Cathy-Hird-ThanksgivingBy Cathy Hird

Cultures in our world vary widely. In one culture, a favorite food is a glob of sticky, pastey white stuff drizzled with brown grease. The same cuture has an article of clothing made from warm material, tight around the neck and chest but it leaves the arms and shoulders bare and cold. Same people have a common first name with two "e's" and two "g's" and an "o" and an "r"; how does one parse a name like that? In the houses of worship, these folks have an ancient instrument of torture displayed right up front. The same folks have a sports game called "football" that uses the hands more than the feet, and rename what most of the world calls "football" as "soccer."

Maybe you figured out that the first food I mentioned was mashed potatoes and that the culture I was talking about was Ontario culture from a British heritage. I did mix up the order of the letters in "George" to make my point, but I didn't have to work very hard to poke fun at CFL style football. And hanging a cross in a church is so common that people forget it was an instrument of torture and death in ancient Rome.

What makes mashed potatoes the standard for good food? There is a Southern African corn porridge with a similar look and texture but a lot less fat and more protein. The sleeveless turtle neck has a place in our wardrobe in fall, but the South Asian salwar kameez is perfect for the heat of Punjab and a silk sari feels wonderful on the skin. But how many people of anglo-saxon background look at a sari and swear they could never manage to wear one.

At a large church meeting a couple years ago, the person chairing stumbled over a Sri Lankan name as she introduced a workshop leader. The man graciously joked about his long unpronounceable name, and the chair apologized for having trouble with the length of the name. Instead, she could have taken the time to learn how to say it. She had not bothered. In fact, Tamil names are not hard to say once you realize that all you have to do is parse the sylables.

In a course I audited at Trinity college a couple years ago, there were three Korean Canadian women. They identified themselves with very British style names to the class, but all three acknowledged that was not their given name. They had created a "Canadian" name in order to fit in to the Ontario Presbyterian church. Their actual given names turned out to be beautiful and easy to say.

All through this election campaign, an article of dress common in the middle east has been made into a wedge issue. The debate is furious and while some claim to be defending women's rights, the tone has been divisive with more than a hint of racism and islamaphobia. Finally, after a pregnant woman wearing a head scarf was knocked to the ground and injured, the legislature in Quebec passed a unanimous motion asking everyone to cool the rhetoric.

Instead, some politicians added fuel to the fire. The next day, two federal cabinet ministers announced that if they form the next government, they will set up a hot line to report "barbaric cultural practices." They did not identify any gaps in the current criminal code that made this necessary. The justification quoted was the need to protect "Canadian" values.

Surely respect for others, respect for difference is a Canadian value. Why should a pattern developed in England a couple centuries ago be the one and only measure?

I was on a national United Church committee with a Chinese Canadian woman. She is fifth generation Canadian. I am third generation Canadian. Is my younger Scottish/Irish heritage really the better measure of proper culture? When our meeting coincided with Chinese New Year, she and her family hosted us in spectacular banquet of Chinese food. Her generosity was amazing.

Learning to wear a sari took me a bit of work. Learning to make sushi took more effort. I still need to see some names written done in order to remember them. But why would I not put some energy into understanding diverse patterns of life?

People are different from each other. Cultural patterns vary around the world and up and down the street. Surely we can make space for difference.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.


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