requires one to be an interlocutor instead of a consumer, to dialogue instead of to objectify and to see instead of to glance.

In an ideal cultural exchange, the picture of people living in one culture manifests itself only through participants facilitating dialogues that start from the art crafts, tourist attractions, or traditional dishes, yet probing deeper into the context and origin, which is the intangible side of the culture. In dialogues, cultures will be treated as equal, intellectual living beings, instead of products or specimens.

When resources are limited, the angle or path chosen for a cultural program is of vital importance. Creating a friendly sharing environment should be kept aware as a default setting when planning.