The Cultural Divide

I recently read a quote that described how culture provides the richness and diversity with which Muslims live their lives. I tried to backtrack and find this quote again (to no avail!), but I wholeheartedly agree with its premise! While Muslims are taught that Islam comes first, the practice of the religion is about moderation, and there are plenty of examples from the Prophet Muhammad's (Peace Be Upon Him) own life regarding his participation in Arab cultural customs.

I've recently been attending more events than I normally do (i.e. I finally have a life!), and being exposed to a variety of cultures has really started me thinking about my own battle with cultural ambiguity and where I stand about how I define myself. As you may or may not know, I'm 50% Pakistani and 50% Iranian. It's a funny mix and I joke about it constantly (i.e. 50% of me celebrated Pakistan's Independence Day on August 14th!), but deep down, it's frustrating to feel ambiguous about who I culturally am (to clarify, there are some hybrid Muslims out there who are perfectly fine NOT associating with one culture, so I'd like to acknowledge that each person is different).

For example, I love seeing how clothing, food, language, customs, music, and dance come into play in various cultures. And being lucky enough to have a diverse group of friends means that I've been exposed to a rich array of cultural practices. But while that's been amazing, it's also disheartening to know that I can't fully participate in any of it. I'm stuck in a cultural void and while most of the time I'm OK to define myself as a Muslim-Canadian, it means I really can't get my cultural flair on when I'm out at events. And this is frustrating.

Last night really hit me. I attended a co-worker's daughter's bridal shower, which meant that I was fully immersed in the Pakistani culture. I already stick out like a sore thumb thanks to my height compared to most Pakistanis, and the fact that (a) I don't dress traditionally; (b) I don't look Pakistani; (c) I don't speak Urdu; (d) I'm the only one in my family who can't tolerate spicy food. Luckily, I had the best entourage one could ever have and while we made our own fun, I missed not being able to break out Bollywood movie dance moves, or not somewhat fitting in with clothing or language.

But growing up, my family was pretty conservative and the focus of my childhood was not on socializing and partying, but ensuring that I was the nerdiest of all students in my class (off topic, but my mom would actually take me to see the Principal/Headmaster at the end of each academic year and ASK for NEXT YEAR'S textbooks and homework that I could do OVER THE SUMMER!!!). My dad worked long hours at hospitals and was always on-call, and my mom raised the three. So really, there wasn't much time for visiting AND there wasn't a large Muslim population in the UK at that time anyway. So yes, I didn't have exposure to much of anything.

I did spend time during grad school with a great group of Iranians, and while it was great to speak the same language and enjoy the same food, I was not on the same wavelength in terms of their distance from religion and party-like nature. So it wasn't a complete loss to me when I moved back to Calgary. And then since I started to wear hijab and becoming more a part of the Muslim community here, that's when I started to realize that the lack of cultural certainty is sometimes challenging to deal with.

I've also started to think about how I would raise my kids with respect to cultural attachment. Depending on who I end up marrying, our kids will either have 2, 3 or 4 (or more!!) cultures flowing through their veins!! And I'd want to take advantage of that diversity by exposing them to as many aspects of those cultures as possible. By this I mean food, clothing, customs, language, history, etc, not as a means to overwhelm them but rather to ensure that when THEY are older and navigating various cultural situations that they are comfortable with who they are as a person. I don't want them to feel left out or unsure about what's around them. Instead, I'd love to arm them with knowledge and allow them to choose the best cultural fit that works for them.

But since it's too late for me to have that experience myself, I'm backtracking somewhat and trying to get a sense of how I can fit in especially within the Desi population. So just earlier today, I ordered my first EVER shalwar kameez (online) and will give that outfit a shot at the next event I'm invited to. My friend suggested I watch YouTube videos of Bollywood songs so I get a sense of what the music, language, and dance is like. In terms of the food (gulp), I am trying to desensitize myself to be able to eat spicier foods, but my glands don't agree and I sweat profusely anyway!! But I'll keep trucking along!

So again, I know Islam comes first and it has for me, yet I also believe there's a cultural side to me that hasn't really been tapped. And it's only at age 2X (sorry people, X is a variable in this equation!) that I'm realizing that I want it to be explored and I need it to be brought out.

So...bring on the GULAB JAMUN!!!! :P


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