Saturday, September 24, 2005

Missing a Multiplicity of Cultures

One of the things I have noticed about living in a small town is the lack of cultures. It is not that there is no culture in a smaller town. It is simply that there are only one or two cultures instead of many.

Let me give you an example. I used to live in Thunder Bay, a city of 117 000 people. There was an Italian hall, an Italian cappuccino bar (before they were cool), and several Italian Resteraunts. There was a Finnish Resteraunt, a Finnish community center, and several shops that imported goods from Finland. The same could be said for the Portugeese, the Ukranians, the Hungarians . . . you get the picture. Aside from this there was a Christian community that was small enough so that I could recognize almost all of the Christian teenagers in town, because our paths had crossed at various events. We had our own culture, our own community. But I was also part of a group of Catholic friends at school, who showed me how to pray the rosary and had me over for Easter dinner. I was also friends with a bunch of other people who were interested in music, and introduced me to jazz. I knew a lot about Finnish culture because I grew up in a Finn area of town . . . again, you get the picture.

The same was true, only more so, on the West Coast. When I taught at big highschools in Surrey there would be kids who were seperated by interests and general social status, just like anywhere else. But there were also kids who were friends because they were Phillipino, or Indo-Canadian, or Korean, or Iraqi. These kids rubbed elbows with each other and with the run of the mill "Canadian" kids, and voila, a cornucopia of intersecting cultures was born! It was wonderful to watch them learn to swear in other languages, listen and dance to music from other cultures, eat food they would have never otherwise sampled, and generally be exposed to ideas and experiences of people from all around the world. There is a certain depth that comes from the intersection of so many cultures. You see people differently. You learn that your perspective is not the only one. If you are open to it, you can learn to see the world through the eyes of a different culture, and understand why they act as they do. "They" becomes blurred with "us".

The strange, wonderful thing about Canada is that we, ideally, maintain both the "we" and the "us - them" simultaneously. I strive to maintain my own cultural / religious / personal identity while also being enriched by the cultures and religions of those around me. I become broadened and deepened by all this exposure and knowledge. Is it perfect? No. Does it always work this way? No. But if you allow yourself to be welcomed in, if you listen and watch and taste and ask questions, it is amazing what you can find out.

And that is one of the things I miss after my move to a 3 Horse town in Saskatchewan. I miss gyoza and curry and home made salad rolls dipped in peanut sauce. More, I miss my friends who have bravely married into multiculturalism. I miss soy-sauce basted turkey for Thanksgiving and my Japaneese friend learning to sing R&B and Italian arias. I miss my Malay friend teaching me how to make Yorkshire pudding correctly. I miss mis-understanding my American friend because we use the same word in such a slightly different way that we get half way through a conversation without realizing why we are both so confused. I miss all the differences I had learned to take for granted.

But yet, there is a subtle trap here. The trap is to think that I should instantly understand the culture here becuase everyone is white and mostly Christian. It is to think that I can walk in and not use those cross-cultural sensors here because everything looks familliar. The longer I stay here, the more I realize that things are not always so familliar. Now I am in a culture where the differences are more subtle. Where the great depression and World War II and the original homesteaders have left as indellible a mark as the Hong Kong Reappropriation has left of Vancouver. A strong sense of community and volunteerism, strangely paired with the notion that one should be independent and be able to provide for oneself -- and your neighbours to boot -- pervades the culture. This province of people whose ancestors dared to take ships across the ocean to start new lives in parts unknown. This province of people whose parents fed peniless, jobless drifters at their back door. This province of people who sent throngs of young men to fight for Queen and country.

This province tells its own story. It is not a story with a long history. It is often not even a flashy or exciting story. But it is a story the newcomer needs to listen to. For it is the story of these people with whom I live. And in order to understand them, I need to hear it. And so I listen. And slowly I understand. And one day I will take these stories with me, just as I take the stories of new immigrants just arrived full of hopes and dreams, longings for home and familliar sights and sounds and foods. And I will absorb them into myself as I have taken those other stories. And they will make me stronger and wiser, richer, and deeper.

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