Many Villages::The Depths of Cultural Differences

This semester I’m taking a course on Cross-cultural counselling. Part of the coursework is a weekly journal reflecting on anything I’ve learned, thought about or found challenging from the course material. I decided to post parts of these reflections in a weekly series called “Many Villages”.

I didn’t realize how much I like talking about/processing culture until class this week. (The fact that I blog about this very subject should have been a clue to me, but there you have it.) As we brainstormed the meaning of words like culture and respect, I got super excited for the semester. Dr. Chow shared his own experiences in interacting with others from varying cultures and said in passing that as a Chinese man, he never makes assumptions about other Chinese people, because“there are many villages in China”.

Sometimes, I forget that even our home is made up of several villages. I come from a home with influences from Sicily, Ireland and Germany. Varun comes from a home with influences from two regions in India. Between us, we have lived in 12 cities in 5 countries. It would be an understatement to say that there are ideas and ideals from many villages floating in the air of the Rana Household.

And yet, I forget. I make snap decisions, assumptions about people’s motivations, and value assessments using a rather 2D model. My default is to look at the world–people, behaviours and ideas–through the lens of my own experience. This seems obvious, and you’d think that someone in an intercultural marriage would be aware of this. And I am. Yet at the same time, I’m not. Culture runs so deep.

In a real sense, culture is the behavioral expression of one’s values, appreciations and tastes, and relational style in both simple and serious matters of life. Add to this the dimensions of language and cultural memory, and you have worlds within worlds. In effect, culture provides the how and why of an individual’s behavior…” (-I’ve had this quote in a word document for a long time, and I can’t seem to remember it’s author. No plagiarism intended)

Worlds within worlds is, perhaps, the best way of describing it. Too often, I chalk up culture to variations in cuisine and music. I reduce culture to a set of behaviours I can mimic, words I can decode and festivals and celebrations we can adopt. In some sense, I think this is a way of protecting our marriage, wanting to see culture as an opportunity, not an obstacle. And yet, deep down, I know that my cultural background permeates my very being.

Who would I be if I were not an American? If I were not raised in a Catholic home in the late 20th century? What would I think if I were not of European descent? What would seem rude to me if I were raised in a family-oriented, honor-bound culture?

These questions echo through my thoughts, unwilling to be anchored by answers. Because in truth, I have no idea. And this is how I know that my culture—my context, values, beliefs, traditions, foods, memories—goes much deeper than I could imagine. It is far more than losing one’s accent or changing a mode of dress.

Let me give you an example from my own marriage. [Note: This story is not meant to criticize or invoke hurt, gossip or dissent. It’s meant to illustrate how deeply affected I am by my culture ideas, and how much growing I have to do!]

There is a certain behaviour that I have noticed in an Indian family member that I find confusing. I perceive it as something meant to belittle me, and as something that is selfish. I have tried to explain my frustration with this behaviour to Varun, but it never seems to bother him as much as it does me.

Last weekend, we went on a day trip with a family in our neighborhood from South Asia. This family is new to Canada and has quickly become dear to us. We had a wonderful day together! Yet, to my surprise, this same behaviour was manifested in the majority of our new friends! I watched as Varun responded with—what seemed to me to be—grace. As we talked about the events of the day, I expressed admiration of him for his patience. He looked at me, perplexed. I told Varun how patient he was when this particular behaviour occurred repeatedly. Varun laughed, and shrugged, noting that this is a totally normal behaviour. “But didn’t you feel patronized?”, I asked, remembering my agitation. “No. It’s just practical. There’s nothing about you in it, and culturally, it’s an important expression”.

I looked at Varun, sensing the currents of Indian values and collective memories that swirl beneath the surface of his Canadian persona. Even as we create a hybrid culture in our home, we are deeply different.

It’s amazing to me that I can have such a strong gut reaction to something that, to Varun, was not at all noteworthy. And yet as I considered Varun’s understanding of it, and the fact that it was never meant as an affront to me, my feelings began to shift.

Interacting with other cultures is so much more than trying new foods or watching films with subtitles (although this is awesome and important!). It means doing the difficult work of excavating long-held patterns of thought, allowing expressions to have multiple meanings and offering patience and grace. It is also incredibly rewarding; it affords opportunities for exploration and expansion, for stretching myself beyond my natural reactions and gut feelings.

It might take our entire lifetime together for Varun and I to begin to fit into the skins of our hybrid culture. I imagine that even as an elderly couple we will still have the rhythm of our mother cultures pulsing through our veins. My hope is that through the years we will not minimize our cultural differences to guard ourselves from conflict. Nor will we allow the differences to define us, to make us forget that we are family. But if nothing else, Varun’s good-natured patience is sure to smooth out some of my rough edges.


What do you find difficult in interacting with friends or family from other cultures? Do you notice any behaviours or ideas that make you uncomfortable? How are you succeeding at learning and growing from these challenges?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mynextlifewillbe
    Sep 18, 2012 @ 03:44:47

    The most difficult are obvioulsy the subtle ones. People can be offended and insulted without you even noticing because you are basically deaf to the nuances and just see the surface which looks perfeclt nice and harmless. By a behaviour that you regard as even nice and forthcoming you can be even insulted without knowing it. And likewise what you consider rude may be polite behaviour that you just didnt know. Other times cultural differnces are just used as excuses to behave badly. So its just learn as you go and paying good attention I guess.


  2. John Rafferty
    Sep 24, 2012 @ 17:40:12

    Really excellent writing, here. I found your points very insightful as well.

    One cultural hurdle I have not been able to get over or come to peace with is the practice of answering one’s cell phone during a meeting–and continuing to talk (either while exiting the room or while still seated in attendance), while the speaker continues with the meeting. I could write a lengthy and probably humorous commentary on this, but the bigger point is that this gnaws at the very foundation of what I find to be polite behavior.

    When I think about why, I think it’s because to me, that behavior sends a message to the speaker that they are unimportant, and that vocal disruptions are more important that keeping the audience from being disrupted. But, if had grown up in a culture where this practice was the norm, would I think that this behavior sends the message I suspect it does? If I didn’t attach that message to this behavior, might I do the very same thing? Do I come close when I spend 75% of a meeting checking my email because I’m bored with the speaker? Is it completely analogous to the cell-phone conversation disrupting others when I allow others to see on my screen that I’m paying no attention? Is there a difference between audible and visual disruptions?


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