Cultured Questions

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.





A Sympathy in Choice

I sometimes wonder how people do it –make decisions, I mean. I’m not talking about what they’re going to have for lunch, or whether or not to wear a blue shirt with a red tie to work -most of those could be settled with a coin toss. No, I’m more concerned with the deeper questions we are asked to solve. The ones for which we have no preliminary data, no idea of outcome, no hint of consequence. Decisions which, poorly made, could have far reaching and unintended repercussions.

I’m not complaining, mind you –just pointing out that unprepared decisions can be fraught. But it leads me to wonder about choice. Do the decisions we make reveal anything about who we are? Do they define us or merely describe us? And if we were stripped of the ability to choose –if someone else took the responsibility- would we be happier? More content? Or bereft of identity -just another voice in the choir? Is choice, in other words, an emergent property of Life, or merely a by-product of chaos? A necessary side-effect of complexity?

Now that I am retired, I’m beginning to think that my life has become too chaotic. Too random. When I was at work, it was structured; there were duties to perform, obligations to honour, social rites to enact –expectations of continuity with commitments that left less room for choice.  And like a forest, the overall characteristics of life-changes are really only discernible when viewed from afar.

So now I am overwhelmed with choice, buried under the weight of options I never knew existed. And, since time stretches before me like a prairie, I find that I am confused by the selection. Or perhaps, bored might describe it better. When you are confined to a candy-store, perspective shifts. Tastes change, and candy is not the object of desire, no matter how many varieties are on offer. It is no longer choice, but monotony. Indifference. Detachment. A surfeit of anything no longer satisfies –it chokes.

I decided to catch a city bus the other day and as luck would have it, there was already a queue. Ahead of me in the line was a man even older than myself leaning on a cane. Bundled up against a bitter December wind, he wore an ill-fitting ankle-length winter coat, and a heavy scarf wrapped around his head like a hijab. His face seemed wrapped as well, because he had a long bushy, untrimmed white beard he tried several times to tuck into the coat like his scarf. No matter his preparations, he still looked cold. I gathered from his clothes that he wasn’t entirely used to the weather here in Canada, either. And to make matters worse, he was carrying a bulky shopping bag so his hands –both of them bare- looked almost blue with the cold.

I was about to offer to lend him my gloves for the wait, but just as I was going to introduce myself, a crowded bus arrived and we all shoved on. The elderly seats were all occupied, of course, but a stout lady in one of them offered her place to the old man. He seemed embarrassed, and looked around at those of us standing nearby almost as if he were asking for our permission. The lady insisted he take her seat, however, so he accepted with a smile and a grateful bow of his head. The scene was so unremarkable, that I think most people standing nearby didn’t notice anything unusual.

But one man did. He was a short, balding man dressed in a suit and tie covered with an expensive looking overcoat that did little to disguise his corpulence. He was carrying a briefcase that he kept shifting from hand to hand because of its weight. And since he happened to be standing right beside me, I noticed he was glaring at the old man who was now sitting quietly with his eyes closed.

Suddenly the man with the suit started to mumble and knocked his leg into the old man. “In this country,” he whispered loudly, “men give up their seats to women.” I could see he was beginning to become angry. “Not the other way around!” he added, loudly.

The old man, clearly intimidated, opened his eyes wide.

“Why is it you think you can come over here and act like you’re still over there?” The man was yelling now. “We do things differently here, old man!”

The old man squirmed uncomfortably, uncertain how to react. People around him stared nervously at their laps, or out of the window, hoping the man would stop. Nobody had yet decided what they should do, although they were obviously uneasy.

“And what’s in that bag…?” he said, reaching out to grab it.

The old man gathered it closer to his waist and I could see he was terrified. The only thing I could think of in the situation was to offer him my gloves, so I stepped between the two of them. “I noticed you looked cold,” I said, and handed him my old leather gloves although the crowded bus was really quite warm.

His eyes met mine and I could see he understood. “Thank you,” he said, accepting them with a smile so wide that it once again untucked his beard from inside his coat. “My daughter told me to dress warmly, but I forgot about gloves…” He peeked under my extended arm at the furious face of the man with the suit.

“I said what’s in the bag, old man!” The man was just not giving up. But by now, a couple of younger men in the aisle were staring threateningly at him.

“What’s in your briefcase, mister?” one of them said with a sneer.

But the little man merely attacked him with his eyes. “Well, it’s not a bomb!” He almost spat the last word out for maximal effect. He nodded his head at the old man, who was busy examining my gloves. “Don’t you read the news reports?” He yelled, as if that was evidence enough to validate his suspicions.

The young man moved closer to the briefcase and leered at him. “Yeah,” he said, his nose almost touching the abuser. “And I read what life was like for them over there…” He turned to his friend who was equally angry. “I think all of us in this bus would feel safer if you got off at the next stop, mister!” And he bumped aggressively into the man.

Fortunately, it was a popular stop, so a lot of people got off as well as the man in the suit. And as they left, most smiled at the old man or touched his leg in an embarrassed apology. A seat became available beside him, so I sat down.

He immediately clasped his hands over mine and bowed. “Thank you sir,” he said in a soft, heavily accented voice. “I didn’t know what to do…” He took a deep breath and looked at me. “I’ve never been in a crowded bus like this before. My daughter warned me… She wanted to pick me up from the hospital, but she got called in to work this morning.” He took my gloves off and gently laid them in my lap. “She told me she’d pay for a taxi, but I decided to take the bus.

“You know, I’m glad I did,” he said, smiling warmly and clasping my hands again. “It made me realize just how kind people are in this country I chose…”

He said it so sincerely, I almost blushed.