Monday, April 25, 2016

Culture Clash

I just finished reading a novel about Russian/Polish Jewish mathematicians who came to America. It’s an odd book – The Mathematician’s Shiva – because families are odd, Russian/Polish Jews are odd, and mathematicians are really, really odd. At one point, the narrator comments on how different his family is from Americans. But I kind of know his family – my birth family and relatives – and it felt familiar and sweet and I’ll even say it, heartwarming.

When I was in New York City, waiting on line for discount theater tickets, everyone talked to everyone. That’s what New Yorkers do, but my sister told me an over-the-top even for New Yorkers story. She and my other sister were waiting on line in terrible humidity and heat. They were quietly talking to each other about the rash one had gotten under her breasts from all the heat. The woman behind them interrupted, “I couldn’t help overhearing, but I know just what to do for that rash. Y’know Monistat cream, the stuff you get for yeast infections? Just rub that on your breast rash and it’ll clear right up!”

#!*X%! TMI? Huh, what’s that?

So there I was in Katz’s Deli, waiting on line to order my gigantic pastrami sandwich. Sophie was going to meet me there. The people in front of me were chatting with the carver, saying how her father used to come there for years, he liked it thin, whatever. Sophie arrived, and I waved her over. Then it was my turn to place my order. I told the carver I’d come all the way from Alaska for this pastrami sandwich, and we chatted. Sophie glowered at me, may have even told me to shush. Pretty sure she told me to shush.

Possible interpretations:

  1. This is a mother-daughter thing, and the mother was yet again doing something embarrassing in front of the daughter. The mother is clueless; the daughter is upholding social standards.

  2. The daughter wisely thought the mother was interfering with the carver’s ability to do his work.

  3. The mother realizes that the daughter was raised in Alaska.
Yes, of course I know my daughter was raised in Alaska. Yes, I know she laughs uproariously at the craziness of my relatives. But suddenly, I had the realization that she was raised in a different world. As different a world as the immigrants who looked at the “Americans.”

I married a calm, genial Midwestern guy. Things don’t fluster him. Mostly, I realize that two of me would be a little too … volatile. I am glad that our daughter had the evenness of his temperament and background in her upbringing. And we raised her in Alaska.

On a kayak trip here in Alaska with friends, Sophie, and my friend Janet from San Francisco, I had some trouble getting the kayak on the roof of the car. Sophie and her friend jumped on the car, lifted the kayak, threw the ropes around, tied them off, secured the whole thing. Janet looked at them and said, “They don’t make them like that in San Francisco.”
In my Third Third, I’ve known that things I experienced as part of defining me – Howdy Doody, terrible assassinations, Vietnam, drive-in movies – have come and gone. They would never be part of any next generation’s formative years. Those were events, bits and pieces, time-sensitive occurrences. Our kids have their own, more current influences.

But this is what just hit me: a whole culture that I still participate in, that still exists, that created a whole personality type – my personality type – is not my daughter’s. It’s too far away, too infrequent, too inaccessible to transmit. Many Alaska kids only experience grandparents on an annual basis, not every weekend. They couldn’t know from overbearing relatives, nosy New Yorkers, old-fashioned delis. You can’t inherit a culture outside that culture. Culture isn’t a trait. It takes a community to transmit it, not an individual. Alaska Native families know this.

At a certain point, my parents must have looked at me – this girl who didn’t know the Depression, Brooklyn, or the seltzer delivery guy – this girl who didn’t speak Yiddish to immigrant parents – and realized I would never know those things either.

Culture isn’t inherited; it can only be absorbed.

1 comment:

  1. Some good thoughts on this, Barbara. I hope to reply after a day-trip from London to the Isle of Wight with the Brelsfords today. Looks like a nice day!


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