Over the past two decades I’ve lived in five countries outside Canada. During that time I’ve become utterly fascinated by the similarities and differences between cultures. If you imagine culture as an iceburg, it may be easiest to start with those habits and norms on the small chunk of the iceburg that juts up above the water. An example would be how we greet others. There are kisses (one cheek only) upon arriving and departing anywhere in Colombia and Mexico. In Spain, a greeting involves kisses on both cheeks. In Thailand, one says hello with a wai which is a bow combined with hands clasped together as if in prayer. In Japan, we simply bow our heads. In both Thailand and Japan, the depth of the bow depends on a combination of factors including your socio-economic status and age as well as those of the person whom you are greeting. Even these greetings, these cultural bits that show above the water, are not superficial. They reflect the deeply held values and beliefs of that culture.
The way we do one thing is the way we do everything.
I grew up on a farm near Ottawa Canada. People greet each other in many different ways. We say “hi” or “hello” or, in the case of the Ottawa Valley, “G’dayandhow’reyanow?” drawled out as one long word. Sometimes we shake hands, firmly and with confidence and, when we’re very close to someone, we hug. Let’s be clear that for some Asians the hug is perceived as a gesture so intimate as to be equivalent to foreplay. Where I grew up, a man will sometimes clasp his hand around the shoulder of another man; sometimes this shoulder pat is combined with a handshake and sometimes not.
It must be so challenging for immigrants to Canada to know what the hell to do when they meet someone for the first time. They must worry about offending these Canadians, these funny and welcoming but also sometimes bristly and reserved people with whom they now share a nation.
The truth is that some people who have long lived on a certain patch of geography get indignant about this stuff. Because a particular way of being in the world seems normal to them, they experience something on the spectrum of surprise to offense when a visitor or foreigner gets it “wrong”. Many of us have developed a deep sense of ownership of our own culture and we’ve been taught that it is natural to feel this way. I’m not sure this kind of place-ownership is helpful.
Each time we’ve moved over the last 20 years, I’ve evaluated how well I fit into my new city and country. In fact, I’ve been pretty obsessive about my search for signs that I belonged, that I had been (or could be) accepted by others in this place. To deliver the perfect wai, to lower my voice enough, to act in a way that allowed me to blend. Lately, I’ve been noticing the sheer lunacy of this endeavor. It is never going to happen. I’m a round white woman with pink cheeks and the place on Earth where I blend most is not Canada but Scotland. My partner is a tall black man with facial hair. People are not going to look at us and say, “Sure. These two are from here.” Not even if we speak the language perfectly, not even if our manners are impeccable, not even if we recycle our garbage in precisely the right manner.
We’ll never blend to the extent that people will think we’re from there. But this doesn’t have to mean we can’t belong. It doesn’t have to restrict where we call home.
We just spent a week on the south shore of Nova Scotia in a spectacular Air B&B overlooking the LaHave River. The host told us that before she bought her home there, she approached the three closest neighbours all of whom invited her into their homes for tea. I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days. Does she believe that she belongs to this community because the people invited her into their homes or does she belong because she was the kind of person who would go to their homes to introduce herself? I really like this conundrum.
Perhaps the secret of home is twofold:
To live as respectfully as one can while also being your authentic self.
An enthusiastic and passionate person who is constantly shushing and censoring herself will probably struggle to feel at home in a Very Quiet Place because her true self is exuberant; it needs to be let out of its box. In making a place home, it’s important not to be overcome with worry about what other people think. Their judgments about you, shaped by the smallness or bigness of their own mind, heart and experience, are truly not your business.
In truth, even Japan can make space for some loud and enthusiastic souls. We need to have more faith that our cities and nations states are places capable of evolving.
Here’s the thing that has been on my mind for a while: places don’t belong to us. The place belongs to the place itself. At my school, we say the classrooms belong to the school ~ not to the teacher who most often teaches there.
I’m going to employ this thinking in my life in places I live and visit outside that tiny pocket of perplexing greetings called the Ottawa Valley. Live respectfully and authentically. Extend myself to others with warmth and sincerity. Believe in the capacity of others to adapt, to accept, to change their mind. Remember that what other people think about me is not my business.
The next time I encounter someone who doesn’t know how to navigate Japan, I’m going to invite them for tea or some lovely equivalent. I too am an immigrant. I am going to give them a permission slip for belonging just in case they are not yet ready to write their own.
This post was first published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive these essays and poems directly in your mailbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.