Sunday, 1 December 2013

Comparing Cultures

I spent Saturday evening with Mike and Garima, a couple of friends, drank wine, ate pie and picked up a conversation I hadn't quite finished with her before.  Mike and I went to school together from Grade 3 up, and lost touch for eleven years after we graduated.  When we reconnected, he was with Garima.  They got married this summer.  She's older, was born in India, and transplanted to Toronto when she was an infant, and was raised traditionally Sikh, with several visits back to India when she was a child.
   So Garima grew up "different" at school, and apparently racism was something she suffered quite frequently.  (Hard to imagine this in Toronto nowadays, but I guess the sixties were different.)  She said neighbourhood kids shouted "Paki" and threw stones at them on occasion.  So she grew up "outside" the Canadian culture at school, dressing differently, and not being allowed to cut her hair and do typical Canadian things.  
   In her culture, women served men.  This is how she was raised. She is a very strong-willed person now, but she still questions herself overmuch, and apologizes far too much, despite the fact that she will always inevitably eventually do only exactly what she thinks makes sense, despite what anyone thinks.  After melodramatic periods of self-doubt.  This strong-minded confidence and strong sense of identity isn't how she was raised. The apologizing, doubt and shame are.
   When a Sikh girl reaches adulthood, she is traditionally put into an arranged marriage, and the husband's family "inherits" her.  Her own family is no longer viewed, traditionally, as having really any duties to her. In very traditionally Sikh families, she says, the wife doesn't eat until the husband has eaten.
   Garima's parents set up an arranged marriage for Garima, and he was slightly more traditional than she was.  They got along okay at first, but over time she gradually became more Canadian and modern and (comparatively) free-spirited, and he didn't like this.  Couldn't cope. His unspoken, traditional expectations were not being met, as to who she was inside, however she made herself act outside, however much she stifled who she was.  The marriage broke down, painfully, over a few years.  She left.  She felt utterly cast out, not only by her husband, but by her family and culture as well.  Her family didn't disown her or anything, but she felt like she'd failed her culture.  Like she was a reject with no place to be.
   Garima, though adult and about thirty, went through a pretty violent period of change at this point in time.  She started eating meat and drinking alcohol.  She cut her hair short and started dressing in very androgynous clothes.  Jeans, boots and a slate grey pea-coat.  She dated a lot of guys.  Each only once.  Indian and otherwise.  She couldn't connect with them.  Couldn't respect them or open up or take them seriously.  
   The bottom of her whole world fell out from under her, really.  She had an onslaught of miscellaneous health problems.  She dealt and dealt and dealt and thereby got used to dealing, with getting on with the life she was made to live.  She uncontrollably found herself becoming a tougher, spikier, more closed but more honest and less secretive person who was eventually simply able to handle perpetually being an outsider.  She got used to having to be ready to fend off odd, random crap at any point, from anyone.  She became a pharmacist, eventually planning, running and reorganizing pharmacies, specializing in dealing with methadone clinics for heroin addicts.  She continues to do that job, and it means she can still expect odd, random crap at any point.  Some patients know where she lives, and throw eggs at her car sometimes.  I don't imagine she could feel any more "outside" of the culture she sees and serves, shambling in, needing their methadone each day.  She says I'd be surprised what professions have a lot of heroin addicts in them.  It's not all homeless people. At all.
   We talked about how she dealt with her period of change.  We talked about how we both knew people who seemed to be able to "have it both ways" as to their birth culture to some degree, and how in some ways the "clean, dramatic break" was probably (in some ways) simpler, but more brutal to get through.  We talked about how we didn't get to "pick" how much our culture worked for us or didn't, nor when or how we had to break with it, nor really even to what degree.  It was chaos for us. For some people, maybe it's not like that.  Maybe for those people, "dealing" with it isn't something they need to do as thoroughly.
   When it was happening, her marriage having failed, leaving her childless and outside of her culture, Garima got her finances together, bought a house and a car and a dog, and lived her life.  She remained connected to her nieces and nephews, and increasingly as she got older, looked after her aging parents too.  Meeting Mike was a bit of a surprise, and his combination of unflappable solidity and patience, with his sense of humour, depth and quiet emotional insight, seems to be something she really values.  She can't always see or share her feelings, so she's got him to point out the obvious.  Which he will do, if he feels like it.  Because he's terribly practical and intelligent. He doesn't miss much.  Sees what's going on, and ascertains root causes.  He knows when to shut up, which is something I admire.  He came out to our church children's stuff a few times when he was a kid.  I have no idea if he believes anything.
   Though she's a bit older, from a very different culture, and is female, Garima and I can't help but compare notes and see how much is the same about our lives.  We talked about how rooted in the superficial her culture is.  (Mine too.)  She said that, with modern Sikh kids having poor Punjabi speaking and reading and writing skills, and not being willing to necessarily follow the dress restrictions, there is pretty much nothing left if they give that up.  Once they cut their hair and dress Western and watch movies and speak English, they don't seem very Sikh anymore even to themselves, and there's little to pass on.  Every one of Garima's brothers married a white girl, forswearing arranged marriages.  The nieces and nephews know little of Sikhism.  (Some brothers and their families converted to Christianity.)  Garima feels that Sikhism is lost on the new generation, having let hers down.  When it's all about dress and speech and rules, there's nothing deeper in it, she doesn't think.
   I was having this conversation, sitting next to an older couple over at Mike and Garima's house, who had been heavily involved in a local Christian community.  They were once ardent Christians, but they lost their faith, somehow.  They live up the street from Mike and Garima.  James is a retired lawyer.  Quiet-spoken, small and thin. Chooses his words very carefully.  Reading my book earlier this year, James couldn't help but contrast his path with mine.  He does that every time we meet up.  Church always worked for him in a way his faith didn't, he has decided in retrospect, and when church stopped working, he had really nothing left over. He genuinely thought his church dealings and community were an experience of God, thought he was experiencing God through other people, mainly, and was following their words, their hype and their claim to really know God on a very immediate level.  But once he saw through these people (once everyone in the community did, that is, and they'd run off with the money, and things had been swept under the carpet), James realized he didn't even know that there was a God to experience, without all of that church stuff going on in his life. James seems to be haunted by my descriptions of going off alone to deal with God.  His life was always about going to church stuff to do that.  He can't stop thinking about it.
   Obviously, church never really worked for me, but my tempestuous and occasionally Job-like relationship with God was always a thing.  The more church hasn't worked for me, the more my faith seems to stand out (to me, and to people like James, when reading my book) as not being part of a church community at all, really.  
   For me, my faith has in many ways diverged strongly from my tradition, because it needed to grow, deepen and become more personal and authentic.  In other ways it hasn't.  I feel very much like I had to choose, and the sometimes rather contradictory-seeming and distant God made more sense than the very unchanging, consistent, strident people who were in my face and watching my every move.
   After reading my book, James wonders why I'd ever talk to Brethren people nowadays.  He wonders why I harbour any fond feelings for women as a gender, also.  I'd like to think my attitude to my church and to women has deepened and improved, rather than simply grown closed and bitter (despite what people say about said attitude, the bastards).  James speaks to/of me in the third person, unless he stops himself. He says "What I ask myself is why Peter Grey's story ends like this. Why doesn't he wash his hands of Christians and women who flee honest connection? When does Peter Grey decide he's done with it all?"
    It's a bit weird.  Like being interviewed by George Stroumboulopoulos .  We talked this way while drinking wine and eating raspberry/blueberry pie as ships sailed by and the neighbours' Nova Scotia flag fluttered over the St. Lawrence out the window.
   James and his wife Martha have a happy marriage and children (and some dogs), and they met each other through the church.  The church failed them and their children, more or less at the same time, and they've never really regained what it was they'd thought they were celebrating weekly at their church events.  It seems they might have been celebrating the actual church events themselves, really.  Their kids are quite certain they know all there is to know about God and church, and to them, the two are one and the same, and they're a con.
   James and Martha were very active in their church organization, both locally and further afield, holding salaried positions of power and importance, with a great deal of training and credentials.  It was all they did, and it made up their whole lives for a time.  They even bandy around the word "cultish" on occasion.  But when corruption and shady dealings inevitably tore things apart in the whole region, James became a lawyer and although he looks back from time to time, it is with wonder that he was so into it then at all, because he really can't imagine that now.
   James had been close friends with a Christian University professor of mine who appeared rather unflatteringly in my book. He'd had a falling out with him (partly over the man's treatment of the question of their gay son) and said that my book made him reach realizations about the man's character that he'd not quite arrived at before reading it.  That my experience of the man many years ago shows that he hasn't changed at all.  That my depiction highlighted the reality of the downside of who the man continues to be.  That was a bit odd to hear. I was just writing the story of my life.  Not trying to help senior citizen lawyers and university professors decide to fail to work out their differences.
   In some ways, sitting in that room, I felt very connected with these other, older people, and how their culture/milieu/community let them down, and ceased to work and be relevant and help them be who they are apparently created to be.  Whether I go to my own church, or other people's, it all looks irrelevant, watered down, self-referential, empty, holding on by a fraying thread, and failing to deliver the God.  So I relate, in a way.
   In other ways, though, I felt very sentimental and odd.  Because I feel like I, now, really rather have Who and what my culture promised me, but wasn't delivering.  Because I went to God directly.  As directly as you can, when He doesn't have a phone or keep office hours.  And He certainly isn't As Advertised. But I found going to the Source beat being put on waiting lists and promised that if I'd only make the sacrifices, do the time, pay the dues and make my loyalty and constancy clear, Things would Work Out.  I couldn't wait around for these people.  And God doesn't need to be conjured by rituals, seemingly.  Nor is He as deeply into the actions of committees and councils and collectives as we sometimes try to claim.
  To paraphrase the bible, people really do doggedly, stubbornly look mainly at how things look, rather than what's going on inside us.  And we need room to breathe and grow in.

1 comment:

paula said...

I like this post.