I saw an episode of Oprah the other day. She was interviewing women, mothers, from around the world and it was quite an eye opener.
There was a woman in India who works in a call center. She works so many hours her parents have to take care of her child. It made me rethink my own life to hear her say her ideal life would include at least one day off a week! I only have to work seven days a fortnight to survive.
My post traumatic stress disorder seemed self-indulgent beside the distress of the woman in a refugee camp who was compulsively making mud bricks. She was trying to build a wall with those bricks. A wall to keep the men who are terrorizing her country, who rape and kill women and children daily, away from her and the children they have not killed yet.
I saw France and England on TV and they looked so unreal. Picture perfect places I have only ever seen in photographs. Places that could not be more different from the harsh landscapes of Australia if they tried.
Today I looked, online, at pictures of houses for rent and some of them were like a dream of a life I have never lived. The space, the opulence, the luxuries. It’s hard to believe people really live their lives surrounded by so much. I looked at those houses and could not imagine myself living there. I would be unworthy to be in the presence of such grace and elegance.
I look around my own home. It’s small, it’s rented, it’s serviceable and I would not ever call it luxurious or the home of a rich person but, lately, I realise it’s possible other people might.
It’s been hot here the past few weeks. So hot the people in the unit downstairs have opened their curtains and windows and, as I walk past on the way to my car, I am able to see inside.
There seems to be about five or six of them living in that tiny, one bedroom, flat and most of their furniture appears to be mattresses on the floor. They are from Africa or Nigeria or somewhere like that. I think one of them drives a taxi for a living or maybe they all take turns driving it.
The people next door to me have moved out and an Indian man has moved in. He does not seem to know anything about smoke alarms. The battery in his has run low and it is chirping a warning every few seconds. It has been chirping for a month now so I am guessing he does not know what the noise is. I have not run into him to be able to casually mention it and I do not want to knock on his door because I don’t know if he would be offended if I, a woman, were to say something to him about it.
I remember my shock the very first time I counselled an Asian woman whose husband had broken up with her. It was so hard to get my head around the differences in our cultural perception of relationships. I kept waiting to hear her talk about her broken heart, her hurt, her despair over his betrayal. I listened, in vain, for the shattered self-esteem common to a woman who has been replaced in her husbands affections by a younger woman.
She was neither broken hearted nor despairing and her self-esteem was completely intact. Her feelings were hurt but her main concern was that he pay her what he owed her for her youth, her service, the children and the years she had given him. She placed an extremely high monetary value on those things and she was determined to get what they were worth from him. Her distress centered around his failure to understand exactly how much he owed her.
“He’s calling me greedy and he says I am trying to ruin him”, she said, “he doesn’t seem to understand he has taken everything I had and I must get enough from him now to make it through the rest of my life.”
Her attitude was so practical, so mercenary, so unromantic that it aroused quite a lot of negative feelings in me at first. Then I compared her experience of divorce with the women from my own culture. So many of those women were left with nothing to show for everything they had put into their marriages. The more they loved the husband who was discarding them the less they ended up with because, in their pain, they agreed to whatever he said to try and keep a portion of his affection.
I remember the Aboriginal man I met when I was working in the prison. His whole life was a cycle. Get drunk, commit crimes, go to prison, get sober, get out of prison and get drunk again. He told me he knows he should stop drinking and he always plans to stop but he cannot cut himself off from his family that way.
“You know what will happen when I walk out those gates?” he said to me just before he was released, “My family will be waiting there for me with cans of beer in their pockets to celebrate. They will be hurt if I don’t drink with them. I can’t hurt my family. I’ll drink and soon I will be back here. I can’t stop until they stop and that’s never going to happen.”
We all live on one world yet our cultures create worlds within this world of ours and it is hard to understand someone else’s world. They seem alien and we tend to, at best, avoid what makes us uneasy. At worst we fear it and are hostile.
I would like to knock on the door of that Indian man’s flat and tell him the noise he is hearing every few seconds, 24 hours a day, is his smoke alarm but he is not from my culture. I am afraid he will be offended if a woman tries to teach him something.
I would like to be less suspicious of all the people from other lands that surround me in this town but they speak, in public, in their own languages. Every time they do that they remind me they are not like me – they are different – they may not like ME. They may, in fact, be saying nasty things about me. They have every right to speak in their own languages, of course, but I often wonder if they have any idea how much they appear to be rejecting my country and me when they do it in my hearing.
Australia has a long history of accepting immigrants. Greek and Italian immigrants were some of the first to come. They suffered when they first came here almost 50 years ago. Prejudice was rampant and, at times, violent but they are considered Australian now. I can’t help wondering if their integration is complete simply because their children speak English as their main language to us and, in public, to each other.
Asians were the next to arrive – Chinese, Vietnamese – they too are becoming part of our culture and are more accepted now than they were at first. Is it because so many of their children are speaking English as a first language and we are getting used to “Australian” people with Asian faces?
The latest wave of immigrants to hit Australian shores are African. They seem the most alien right now and, I guess, they will struggle to be accepted until their children begin to speak with Australian accents. Once we get used to seeing a lot of “Australian” people with African faces they will be integrated too.
Language is not, of course, all it takes to become part of a new world but I very strongly suspect it is the most important. As long as the person on the bus next to me, in the street, in the shops and out in public speaks in a language I do not understand I will not be able to forget he or she is not from this land. I will go on worrying that I will breach some cultural rule if I try to treat him or her the same as I treat my own kind.
It’s silly really. Underneath the world our cultures create for us we are all the same. We all want to survive, do well, be loved and be accepted. Speaking the same language is a vital key to making cross cultural connections.