This post is written in response to a weekly word prompt given by Five Minute Friday. The rules require us to write for five minutes. This article took me much longer. I could not stop at five minutes. Words kept coming to me. I just went with the flow.
I’m attracted to the strange and the different.
I enjoy interacting with people from other cultures and lands. I love immersing myself in the sounds of a foreign language and in the tastes of unusual cuisines. One of my part-time hobbies is studying cultures and how they affect people.
My curiosity about cultures often lands me in enlightening conversations with people. I learnt, the other day, from a Japanese American woman, that in Japan they make a Strawberry Shortcake for Christmas. As we got to know each other more, we exchanged stories about our families. And our cultures.
I shared with her my perceptions about the Japanese. She laughed when I told her that I associated the Japanese with discipline and order, and assured me that it was not true. I corrected her, in turn, about her assumption that all Indians were vegetarians.
Another time, I had a fascinating discussion about New Year traditions with a Vietnamese American woman. I was surprised to discover that the Vietnamese New Year lasts three days. The woman’s eyes lit up as she described to me how she looked forward to the food and family time every year.
I volunteered information about my homeland. In India, I told her, people usher in the new year on different dates, depending on their culture and religion.
Not all my conversations turn out to be fun.
One conversation with George, who used to be my manicurist, left a deep impression on me.
George was a chatty and cheerful guy. He also kept himself well-informed about the neighborhood, and did not mind broadcasting the news to his clients. For instance, I found out through him that the massage salon down the road was raided by the police and shut down because of illegal activity.
Not one to shy away from asking hard questions, I asked George (not his real name) about his immigrant experience and what it was like to be an “other”, an ethnic minority, in America.
I took a chance. I know, from experience, that some people find such questions difficult to answer, while others lack the self-awareness or vocabulary to articulate their thoughts.
George was more than willing to share his story. He said he was thrilled that his children had better opportunities in America. He mentioned how easily his children navigated both cultures, Vietnamese and American, even though at times they resisted a few aspects of their cultural upbringing, like speaking Vietnamese or eating Vietnamese food.
Slowly but strangely, our chat took a different, more personal turn. George revealed to me that he felt both alienated and accepted for being different. He gave a few examples of situations where he thought he was treated unfairly because of his ethnicity. His tone started to get more somber, less cheerful.
One incident that he narrated brought our friendly talk to an awkward halt.
His child’s school was going to have a potluck. The parents gathered beforehand to decide what dish each would bring. When George opened his mouth to speak, the lady in charge of the meeting dismissed him saying, “You can bring your boiled rice.”
George’s eyes turned red and moist. His ears went pink.
We stopped chatting. The TV was on. I pretended to watch TV. It helped with the awkwardness. But I could not detach myself from the fog of emotions that lingered in the atmosphere.
George continued to work on my nails in silence. I could feel his hands grow cold. His pain was touchable.
I did not know how to react. I did not expect to have a serious conversation. I was also not prepared to be drawn in to his pain.
I wanted to do or say something to comfort him. I wanted to tell him that I understood how it felt to be discriminated for being different. I wanted to hug him. But I froze.
Through the hands of my heart, I reached out to him and embraced his pain.
When George was done painting my nails, he got back to his jolly self and cracked a joke about my nails. I paid him, and left the salon with pretty nails and a heavy heart.
That day, I learnt that acquiring information and knowing interesting quirks about a culture only gave me superficial knowledge.
It’s when I get to know people on a deeper level, look past my stereotypical assumptions, find common ground with them, discover their passions and joys, and empathize with them, that I can truly say I understand their culture.