Marginal (aka: Cultural Nuances and Frustration )

I recently threw a birthday party for one of my kids. It was great fun – a house filled with the noisy, gleeful laughter of little boys, floating balloons made to look like owls, and a punch bowl of frothing, bubbling green “potion” to drink. And candy. Lots and lots of candy.

“Why didn’t you invite me?” one of my older sisters asked in a hurt tone.

I was stunned. “Invite you? But it was a children’s birthday party!”

Apparently, this is a thing in some families; a cultural expectation which eluded me, as cultural expectations often do. And so, I hurt the feelings of my sister by not inviting her to a birthday party full of candy and noisy kids whom she doesn’t even know. Just as I hurt the feelings of my mother by having my child send a lovely, written thank-you card instead of calling her on the telephone.

Black family culture churchYou see, that is what culture is. Many people think that it is about the big things – the language, the foods, and the music shared by a cultural group. But really, culture is a patchwork quilt of hundreds of tiny nuances that can translate into huge misunderstandings.

Sometimes, I am frustrated when people from other ethnic groups expect me to fit into some narrow mold which, in their minds, defines Black American culture. I am equally frustrated when people within my own family hold the same expectation. “But this is how black people think. This is what black people do,” they say.

individualism-vs-collectivismI just grit my teeth. I have never subscribed to the idea that, just because one’s ancestors originated from a particularly geographical location, one is obliged to identify with the subculture of that ethnic group. Of course, voicing such thoughts aloud among those of my family’s ethnic group has the tendency to spark wildfires.

It is not an easy thing when you only identify marginally with your family’s subculture. No matter how hard you try to be kind and accepting of their ideas, lifestyles, and worldview, the differences always separate you. My relatives see me as an outsider. A snob. “Whitewashed.”

I only see me as being who I am.

I wonder sometimes how my own culture diverged so much from my culture of origin.  Perhaps it was due to my constant diet of books from a very young age – the never-ending exposure to new ideas, and new ways of thinking. Through literature, I learned the history behind many of the customs and practices of various American ethnic subculture groups, including that of my family. And in learning the history, I also learned to evaluate the need to continue such a custom.

And maybe that is the problem. I have never been able to simply sit back and accept. There is always that urge to analyze, evaluate, and throw out that which seems unnecessary or unfruitful. Perhaps for most people who fit comfortably within the cultural norms of their family’s demographic group, that urge doesn’t exist. Or the volume is turned down low. In a way, I envy that. I imagine that with simple acceptance comes a certain sense of peace and safety among the herd. And a lot fewer misunderstandings.

But still, there are a few things which perhaps transcend cultural construct, such as consideration, tolerance, and family   . Regardless of how silly and pointless the expectations may appear to me, the fact is that I inadvertently hurt my family members’ feelings. And really, it would not take much to avoid such a thing in the future. Offer an invitation. Make a phone call instead of putting the sentiment in writing. I guess it is no different than in a business environment, where one cultural group creates stronger goodwill by respecting the other group’s foreign cultural practices. Bow instead of shaking hands. Avoid or make direct eye contact. Use formal or informal language.  cross-cultural-communication

Cultural nuances can be a tricky, tricky thing. Especially within a family, where emotions can be heightened and judgments can be sharp and punishing. But when it comes to maintaining relationships, one must practice tolerance and strive for common ground in order to construct those large bridges made up of “little things.”

practice tolerance quote

Mochi & Rice Noodles (aka: A Visit to the Asian Supermarket)

Asian Food Shopping ListDon’t you just hate it when you are planning to make pad thai, but you’ve run out of rice noodles? Or when you are seriously craving a steaming bowl of chow fun, but you don’t like to pay high restaurant prices? For me, there is only one logical solution to problems like these. A trip to my friendly neighborhood Asian supermarket.

Okay fine, these days, you can often find a lot of great ingredients for Asian cooking at your local chain supermarket. And really, there is no Asian supermarket in my neighborhood. But I am always happy to have an excuse to drive 30 minutes across the city to shop at one.

Shopping at the Asian market is a very different experience from shopping in a typical American chain grocery store. Although you can find a number of familiar products, you can also find many foods which you’ve probably never seen or tasted.

Dragon Fruit at Asian Market

Dragon Fruit, anyone?

Jack Fruit at Asian Market

Just how does one eat Jack Fruit, anyway?

Yummy Frogs at Asian market

Froggies? Is this a grocery store or aquarium?

Foods are also packaged or presented differently. For example, the fresh fish looks like – well, like fish, instead of the pre-boned and filleted slabs we are accustomed to buying. fresh fish And if you prefer your seafood very, very fresh, you may find tanks teeming with live fish and crustaceans – or even, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, live frogs. Yum-yum.
Fresher seafood

The prices at the Asian supermarket are generally quite reasonable, especially for seafood and produce. But it is easy to go overboard and spend more than you had intended. For example, just yesterday, my kids and I went shopping with a nice little list of foods, but also ended up buying several types of mochi, a ton of ramen noodles with cool flavors, shrimp chips, and chicharrones (wait…what?). And then, upon leaving the store, we could not help but stop at the café and load up on hot dim sum (which my 12 year-old ordered in the Mandarin language).

Lots and lots of Mochi

Mochi Heaven (This time, we bought mango, red bean, lychee, and hami melon)

Naturally, our menu for this week is filled with delicious Asian meals and snacks – thai curry, miso soup, stir-fries, spring rolls, and my personal favorite – pad thai with shrimp. Nope, no frogs for us. At least, not this time.

Being Ghetto (aka Teaching My Kids About Culture…Again)

ghetto urban alley GhettoBall “Mom, what does it mean when people say, ‘That’s so ghetto’?” my oldest children wanted to know. “Is that the same thing as being black?”

I groaned inwardly. Clearly I am not doing a good job of teaching my children what it means to be black. Maybe it is because I don’t understand it very well, myself. “A ghetto,” I explained, “is just a place. Usually the housing is inexpensive and the crime rates are high. Saying that someone or something is ‘ghetto’ can be taken as an insult to poor people.”

Okay, so that was the cop-out, politically correct answer, and probably the kind of explanation that suburban white families give to their kids. But those of us with ties to the ghetto know better. Being ‘ghetto’ is so much more than just living in low-income housing. Being ‘ghetto’ is:

  • Painting your house a bright, happy color to cheer you up after a long, hard day of backbreaking work (if you’re lucky enough to have a job).
  • Avoiding the death-trap elevator at the Geneva Towers in San Francisco and walking up twelve flights of stairs instead to visit relatives.
  • Little girls on the sidewalk playing hand-clapping games about boys and sex before their baby teeth have even fallen out.
  • Druggies and drunks at the bus stop, at the Bart Station, at school (and everywhere else), because sometimes people give up on their dreams and escape their lives in the wrong way.
  • Spending eight straight hours sitting on the living room floor while your cousin braids your hair into one hundred tiny braids.
  • Hanging out with your friends listening to the rhythms of loud music blaring from the car stereo.
  • Bringing a plate of dinner to that old lady across the street who lives all alone.
  • Head coverings – ball caps, babushkas, patkas, hijab, do-rags, head scarves, etc.
  • Young men at the park talking trash and playing basketball.
  • Blue cream sodas, Now & Laters, and sunflower seeds from the corner liquor store.
  • Paying that stranger $5 to wash your windshield, because you’re lucky enough to have a car, and he hasn’t got two nickels to rub together.
  • Black American kids who learn how to say bad words in Spanish and enjoy enchiladas and arroz con pollo from their Mexican friends, who in turn learn to say bad words in English and eat soul food.
  • Chained-up Pit Bulls and scary little Chihuahuas chasing the kids playing outside.
  • Neighborhood mamas chasing off the bad guys with their brooms so their kids can play outside.
  • Shopping cart races up and down the street because there isn’t enough money to replace your bike that got stolen.
  • Saying hello to the homeless people, and offering them a bologna sandwich, because you know they’re just people like you, down on their luck.
  • Dressing up for church and not saying bad words on Sunday. Singing and dancing in the pews with neighbors.
  • Young lovers kissing out in the open, because even when life is ugly and hard, love is a beautiful thing.
  • Neighbors sharing food, and tools, and whatever else they have, because no one has enough on their own, but together everyone has what they need.

ghetto storeghetto-baby-stroller-500x37480s ghetto

Being ‘ghetto’ is more than just being poor or urban. It is a million tiny things, a million ways of thinking and living that tie together a group of people. It is something that those of us with personal ties to the ghetto use somewhat endearingly. When we see one another doing something familiar that was born from the culture of poverty and urban life, we smile and say teasingly, “That’s so ghetto.”

Can We Go to the Mall Instead? (a.k.a. Raising Snobs)

“Do people actually buy this stuff?”

Yesterday, I learned that I am raising three little snobs. Now don’t take me wrong — my kids are mostly great, and I love them to pieces. But still, they are snobs. You see, after spending hundreds of dollars on school supplies and back-to-school outfits, I thought that maybe I should try to cut costs a little. I still wanted to buy the kids some shoes, and maybe a jacket or two. So I figured, let’s go to the thrift store. Brilliant idea, right? Cheap, gently used hand-me-downs to finish out our shopping list.

I took the kids to a popular nearby thrift store, where I once actually managed to buy a pretty decent winter jacket for one of my kids. The store was crowded with people: families with wailing toddlers, mischievous children racing through the aisles, immigrant women wearing long skirts and babushkas wrapped around their heads, and then some. My own kids, overwhelmed with culture shock, clung tightly to me as we traversed the aisles, examining clothing, shoes, and even mismatched used coffee mugs.

“How about this jacket?” I held up a somewhat stylish green hoodie for my daughter to see.

She gave me a blank look. “It has stains on it.” She was right. After more careful inspection, I also noticed the greasy black stains on the sleeve and bottom of the jacket. Hmm. No wonder it only cost $2.50.

After half an hour of searching, we came up empty-handed. “Let’s try a different thrift store,” I suggested, remembering one across town, where I had once managed to find a decent pair of Gap jeans for $7.

My kids groaned. “Can’t we go to the mall instead?” But minutes later, I was dragging them into yet another thrift store. This one was less crowded, but filled with the same strange odor of dust and laundry starch, and familiar shelves of useless knickknacks, ancient appliances, and broken toys.

“Seriously, who would buy any of this stuff?” my daughter asked, staring in disgust at the world’s ugliest armchair.

“Maybe I could buy this hat for Halloween.”

Okay, seriously…who WOULD buy this stuff?

“This place is so low class,” said my oldest son, shaking his head. “I think the rich people send all their old junk to this store so the lower-class people can buy it.”

I stared at him, open-mouthed. I was half appalled by his snobbish remark, and half amused by the accuracy of his analysis. Do I say something to discourage such classist thinking? Do I reprimand him for sharing his honest opinion?

My daughter delivered the final blow. “This store is so bad, I would rather shop at Walmart.” That did it. I burst out laughing. The truth is, I agreed with my kids. I can’t stand the thrift store. I am happy to drop off our bags and boxes of gently used clothes for those who don’t mind wearing the hand-me-downs of a stranger. But really, I am not one of those people. Does that make me a snob? Maybe. Who knows?

Needless to say, we left the second thrift store empty-handed, then headed to the mall, where there are aisles filled with sequined Bobs, and trendy sushi bars, and air that smells like Cinnabon, Yankee Candle, and brand-new Guess jeans. Just the place for my three little snobs and me.

Sushi for lunch at the mall…huge contrast to our morning at the thrift store