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A cultural predicament

Learning what to keep and what to let go



Those of us who live in America and are descended from ancient cultures face a unique problem. Our countries of origin are usually rich in tradition, cultural practices, and established patterns of interpersonal relationships. For better or for worse, social mores and codes of conduct are more clearly defined between people. These customs can provide a comfortable background for many of life's universal events such as death, marriage, and birth. People know what they are supposed to do. Even the young people feel less anxious, as they have learned the social codes by watching their parents.

The other side of the issue is that these customs can turn into expectations and restrict individual freedom.

Although young people in any culture face this dilemma and question whether they want to abide by the customs of their culture or be progressive and independent, this question takes on a different meaning when we live in a foreign country. Our ties to our own culture are weakened, and the impetus to blend with Americans is strong enough to tilt the balance against keeping many of our own traditions.

I can understand why many of us are eager to get rid of our "shackles" and move around with more freedom. I can also relate to those who advocate for keeping rituals alive. For them, these are not shackles; they are "ties" that keep us connected.

I want to talk about the concept of sifting when it comes to sorting out such cultural predicaments. For me, sifting means retaining what's worthwhile and letting go of the chaff.

Several years ago, I had the good fortune of working at Hospice as a bereavement counselor during my doctoral program in clinical psychology. I worked with individuals who mourned the loss of their partners, parents, and born or unborn children.

I was often struck with how alone many of them felt in the grieving process. Many were surrounded by friends and family who showed discomfort about death and dying. Many did not want to burden or "upset" each other, so they either grieved in solitude, or hurried themselves through the process. Their grief would inevitably become complicated to a point where they'd seek help for their depression or panic attacks. What started as a natural process had turned into an emotional double knot.

Watching grief turn into depression was new to me. During the years I was in Iran, I had seen numerous funerals and memorial services. I don't remember hearing about someone getting depressed after the loss of a loved one. There was a beginning, middle, and an end to the grieving process. Cultural cues were prominent and effective in signaling each phase.

How does one "end" mourning?

As an adolescent, I remember visiting my cousin and uncle (my father's brother-in-law) with my parents a few weeks before NoRooz, the Persian New Year. My aunt had died a few months before, and her elderly husband had moved in with his daughter's family. My parents called and scheduled a visit.

The purpose for this visit was clear. It was part of a ritual called "bringing someone out of mourning." My parents had bought a new tie for my uncle and fabric for both my cousin and uncle so each could have a new outfit made. They had been wearing black up to that point. The new fabrics were not black. They were muted colors that signaled a transition between mourning and customary life. These were not gift-wrapped.

Everyone knew what to do. My aunt was remembered with respect and fondness. My father, much younger than his brother-in-law, apologized for stepping out of rank, and asked my uncle if he would please consider bringing his grief to a closure by not wearing a black tie anymore. "NoRooz is approaching, and your grandchildren need to celebrate the New Year with you."

My uncle wept and expressed reluctance. He said he could never forget his wife or feel like life could go on as usual. Choreographed by decades of cultural practice, my parents nodded and said that they understood his loyalty and love for his wife, but as one of the elders, he needed to give "permission" for other celebrations and life-affirming events by "coming out of mourning."

The subtle world in between has been lost in the West. We call it imaginary and dismiss it as unreal or inferior.

My uncle eventually conceded. After him, my cousin also accepted the offer. Everyone hugged, and my cousin opened a special box of sweets. When NoRooz arrived, many friends made a special point to pay visit to my uncle because it was his "first holiday," meaning the first major holiday after his wife's death. It is customary to visit grieving families on the first holiday after their loss when they are most likely melancholic.

I am sharing this ritual with you because I think it is touching and one that is difficult for me to continue in America. I can hardly expect myself to perform it step-by-step as was done in Iran. However, it is worth keeping the essence of the ritual alive by keeping the bereaved family in mind at special holidays or anniversaries.

I have created my own version of the custom by making a simple gift for my grieving friends on their so-called "first holiday." I put a white candlestick in a very small terra cotta pot filled with rice. I tie a silk ribbon around the candle and make a simple bow. I give it to my friends and ask them to light it in honor of their loved one. There is a mystery about the earthy clay pot, and a flame that dies but lights up again, that resonates with me.

My friends appreciate this gesture.

Over the years, I have achieved a more comfortable resolution regarding the question of retaining versus letting go of a Persian or an American custom.

It is important to differentiate a ritual from a cultural habit or a national trait. NoRooz is a ritual; it is psychically empowering, and makes me feel connected and grounded. On the other hand, competing with one another and dressing up like a peacock for parties seems to be a cultural habit for many Persian women. Copying it makes me feel shallow and disconnected.

Envy, gossiping, burdening friends with expectations, insisting that guests eat more of your food, arriving late, showing off, intruding upon family, and playing the martyr role are just some of the Persian habits I have distanced myself from. They are the "chaffs."

I like to keep the "seeds" of hospitality and generosity. When you go to a Persian family's home for a party, the entire family -- not just the hostess - comes to the door to greet you. When you enter the living room, other guests stand up to say hello. They offer you a seat and welcome you warmly. When it is time to say good-bye, again everyone stands up; the members of the host family all come to the door or accompany you to the car. A guest is treated with respect and honor.

It is worth retaining the generosity that many Persians have. They demonstrate it by offering time, money, and affection for one another. When a good friend has a cold, instead of saying "stay away from me so I don't catch it," I like to take a bowl of soup or stop by the market and get fresh oranges, milk, and a few basic things and drop it off. Human contact first; convenience, second.

When a friend is busy remodeling, studying for an exam, or packing to move, I offer to take a meal to him or her. It doesn't have to be fancy or wear me out. It really is the thought that counts. This is where cultural values and priorities matter. Honoring relationships and nurturing them is a cultural priority that I wish to keep.

More than anything, I thrive on savoring the nectar of Persian poetry and mythology. It is the one "seed" that single-handedly has kept me connected to my soul and to the soul of my country. When I seek refuge, when I feel unsettled, I turn to poems for comfort.

Although I appreciate contemporary poems, it is the poems written a few centuries ago that really speak to my heart. These poems are born out of a cultural context that is fundamentally different than ours in America. The poets lived in a culture that had not yet experienced the kinds of dichotomies we are subjected to in the West. Their mode of perception is not the same as those whose consciousness has been shaped in the West.

Here, in the post-Cartesian era, we have come to believe that there really is a clear distinction between inner/outer, visible/invisible, mind/body, spirit/matter, and that something is "real" only if it can be seen, touched, and felt by our senses. The subtle world in between has been lost in the West. We call it imaginary and dismiss it as unreal or inferior.

Mystics all over the world know the intermediate world, from which we have exiled ourselves, as soul. Soul communicates through images. When we speak in metaphors, we come an inch closer to that intermediate world. No wonder poetry touches such a deep chord in us. It is the language of Soul.

Because poetry has nourished my soul so deeply, it is a "seed" that I wish to keep in my sifting process.

In a similar way, I have given myself the freedom to pick and choose which aspects of the American culture are worth integrating into my lifestyle and which ones are undesirable.

I like the notion that Americans tend to give each other more space. I like the respect for individual property and human rights. I appreciate the regard they have for law and traffic rules. I've learned to enjoy their punctuality, interest in learning, and enthusiasm for health and hygiene. The Americans I have known have been kind to me. In the last 25 years I have never, ever, felt discriminated against in any way. This observation really surprises my American friends.

But America is a young country. In the spectrum of world cultures, she stands and behaves as a teenager.

The shortsightedness, obsession with youth, feeling of entitlement, tendency to rush, and the insatiable drive for "more" are chaffs that I'm better off without.

Years of confusion have eventually given their place to a kind of freedom that I cherish these days in my life. This freedom is about slowing down and letting a particular idea pass through the cultural sieve. Will this enhance my life? Is it seed or chaff?


Azarm Ghareman, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and a local author of "Longing for a Land; A Persian Woman's Story of Individuation in America." You can reach atazarmg@juno.com.

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