What is acculturation? I mean really? Or, more to the point, is it necessary to acculturate to the culture which you have adopted -and how would you know if you have? A friend recently asked me what accepting a foreign culture meant and, given that it is not a word that I find myself having to use on more than a multi-annual basis, I responded with what I could remember from, well, Sociology 101, I suppose – a long time ago. “It is,” I ventured, “something like normalizing and maybe practicing some, or all, of the cultural characteristics of another group.” I figured it would be better to sprinkle my definition with equivocations in case he was trying to trap me.
He was no Socrates, however, and he seemed quite needy in his pursuit of my opinion.
“But,” he continued, focussing his eyes on my mouth for some reason, “What is culture actually?”
It felt like we were teenagers sitting around a campfire at night, solving the eternal mysteries with deeply probing questions. No, actually I felt more like St. Augustine when asked about the nature of Time : ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ I decided to be less abstruse. “Culture…” I answered slowly, choosing my words carefully “…Culture… is the sum of most of the customs, behaviours, and beliefs of a group… At a particular time.” I added, to provide myself with a loophole in case he challenged me.
But he didn’t. John was someone I had known ever since he’d moved into the neighbourhood a few years ago, and we had just joined the same checkout line at a market when I saw him. But that wasn’t when he asked me -he was too polite for that. Too embarrassed. We started out speaking banalities, the kind of things one says upon running into a friend unexpectedly. Actually, we were talking around a woman with a load of vegetables in her cart. She had a tired, housewife Vegan look about her as she examined first my purchases –steak, eggs, and a round of packaged sausages- and then John’s basket of lamb chops and some kind of cheese I didn’t recognize. I don’t think she did either, and although she did not look pleased, I decided perhaps that was because we kept darting our heads around hers to talk.
I suppose I should have let her go ahead of me, but her cart was so full, and mine so empty, that by widely accepted market etiquette, it would have been neither reasonable nor was I likely to let her. In fact, now that she knew what John had, she should have stepped aside and let him pass. But I could see by her eyes that it would only happen over her dead body. So, as I see it, she deserved our ocular peregrinations.
It was only when we had left the store and passed the woman who was glaring at us from the doorway, that John dared the questions about culture.
At first he merely shrugged, at my answers, glancing nervously over his shoulder at the woman, but as the distance increased, he relaxed a little. “Do you know that lady?” he finally asked, his face serious and his expression concerned.
I looked back at her; she was still staring at us. I shrugged. “Never seen her before. Why?”
He sighed and then shook his head. “She came over to me at the meat counter.”
I waited for him to continue, but it seemed too painful for him, so I probed. “Did you get the last lamb chops, or something?” I immediately regretted making a joke of his discomfort.
He shook his head, obviously trying to remember. “No… She just stared at me.” His eyes jumped onto my face for a moment before flying home.
John is of Middle Eastern extraction -a tailor back home, I think- and looks perpetually tanned, even in the dead of winter. He is unusually tall, with curly black hair, but apart from his height, the most striking feature about him is his eyes. Brown, curious, and constantly asking questions, they seem like couriers, homing pigeons, always busy carrying messages to and fro. And he was usually smiling, like he was glad to be alive.
“I thought maybe I’d dropped something and she was returning it, but when I looked at her, she just stared at me with accusing eyes that seemed to crawl over my face, then slide down my body.
“She followed me over to the deli section and watched me look for cheese. I was trying to find some variety of the Shanklish we used to get back home… They sometimes have a version of it here.” he explained, when I looked puzzled.
“You’ll have to do better than that, John,” I said and then chuckled. “What is Shaklish?”
“Shanklish,” he corrected me. “It’s a cheese made from sheep or even cow’s milk… They make it into little balls to age,” he explained. “Smells, terrible to most people over here, even though it has a nice mild taste…”
“So, why was she…?” I didn’t know what he thought, so it was hard to frame a question.
He sighed deeply and stopped. “At first I thought maybe she was just curious about me or something.” He smiled and suddenly held his head high. “I am rather tall, you’ll have to admit.”
I nodded. He usually stooped when he was around shorter people -so he could see their eyes more easily, I suppose.
“But I could hear her whispering –hissing, almost.”
I had to look up at him, so he stooped a little again. “Whispering what…?”
He shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter, but I could tell it did. “Well, I couldn’t actually hear –whispering isn’t supposed to carry, is it? That’s why it can be rude…” A weak, forced smile appeared on his lips. “But I distinctly heard ‘You people!’ and then ‘culture’ or something -I couldn’t be sure. She sounded really angry.
“What did I do?” he said in an anguished voice, his shoulders slowly sagging.
I watched his suffering with sad eyes that I soon withdrew and confined them, instead, to the sidewalk. His agony was too immediate. Too real. I was going to mention that the woman wasn’t pleased with me either, but his face told me not to. That I could never know. Could never stand in his shoes… Not here.