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Many Villages::Sometimes It’s Uncomfortable

Posted by on December 27, 2012

This past semester I took a course on Cross-cultural counselling. Part of the coursework was a weekly journal reflecting on anything I’ve learned, thought about, or found challenging from the course material. I decided to post parts of these reflections in a weekly series called “Many Villages”.

In class we watched a Grey’s Anatomy video clip about a cross-cultural interaction within a helping profession. As I saw the young patient interact with her immigrant parents, I was surprised at how agitated I became. Conversations I’ve had, family patterns that perplex me, and cultural norms that leave me baffled flooded my brain. I was amazed at how quickly I went from a casual onlooker of a TV show to an anxious young bride.

Let me be clear: I love the Indian culture in my life. I enjoy cooking Indian food, I like learning Hindi and I adore Indian music and dancing. I love the depth and texture our multicultural home has. But if I’m honest, there are certain aspects of Indian family culture which are hard for me to grasp. Were I a casual onlooker reading a book about Indian family life, I would shrug and laugh off these differences. But to me, to our family, these differences run deep, cutting crevices where I would rather they not.

In the video, something about the way that the girl deferred to her parents, despite knowing it could cost her her mobility, made me uncomfortable. What right do her parents have to expect that?

Even as I type that, I know there are western paradigms tattooed all over those words. And this is what frightens me: knowing there are paradigms I fail to see, cannot embrace, don’t seem to value.

It reminds me of those Magic Eye 3D books we used to look at as kids. To the naked eye, the pages looked like sloppy pixels. But if you crossed your eyes and moved the book away slowly, a dinosaur or the Eiffel Tower would pop out of the pixels and appear obvious.

I actually stink at magic eye. Anyone know what this is?

The problem is, I can see the images of family and respect, but I can’t sustain them. When the situations become real and my emotions or relationships get involved, my eyes uncross and all I see are pixels again. I feel as if there is a world of understanding that I cannot seem to enter because I understand a world where things work a different way.

What bothers me the most is that I cannot seem to loosen my Western thoughts and enter an Indian psyche. I can see it, observe it and describe it. But I cannot slide into it and wear it like an old tee-shirt. I find it awkward, bulky, and obviously ill-fitting on my western frame.

Naturally, I’m a curious person and a peacemaker. I like to facilitate understanding and I love acting as a cultural liaison. As a sister and a daughter-in-law, a wife and a soon-t0-be-mother, I want to grow in my ability to accept cultural paradigms that are different from mine. I want to learn to respect and love my Indian family in a way that makes sense to them…and to me.

And you know what? I love my husband. And I love his family. I count down the days ’til we can visit his homeland and immerse ourselves in the culture that runs in his veins. And so, it’s my joyful, and sometimes cumbersome, task as a wife to grow in understanding and love of Indian paradigms.

What about you? What cultural differences do you find upsetting or strange or even a little bit scary? What has helped you in growing in cultural understanding? What has helped you in shifting paradigms?

4 Responses to Many Villages::Sometimes It’s Uncomfortable

  1. Karen

    It’s a planet with a ring around it–Saturn, maybe?

    I can sympathize as a second-gen Canadian whose parents grew up in another country. Although the inability to “wear their culture like an old t-shirt” (as you so aptly described it) has caused misunderstanding, frustration and hurt in our relationship over the years, more often than not these differences between my parents and I have enlarged our grace and patience with each other and people outside our family. And contributed much laughter within.

    Ultimately, we all come from different micro-cultures informed by our families and communities. You already recognize the disparate cultural paradigms. Maybe it’s not about being to swap those paradigms like jackets (or t-shirts). Perhaps it’s more like seeing those clothes on someone else and saying, “Hey, that looks good on them. But I don’t think I could pull it off.”

    • Lyn

      Well put, Karen! Culture is nothing we can dress-up in (even though the assimilation approach suggests that!) – it is seen, taught, engrained. We are already a mile ahead if we are simply aware of cultural differences and able to change perspectives. What we do with those perspectives is, of course, another question!

  2. Lyn

    Part of my profession is being an Intercultural Trainer. I know the research done on cultures: Berry, Hofsteede, Alexander, Trompenaars, Hall… When needed I can dig out my knowledge and intellectualize certain behaviors. Focussing on India I can explain cultural patters to myself and my clients (and even my Indian fiancé who seems to be even more startled by many things, than me). But frankly having a vast knowledge is only of help to some degree. Because at the end of the day I have to be comfortable with what I do and what I say and often this is in direct conflict to the norms of Indian culture. In many situations, despite knowing what is culturally acceptable, I do what I am pleased – but at least I am not surprised by the outcome!

    And in other situations I listen, I pose questions, I try to understand and then I (invisibly) shrug my shoulders and say “it simply ain´t for me”. Because at the end of the day a relationship is not about thinking always alike but being able to be honest to and disagree with each other.

  3. John Rafferty

    It does appear to be Saturn–but wow, that was painful to see. I wonder if crossing our eyes like that (in either sense) becomes harder as we grow older?

    I think the questions you pose raise a much larger set of questions that just those surrounding expectations. But because you touched on the rights of parents to expect things, I’ll say this: I don’t think that asking one’s adult children to defer to their expectations is a right we have to better understand and appreciate. At the risk of sounding ignorant and insensitive, I would say that telling other adults what we wish they would do and making known our expectations of how we hope they’ll behave is not just childish, but destructive. It also seems to fly in the face of what little I have learned about healthy psychological boundaries (although I do defer to your expertise there).

    So although I think that there are many other areas in which we could stand to better understand paradigms and practices outside our own cultural norms, I do not think that appreciating the expectations some people chose to hold over the heads (and lives) of others is necessary or helpful.

Thoughts? I love hearing from you!