Being you and a bridge between generations and cultures

I am in a local cafe. Two Chinese ladies and a baby sit next to me. One woman is a new mother,  the other a new grandmother. I do not know whether the baby is a boy or a girl and this does not matter.  It dawns on me. Three generations in one moment. Three generations from a culture with much reverence and respect for the wisdom of the old.

I admit I do not know as much as I would like about Chinese culture. I do know stories and experiences from people in my circles. One of them is my chiropractor. He told me how he was raised by his parents and his Chinese grandmother. His parents ran a fish and chips shop in Liverpool, England. After school he would go straight to the shop and be looked after by his grandmother.  I asked him how this was for him. He described it as something like getting the best of both generations. You see as they were living in the UK and immersed in this world, his grandmother was better at speaking Chinese and passing on traditions. So his grandmother in a sense carried that baton. She was the anchor to the past, the keeper of wisdom the passer of knowledge.

Being the cultural bridge

A person like my chiropractor is a bridge between the old and new. He may not realise it but he is also a bridge between Chinese culture and Australian culture. I also think he is lucky to have the benefit of both worlds including two languages.  There are many people like this. Many are also not as obviously bridging cultures. You see we instantly assume because of the way a person looks or because they speak another language that they are therefore different. There are more similarities shared when you look at generational differences, adaptation and change.

Growing up slightly different

I am not privy first hand to these more long running established traditions and cultural worlds because of my birth and lineage from which I come. I am who I am. I can tell you all about growing up American and my mother’s influence.  I can tell you of the challenges and gifts of a father born in England, raised in South Africa, naturalised as an Australian and immigrant to the USA.  At a stretch I can do my best to reference to my English/Danish/Norwegian heritage but only from what I read in a book really. 

I admit to a bit of first hand heritage ignorance. In the depths of it though are beliefs that I initially learned by being immersed in the culture to which I was born.  There are beliefs I kept, ones I never accepted and others I later changed as I grew older. This is no different for others navigating the weight of influence from their origins.

Stereotypes do not apply

One thing I can relate to is the power of stereotype and generalisation. I have lived in Australia for over 23 years. I was born here so I feel this ties me even more to this country.  Because I was raised in America during my formative years I still have an American accent. So when someone new meets me I am often thrust into the spotlight as the representative for over 318 million people.  There is immediately a range of assumptions.

Perception of cultural invasion

The most challenging for me over the years has been what I call America bashing. By this I mean the way people mouth off about their dislike of American culture permeating their culture. This is usually in response to the dominance of US news stories, businesses, brands, products, movies, TV shows and music. Influence of these channels then passes on behaviours and language.  There are serious issues here and ones that I think are superficial but mask a deeper distrust. 

At what I think is the lightest level I notice people who have decided that it is their job in life to criticise the culture because of the way a word is spelled or the way someone behaves. On the other hand I have been the recipient of expressed frustration at the latest event unfolding in the news.  Questions like how come ‘your country’ is like that come to me even though I choose to make Australia my home.  And of course I still get asked regularly how long I have lived in Australia. When I say 2 years after being born here and 23 years up until now I get a surprised look.  Anyway just a little context.  

From the outside in

Sometimes though I agree with some of the criticisms. It is a whole different world view to be on the outside of America looking in.  Because of my father’s background and my birth origin I grew up with more of a world perspective.  Not as broad and first hand as one who travelled the world, but I was not myopic in my views.  Yet many people I knew did not. This is not because they didn’t want to it was because they didn’t need to.

Yes until the days of Crocodile Dundee most people around me just knew Australia was that far away country that couldn’t decide if it was a continent or an island (thank you geography lessons). Even to this day I can remember sitting in my second grade class and raising my hand almost to the ceiling when the teacher pointed to the map and said does anyone know what this place is? Of course I did! Why wouldn’t she call on me. I knew all about this place. I had a stuffed toy kangaroo and koala on my bed at home. I was legit.  But no she turned to the kid who thought it was Austria or something like that.

A cultural lense of ignorance

So now take and apply the same ignorance to other cultures. Think of how we learn about other cultures if we do not visit them? Unfortunately it is through the media, filtered teachings in school or by accident unless we make an effort to do our own research. We are fed what someone thinks we should know. We mostly do not learn first hand.  Also the issues between cultures can be far more serious than whether a word is spelled correctly or that an expression from the language made it across the ocean. No there are fundamental differences of beliefs carried through from generation to generation.

What is forgotten though is how each generation adapts, modifies and adjusts.

This is to me the challenge.

Tradition matters as much as change

You see I do value tradition. I value people in a community who can carry forward a tradition.  I also equally value the questioning and updating of traditions. This may sound like an anachronism. For me though it is about staying relevant as a way of respecting growth and change in society. Longing for the good old days is to me resistance. Cherishing and honouring a tradition as valuable and still relevant is respect.

When we stop and think about it each generation holds within it the essence and wisdom of an age. In that context the people of that generation thought, felt and acted the best way they could in that time given their upbringing, resources and experiences.

Then the next generation comes along and benefits from the old but also the new. Rather than wear the hardships of the past around the neck like a yoke the next generation is launched from a more stable platform and foundation. Well at least it seems so.

Sometimes the quest for change and newness forgets about what worked and was helpful from past generations. In our rush to dismiss and stamp our own generation’s mark we fail to acknowledge and consider.

The burden of the past can be a barrier too

This does not mean it’s smooth sailing.  Many of a different generation also experience angst and pressure from the ways of the past.  Where there is rigidity and conformity this will always be the case. One answer then is for each generation to balance both.  What also seems to come out though is radical difference, rebellion and rejection.  Perhaps this is the breaking free needed to separate and explore new territory. It depends on the perspective.  Many times there is little willingness to see things from the other perspective out of a persistence to assert our way.  

Adding a bit of culture

Add to this generational mix the culture card.  Depending on which one you are dealt you are going to have an interesting path in life. There is one end of the spectrum where a person is born into a family where generations preceded all living and growing up in the same culture sometimes even the same physical location. Then there is the other end of the spectrum where a person is born into a family uprooted from their culture and known geography either by choice or not. Sometimes a family moves many times. What they left behind is in great contrast often to where they end up.

The superficial differences such as language and customs stand out. What is hidden in the psyche is the challenge of creating a bridge from where they were to where they are now.  Imagine being the child from the family that never had change and the one that has known nothing but change.  These are huge differences.

A personal story about rejecting prejudice

Though a slight diversion, I share now a personal story as a way of reference. This is not easy to do. In a way I am embarrassed but it is how I grew up.  I have had many years to process, analyse, heal and accept the journeys of my childhood. I am comfortable who I am now. I accept where I came from.

My father was raised in South Africa. Being a man born before 1920 his formative years were when Apartheid was in full force. As a teenager I did not appreciate what it meant. All I knew in my house was that we weren’t allowed to socialise with ‘those people’.  But then I am not one for listening to others tell me what to do-especially when there is no reason behind it and it is not right. I have a bit of a rebellious streak in me from early on. 

So my ‘date’ to the 7th grade dance was one of the guys from my track team. Yes he was black. And as you can see from my photo, I am not.  We had a lot of fun is all I can remember.  I didn’t tell my family. No need to upset anyone, right?  Then the photos came in the mail from the dance. There I was all decked out in my pretty dress smiling next to my date against the fancy white painted flower covered gabled photo backdrop. All the photo meant for me was a reminder of a fun night.  For me it was about being comfortable enough to even go to a dance and be seen (remember I was a teenager who cared more whether I had acne). Having a photo with my friend was even better. The colour of a person’s skin or their background was never a factor for me. Despite the influences around me I just didn’t feel or see this as relevant.

A perspective I did not understand

Only my father did not see it this way.  All he could see was the black face amongst all the white. After watching him turn red in his face, almost have a heart attack, yell, scream and tell me how horrible a thing I did was I realised that I was not in a normal world.  This is what culture can do to a person. This is what beliefs look like when the are systematised and reinforced to the point of forgetting that the people spoken about are also human beings. 

Now being 13 the last thing in the world I wanted to do was get in trouble. I already had a few other rebellious reasons for being in trouble. So I dropped it. I stepped away from the situation. I didn’t bring it up or deal with it.   I somehow managed to bury my anger and frustration for later.  I sadly saw and indirectly experienced first hand the insidiousness of prejudice. I could not escape it so I avoided all opportunities of raising any ire again. Well at least until I went to university.

Starting to discover who I am

I was accepted into a top university that was an hour away from home. In the tradition of most American kids I moved away. I relished and welcomed this independence. I would miss my family but I so yearned to be me, discover me and find my own way.

University was this oasis of discovery. I had the rigorous schedule of classes required for my major at the time. I also had the scope to enrol in a range of electives. One elective I chose was a class called Race Relations.  When I look back at my time at university this one class probably stands out as the most important class of my whole degree.

Learning from people not books

Why?  Because I didn’t read about race relations I experienced it. I also learned from a radical professor who had been instrumental in organising the human rights protest of the 1968 Olympics.    What stood out for me most in the class was that out of the 500 or so people sitting in the lecture I was one of the few white people.  Forget about gender differences I was sitting in a group of people who shared a cultural and generational history vastly different than my own.

In this time both in the class and at university I learned far more than the knowledge and facts of my studies.  Mostly because I was open to learning. I never was of the same opinion as my father. I was a new generation. I luckily did not have the experience of growing up in the limiting culture he did that shaped his beliefs. So I was stepping forward trying to find my own feet as me. I was discovering my own beliefs. It was not easy. I still loved and respect my father at some level but I 100% could not agree with his beliefs on this topic. It became a non negotiable.

Social learning

I explored socially too. I developed interests that crossed over to American black culture. I still felt like a fish out of water but I sincerely and genuinely opened up and connected.  I was trying toappreciate and understand a world that was part of my life but not. My main cross over seemed trivial but it was music. I developed an appreciation for funk and hip hop. I went to concerts. I had friends that I would go out with from this class. It was natural, normal and fun. I admit that because I did not grow up in a world exposed to the depths of American black culture I could not begin to truly relate. But I did my best. It was a great way to shed my inherited prejudices.

There's a continuum of fear really

Later on in my studies I remember coming across a study. In the study the focus was on how willing you were to be exposed to people of other race etc.  The degrees of proximity varied from being friends and socialising, being on the same street/neighbourhood, not near at all.  By the time I did this study I was well and truly back to socialising and not thinking of the difference in race.

Whereas when I asked my father about his view you can guess which end of the spectrum he was on.  At that age I judged him for this bias and was disappointed.  I was even more disappointed when he found out I was doing the race relations class and said that was not why he was contributing to the cost of university. 

I realised then that whilst I was willing to change my beliefs, open up, grow and learn by being exposed to other ways, my father was not. My father became to me the example of many in his generation and upbringing who resisted change.  We were at opposite ends of the spectrum yet related. We were different generations raised in different times and cultures.  From my perspective there was a lot of fear feeding the judgement. Oh how nice it would have been to see this differently.

From this story I simply wish to share the journey of discovery one can go through in working through inherited biases and finding your own beliefs. There is so much more to this story, yet the snippet above will suffice for this post.

A modern cross generation and culture challenge

So lets go back to our Chinese family sitting next to me. What will the grandmother teach the baby? What will the mother teach the baby? How will the grandmother and mother work through their generational differences, cultural differences.  The baby is an Australian born child who will grow up with an Australian/Chinese mother and a Chinese mother. There’s the bridge - three generations. Three generations showing us that the world is bigger than our back yard. Three generations showing us that each is different yet each is the same.

The grandmother will want the world to be a certain way. She is the product of her cultural upbringing and her generation.  The mother is caught between two worlds. She will respect both and because of her own mother’s love want the best for her child. So when her child grows up I imagine she will be the bridge.  Each will continue to teach each other. Each will continue to adapt.

The multiplier effect

Then around this trifecta of generational growth is a community, a suburb, a city, a state and a nation.  Within all these levels are groups, businesses and organisations. Many different places exist to connect. Many other trifectas live and work side by side. There are infinitely similar generational and cultural journeys unfolding.  Each journey connects more and more people in effect multiplying the possibility for ignorance or shared understanding.  The inevitability of conflicting views and change also grows.

Do we ever stop and think about this? Next to me is one family story. The lady that served my breakfast is from Nepal. She is another family story. There are family stories of many who are indigenous to a land. What about these traditions, culture and generations? 

An experiment of sorts  

For any of you who have not traveled internationally for awhile I suggest you try this. Go stand at the exit gate of the international arrivals area of your local airport.  Stand there and observe. What do you see? 

Well the last time I was there I saw humanity. I saw so many different cultures and heard so many different languages spoken. I could have been at a United Nations event. And what did I see all these people of different cultures doing? Welcoming and greeting family and friends from afar. There was joy beyond measure all expressed in different ways. Some loudly in fact.  When you see the joy of reunions you get it. Whether across generation, culture or even distance at a fundamental level we share our humanity.

Adaptation and understanding

Each person, irrespective of where they are now or where they came from, has a generation of wisdom, knowledge and experience to share. Each one also is filled with challenges of change and adaptation across the generations.  And yes there are people with prejudices in all directions. It is how we understand the differences that enable us to then go on a journey of acceptance and change.

To me it is more than the passing of age. The symbolism of a generation is seen in something as simple as three people. Three people living life raising a child just like anyone else.  It makes me think of that expression it takes a village to raise a child.  I think it’s more than this. It takes people willing to be bridges across cultures, generations and even the globe.  

We define ourselves by our stories. We have a sense of identity from our origin.  Yet because we all go through these journeys of belonging, accepting, rejecting, growing then I believe we share a foundation. We are all humanity expressing unique ways but sharing so many common life experiences. Some of these are collectively held beliefs that are adopted by an individual. The ultimate fact is that each one of us chooses the beliefs we define ourselves by.  

So my question for you to contemplate is who are you and how are you choosing to define your self?

Jenn Shallvey