Culture, a word with various meanings. My copy of the Shorter OED, once we get past the cultivation of bugs in petri dishes, defines it as, “the training and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners; the condition of being thus trained and refined; the intellectual side of civilization.” No mention of “ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society”, which is how an online dictionary interprets the word.
For those of us who have spent large swathes of our lives roaming the globe, living in other cultures, there is often a subliminal absorption of those cultures. Foreign words become part of our family lexicon, not through affectation as some of our more sedentary friends and family might assume, but because they are an audible part of our life wherever we happen to be living. I grew up with words like cukup and tidak, Malay words for ‘enough’ and ‘no’ or ‘not’, and can only assume they were so frequently used with me that they are still in my vocabulary. My children grew up with mai pen lai, Thai for ‘it doesn’t matter’.
Customs like Chinese New Year, or Deepavali, or Loi Krathong, might have space in our memory bank along with the more universal observances of Christmas and Easter, often regardless of whether living in a Christian country or not. But Bonfire Night or Halloween or Martin Luther King Day might not. You get my drift?
There are though a host of other cultural differences, some almost microscopic, which can have parents, and children, worrying or chaffing. And this was brought to the fore at Christmas for me when my daughter, now resident in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, mentioned in passing – I think we were washing up at the time – that she would allow her daughter, aged four and half, to have her ears pierced if she asked. I didn’t quite drop a plate, but nearly.
And that’s when I realised we never quite lose our mother’s voice in the back of our minds, despite the fact mine has been dead ten years. A conversation from over forty-five years ago surfaced and I heard, “Sweetie-pie, you are not having your ears pierced now, or any time soon.”
“But why not? Mak Peck Yoke has hers pierced, and so does Sudeepa,” I remember saying.
“It is not our custom. You are not Chinese or Indian.”
“Well, when can I?” I remember persevering.
“Not before you are sixteen,” was followed by her coup de grâce, “You don’t want to look common, do you?”
I’m sure the conversation dragged on, probably along the lines of ‘how come we take part in some customs then, like Hari Raya?’ I have never been one to give in easily.
I was finally allowed to pierce my ears when I was fourteen, though my mother would have nothing to do with it. Ah Moi, our amah and Mak Peck Yoke’s mother, took me on the bus to her jeweler on Jalan Petaling in the bustle and clamor of Chinatown, where after much pen marking and erasing on my lobes, Ah Moi approved the precise positioning of the little pointed earrings forced through my slightly numb ears. It hurt like hell, but I managed to squeeze the tears back in. Again my mother’s words swirled as her parting shot reminded me not to complain. And I paraded my golden earrings with painful pride.
Kate wore me down and was allowed to have her ears pierced at age twelve. But four? And then, in the kitchen over the dishes I heard my daughter. “Mum, it’s a cultural thing. All Ava’s friends at Hope Cottage have their ears pierced. Why make her stand out for not having them done? I’m not mentioning it, but she has a couple of times. I’m just going to let it play out.”
When did my daughter become so wise?
Regrets are a waste of time and energy, particularly if a decision was made with the best intentions, even if they were misguided. However one of my biggest missteps, and therefore regrets, was on arriving in the US for the first time, with a teenager and a pre-teen, and firmly – they might say stridently – refusing to have cable television. I unilaterally decided my family would not become sucked into a world of soaps, sports and reality television. I realised later the children had been put at an immediate disadvantage in their new environment and with their new friends, never mind they spoke with Scottish accents. How silly I was.
So as my bi-racial grandchildren grow up in a predominantly West Indian culture I shall watch with interest, and a closed mouth unless asked, as my daughter navigates the sometimes mired path of global living.
It all comes back to how we define culture, and how we absorb it.