Culture is invisible.
You don’t exactly realize what your culture is…until you leave it. It is the water we swim in and air we breathe.
Until I left my home in the Middle East, I wasn’t particularly aware of the values which informed my every decision. Life was just the way it always was. I didn’t realize that I was living within a collectivist Eastern culture.
It was only when I started to travel extensively, I began to notice the ways in which Western individualistic cultures differed from how I was raised. Children were allowed to disagree with their parents and non-traditional career paths were encouraged. I fell in love with individualism.
It was a short-lived love affair. A few years in, I longed for the kindness, intimacy and togetherness of the Indian and Middle Eastern collective I was born into. What follows are five vignettes of my life in the collective. A love letter of sorts.
If you stay with me tilI the end, I’ll share my current and more critical and nuanced understanding of collectivism.
The Red Couch At Asian Heart Hospital
My father has been having issues with his heart. We have flown to India. India has better healthcare which is significantly more affordable than Dubai.
Now, I’m sitting in the waiting room on the fourth floor of the Asian Heart Hospital in Mumbai. Around my father is a team of women. My mother, my sister and my two adult cousins who live in Mumbai. They’ve both taken the day off from work to be here for this. I look at the room. Around us are similar multi-generational amalgamations of families assembled around one particularly worried or sick-looking patient.
Yes, this is India.
The nurse calls my father’s name. I’m surprised to see my cousin stand up along with my parents.
My cousin looks at me – “Come on, Eva!”
I’m reticent. I mumble something about – I don’t know if there is enough space for us all.
My cousin shakes her head. Although I’m in my mid-twenties, I’m now transformed into the five -year-old who used to follow her around the room. I walk behind her into the doctor’s room.
To my surprise, I see a rather peculiar set-up.
There is the doctor’s table. In front of the table, there are two chairs for the patient and a partner. Positioned right behind the patient chair is a massive red couch. The couch is big enough to fit four very keen, curious and caring relatives.
As I sat on that red couch, running my fingers over the tiny pieces of velvet, my mind was buzzing. Having been in doctor’s offices in many different parts of the world, I’ve never seen such an institutional acknowledgement of the community. The collective. It is almost as if they’ve had so many people insisting to sit behind their patient – that there is now a couch as standard protocol.
A Send-Off: The Airport Convoy
I’m eight-years-old. My cousin sister is leaving Dubai for North America for her undergraduate studies. The whole week, we’ve been going over to say Goodbye. Little gifts being given and tiny moments being shared.
This morning, we all linked arms in a circle while her grandmother and mother prayed over her. There is the usual chaos of travel around the apartment. Bags slowly being packed and unpacked. Family piled into and out of the apartment. Now, the tears were shed, prayers said and hymns sung.
In a few moments, the entire farewell party had transferred into a convoy of cars driving down Garhoud Bridge to the Dubai International airport. We fall out of our cars and assemble into a semi-circle around my cousin. We’re squeezing time for the last moments that we can share with her before our cousin boards that airplane. It was such a ceremony.
Now, I board transatlantic flights without so much as a phone call or recognition. I take on journeys across states, domestic, regional and international borders without so much as a communal family prayer.
Truthfully, I’m glad for my aviation-related independence and isolation. Still, I think of that moment in the airport and smile. I think about what it meant for my mother’s generation for someone to leave the village and go abroad. I think about the collective goodwill, attention and care given to this young lady’s initiation into adulthood.
I think about all this and I smile.
The Woman in Church
I’m a teenager. The church is packed. It always is. After all this is the ONLY church in Dubai at the time. Thousands of parishoners squeeze into intervals throughout the weekend to fulfill our weekly obligation. My father makes sure we are in church at least thirty minutes before mass is celebrated. He likes to meditate, compose himself and get a good parking spot.
So, here I am. Sitting on the edge of cold wooden pews, people-watching and waiting for the priest to arrive. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the congregation assembles. Eventually the church is packed. The organ plays and the Priest has arrived. Mass begins.
We begin the usual prayers, hymns and take our seats to listen to excerpts of the Bible being read to us. AND that’s when I see her.
The woman looks at me.
I’m sitting on the edge of the wooden bench – there are a few inches vacant. She sees the sliver of the bench. She approaches. Every. Single. Part. Of. Me. Winces. Too late. Slowly sits on the pew. Only half off her right butt cheek fits. The lady looks at me with an endearing smile.
“Move a little, no darling?”
Now, we begin a slow snake dance of sorts. All twelve strangers start shuffling, shuffling, shuffling. Our shoulders bumping carelessly into each other. We know that feeling of obligation – we must all move now. What was initially a very comfortable experience, has turned into an intimate lesson in communal compromise. For the next forty minutes, we are feeling each other’s bodies rising, kneeling, singing and humming.
I hated these moments as a kid. I used to think about how insensitive these kinds of women were. I’d ask out loud: why can’t they just come earlier?
But now, I realize how there is a sense of compromise we learn by being in these communities. If everyone moves just a little bit – then we make space for more people. And while it is not uncomfortable for all of us, we felt the togetherness. My teenage surly self had no appreciation of that. But, I sure do now.
This is what collectivist cultures can do.
It fuses you together.
You move together.
You compromise together.
Aunty is having nightmares
My mother’s sister can’t sleep. She is having nightmares. About me. You see, I have left the usual career track of corporate Dubai life and started traveling the world. My aunt is not happy with this. Or so my mother tells me.
“Your Aunty is very scared for you.”
She is very scared that you are in Indonesia now. What are you doing there? Your Aunty wants you to come back. I grit my teeth. I’m annoyed. Why is my aunty, who is safely ensconced in her house in India, scared about me? I’m frustrated that my life choices are haunting her dreams.
There is another part which is weirdly touched and comforted by it. Being a solo traveler for a few years, I’ve forgotten the invisible tapestry of family and community which holds me in their anxiety, prayers and good wishes.
There is a new key on my keychain.
My mother is quick to notice it.
“Oh, rented a car for the weekend?” she asks me.
To the innocent bystander – this is a straight-forward question. But to me, daughter of Sylvia Fernandes – I know what is next. I didn’t tell my mother I was planning on renting the car precisely because I know what is coming next. I barely nod my head when my mother starts.
“Okay, Good. Good. Good. You can take me to Church this evening – there is Holy Hour. And then, I need to go to the fish market. And tomorrow morning, you can go to your Aunty’s house. She needs to give you the big bag…”
I’m nodding. Slightly peeved, Taking a mental note of the chores. I didn’t rent the car for myself. I rented the car for us. That much is the truth.
My Love For Beautiful Stifling Collectivism
What follows are a complex series of ideas.
Truthfully, I haven’t reached a conclusion about any of it. Eastern, Western, individualistic, collectivist – what does this really mean? These terms are merely figments of our collective imagination. These concepts are too broad, archetypal and nebulous to really mean much. At the end of the day, cultures are made of very unique specific individuals – can we really group them into that larger bucket? I don’t think so. Not at all.
And still, it is a lens to look at the world through. So pardon my broad strokes in the next few paragraphs. I reckon I’ll be able to articulate differences in a more nuanced way in the years to come.
Until then, I will lumber along.
‘Erm. So why this solo-travel thing?’
I lived so much of my life within circles of family, friends and relatives who were influenced by collectivist culture. I was born and raised in the Middle East to Indian parents. There were different iterations of what I later came to identify as collectivist culture. What does that term mean to me?
Collectivist: the group takes precedence over individual preference.
When I decided to leave Dubai and travel for years on end…well, this is when everything came to a head. After all, who travels ALONE by themselves for months and months on end? If you traveled it was on an organized tour with your whole family. You traveled for a week or two and then returned to life as usual.
This solo nomadic travel? Unheard of. My family was very concerned by life choices. Some wondered if I needed to get psychological help or was going to join a cult. Their reaction was extremely invalidating and frustrating. Recovering from corporate burnout, the last thing I needed was the scorn of the people I loved the most. I didn’t want to be dodging questions and explaining my life choices over and over again; but that’s exactly what happened.
Enamored & Envious Of Western Individualism
So when I first started traveling, I found myself catapulted into Western ideals. I met fellow travelers from the Netherlands and Germany. Their chosen path of exploration wasn’t a point of contention for their family. It was commonplace.
I’ll never forget speaking to a Dutch man in Cambodia. He told me his daughter is sailing around the Carribean with her boyfriend for the next couple of months. I was horrified.
“And you’re okay with that? Your daughter is only 21-years-old?!”
Yes. He was okay with it. He was happy about it. She was an adult. An individual. An autonomous being.
I heard versions of this story over and over and over again. Travel, unconventional choices, independence and autonomy – all with social and communal acceptance. When I tried to exercise the very same choices in my family the response was to question my mental stability.
For a while, my mind and heart was swirling when I saw the detachment Western cultures supposedly seem to have for their children, spouses, friends and extended family. I was enamored, enticed and envious. I wished for that sense of independence. I castigated (in my head) the culture I was raised in. I felt mollycoddled, stifled and repressed.
Heart-sick for the intimacy for the group
And then, the tides turned. I longed for intimacy, love and connection.
After two and a half years of being on the road, living a somewhat autonomous life, being around Western travelers – my heart began to feel homesick. I felt let down by my supposed new Western friends who had a lot of thoughts about ‘boundaries’ and not enough about generosity.
I longed for the comfort of my community.
The large red couch, the convoy of cars and even, the aunty’s worries. I longed for commitment, care and consideration. I longed for community. I began to find my way back to respect. I read. I reconnected. I realized the love and limitations of community.
Yes. Collectivism can be a beautiful thing
Yes. Community is a beautiful thing. The older I get the more I realize the importance of relationships and networks. I also realize and cherish the importance of autonomy and self-actualization.
Indian and Middle Eastern culture places an incredible amount of importance to the social fabric and the good opinion of those around us. We move as collectives. Exposure and understanding of this truth is in my blood. I deeply understand what it means to have respect, compromise and care because of my culture. To be raised in such a way, well…this is one of the best gifts my parents have ever given me.
Yes. Collectivism can be debilitating
There is a debilitating part of being part of any community which requires the individual to secede their autonomy.
In collectivist cultures – the pressure to put the interest of the GROUP ahead of your own…is intense. Perhaps, too intense. When the group needs you to betray your professional dreams, your sense of self, artistic proclivities and sexual orientation…well, that’s when stepping away from the group is vital – but often not respected.
Why? Within some collectivist culture we are routinely taught to be respectful of others wishes, especially of our elders. What about your personal boundaries? Erm. No such thing. Sorry.
A white friend referenced the concept of The Enmeshment Family Systems – and I laughed out loud! What Enmeshment? This is my family! How funny to see so much of my own family and cultural dynamics articulately described as psychological dysfunction. Lolz.
Within individualistic cultures there appears to be some level of space to disagree. To have a different opinion.
I’ve longed for the ability to choose my path in life; to disagree with those who don’t approve and to work through conflict. Given the choice, I will sit through most difficult conversations – if I can see there is a path forward. So often though, I’ve felt stifled within the larger community…in which I know my role is to be the “Good Girl” without too many opinions. Grrr.
The Middle Ground For Me.
I am learning, learning, learning how to be my WHOLE self within a larger Collective.
Yes, I am part of a beautiful loving close-knit family. AND I’m also an individual. I have unpopular opinions and preferences. I’m also infinite. My culture can be supportive and it can be limiting and repressive.
How to be myself with love and respect for myself, my parents, my sisters, my aunties and uncles, cousins and friends? It feels impossible sometimes. And at other times, it feels like a radical thought.
It is my journey.
It is my life’s commission.
To walk the EDGE between this and that.
It is what I need to do.
It is what I choose to do.
I ask for your blessing and wisdom.