Down through history people have used rock drawings, language, a smile or handshake, music, songs, legends, national flags and national anthems to communicate ideas, cultural values, national ideals and norms of behavior. Culture is passed down by intentional teaching these symbolic systems and shared values. As one generation imparts these ideas and values to the next, faith, ideals, moral values and local customs continue from one era to the next.

Culture is an ongoing process which changes gradually. It is important to remember that culture evolves through time not as a biological process, but through learned behavior and inherited practice.

We receive biological and physical characteristics from our ancestors: the color of our hair, our blood type, the shape of our face and body. However, there is no gene for speaking English or Native languages, making baskets, hunting caribou, kinship terminology, or fishing for salmon. Yet, generation after generation does these things by learning them through a process that is separate from biology.

For me, as for other immigrants in a foreign land, cross-cultural miscommunications and misunderstandings were unfortunate and unavoidable.

Language, religion, economics, technology, social organization, art and political structure are few of many categories that fall under culture.

In traditional society, the youth show respect to the elder generation and generally inherit that generation’s skills, behavior, faith, philosophy, knowledge and imperative national symbols, such as national flags and anthems.

As a political refugee who arrived in the United States from the Soviet Union, with its entirely different socio-economic and political system, I had to learn about American culture and traditions through observation and daily exposure to the American way of life, its traditions, customs and symbols. For me, as for other immigrants in a foreign land, cross-cultural miscommunications and misunderstandings were unfortunate and unavoidable, especially in understanding uniquely American cultural symbols.

I learned a memorable lesson in the early 1980s, when I was a Ph. D. student in the Anthropology Department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. At Bryn Mawr, the academic scholarship and stipend could cover only my immediate necessities. So, to supplement my $400 per month stipend, I worked as a security officer in the nearby St, Joseph’s University situated along the City Line Avenue of Philadelphia.

Then, St. Joseph’s was a medium-size private Catholic school, well-known for its basketball program, competing in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The school was also known for its Saturday night students’ parties on campus, followed by Sunday Mass and confession by most students at the Saint Joseph’s University Chapel. To my recollection, some 120 to 140 Catholic priests on the campus provided counselling to students and faculty members.

He pointed his index finger at me and firmly commanded, “I want this officer to never ever touch the American flag again.”

About 15–20 unarmed security officers, including myself, were employed by the University and were on duty 24/7 during different shifts. Among the officers were five supervisors – two sergeants, lieutenant, captain and a big boss – the chief of security. He was a retired high-ranking Philadelphia police officer. Most officers were black, but there was one Filipino and four or five Caucasians. I appreciated the multi-cultural environment of the group and learned a great deal about race and America’s ethnic diversity from this group.

One night, I was assigned to lower the American flag at the central location of the campus and bring it to headquarters. As I was performing my duty, the chief of security walked by, suddenly stopped, looked at me like an eagle at its prey, and commanded me to follow him to headquarters. I was lost in thoughts of what I had done wrong. Once at headquarters, he ordered all officers on duty to report there, immediately.

When everyone arrived, he pointed his index finger at me and firmly commanded, “I want this officer to never ever touch the American flag again. Do I make myself clear?” and he marched out of headquarters without further instructions.

The room was silent. I was absolutely puzzled and embarrassed by the scene, questioning myself — “Why me? What have I done? Will I be fired?”

The officers were confused and concerned about the incident. They quietly approached me, friendly tapping on my shoulders and expressing empathy with concerned faces. That day, I mentally wanted to go back to my former country — the Soviet Union. There, I at least knew what was culturally acceptable and what was not.  And I questioned myself, “Is freedom worth all of this humiliation and prejudice?”

The next day, when the dust had settled, the lieutenant called me to his office and explained the nature of my mistake.

“You know, when you lowered the flag, it touched the ground,” he said. “And it is a big no, no in our country. The chief is a Korean vet – he is a proud American.”

My ignorance about the treatment and respect of the essential U.S. symbol — the American Flag — was a critical experience in my understanding of its cultural significance. No grudges, no excuses, no going back to my former country. Lesson learned, lesson appreciated and lesson respected!

The views expressed here are those of the author.

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As a Russian immigrant, I learned a difficult but critical lesson about America’s flag

Alexander Dolitsky
The writer was raised in the former Soviet Union before settling in the U.S. in 1978. He moved to Juneau in 1986 where he has taught Russian studies at the University of Alaska, Southeast. He is now director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center and has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography.


  • Neil A DeWitt says:

    Now days there is so much our own people don’t know about flag edict. It is something as a child in school a lot of us learned. Now days they dont say the Pledge of Alegents. When the flag passes the people don’t stand. The don’t take off their hat or cover and stand at attention when the National Anthem is played or heard. There are other things now days they refuse to comply with. It’s so sad. Its called respect and our county has non anymore. Non for our flag, women or one another. The cancel culture has done away with any respect and now history both for our country and flag. The Veterans that gave part of or all of their lives to make and keep our country FREE have been slapped in the face. Our president let’s BLM/ANTIFA people March and take over city streets and blames the last president because Trump was all for the American people and Veterans. It’s our responsibility to pass to the next generation or new comers our rights/responsibility that go with our country. This is where we have failed. These rights and responsibilities have been or are not being passed down and so no RESPECT for our flag or country our happening anylonger. Look at Memorial Day, ask anyone 30 or younger. To most of them you’ll get it’s a day off to drink and eat hot dogs. They have no idea about showing respect to the fallen that gave their lives so YOU can have your day off or be free. Biden is doing everything he can to make our country a socialist country and if anyone can read they could see both Russia and Venezuela have fallen. Rome, Egypt and others in ancient time. They all fell after depending on the government to take care of the people. It just doesn’t work. History is repeating itself again. We just need to wake up before it’s to late. Remember Memorial Day is for showing respect to our flag, country and our FLAG. Spend an hour, go to a ceremony. A very touching one is at the National Cemetery at Ft Richardson. Stop in listen to what is said and show your RESPECT for our Flag and Veterans. Thank you!

    • Alexander says:

      To Neil A DeWitt: It is all so true what you said. I write my articles for one reason only–that our youth appreciate America and its heritage.

  • Proud Alaskan says:

    That’s So Awesome.
    I can say I’m Proud that your an American, good job!

  • Fire says:

    Yeah, the flag on the ground is a big no no. Most of us past a certain age learned this by osmosis it seemed in childhood. I’m sorry no one told you. They must have assumed you knew.

  • Plow boy says:

    Thanks for sharing. I always look forward to your articles.

    • Alexander Dolitsky says:

      Thanks. Also give a credit to Joel Davidson. He is my copy editor. I had many copy editors through my professional writing. Joel is one of the best. I completely trust his edits.