12 Jul Culturally Diverse Narratives
Your perception is your reality. This century-old expression has been recounted to me more times than I can count, especially during my earliest childhood years. People often believe that what they perceive is the only objective reality; if we have seen and heard something with our own eyes and ears, then it is irrefutably right. Reality is not a simple phenomenon – in fact, it is quite literally the opposite. There is no objective reality.
I grew up in what many deem as ‘the Toronto bubble’. I was surrounded by affluent third-generation Canadians whose parents helped guide their children towards success. When you grow up in an environment such as the one that I have, it is difficult to burst the bubble. I believe that it is mostly up to one’s parents to provide their children with the realization that the norms within the ‘bubble’ are in fact, abnormal. These ‘norms’ are not reflective of what most people experience growing up. . The perceptions I began to form within my bubble soon became my reality. I knew nothing else. I deemed overnight camp, university, and overseas winter break trips as the norm. Those who did not meet this norm were atypical in my eyes. My parents emphasized that my perception of reality was skewed towards that of my bubble – a bubble that they did not grow up in. Though my parents played a role in making me more well-rounded, it was really my Naani (grandmother) who was able to burst my bubble. The minute she began to recount her childhood marked a shift in my perception of reality. I soon began to learn that individual perceptions vary greatly based on one’s own experiences. Reality itself is conjured by what one has experienced.
My family’s Friday night Shabbat dinners have always consisted of an abundance of home-cooked traditional meals, namely Iraqi/Indian dishes that reflect my family heritage. It was here that I began to learn more about my Naani and her culturally diverse background of growing up Jewish in Mumbai, India. She was the second youngest of 7 children and was of Jewish Iraqi descent. Her family had immigrated to India from Iraq in the late 1800s, and formed a home in Mumbai, along with 15,000 other Jews in Mumbai. My Naani’s perception of our weekly Shabbat dinner gatherings, though positive, was different. The abundance of food present at our Shabbat dinners in Toronto was so different from her Shabbat dinners growing up in Mumbai. Though I never used to think twice about this contrast, I now see the way it symbolized her diverse narrative as a result of being an immigrant. For me, the abundance of food was simply a norm of our weekly family gathering. For her, Shabbat dinners in India consisted of a few small meals, where her 9-person family would often share one whole chicken. She was always the one stuck eating the chicken bones.
It was not only her perception of food that demonstrated the way her background was different from those around her.
When I went on a trip with her, I complained about how she kept the TV on all night. To her, this wasn’t even a debate. She explained, respectfully, that if she could sleep sharing one bed with three of her sisters back in India, while another sister studied with a light in the same vicinity – then frankly, I should be able to tolerate the TV.
It soon became clear to me that my Naani grew up in a world completely different from my own bubble.
What was most interesting was her perception of economic class. My Naani always stated that she grew up in a middle-class family. However, my own reality of middle class was built on the perceptions I formed in my bubble and underscored our distinct perceptions. How could she have grown up middle class if she (1) shared a bed with not one, but three siblings, (2) sold household furniture on an ongoing basis in order to pay for basic necessities, and (3) lived in a home with two bedrooms for a family of 9? How could her perception of economic class be so different from the reality of her situation?
What was even more shocking to me, given her impoverished background, was the fact that she had three servants. I could not understand how her family was able to afford not one, but three servants.
The answer to this question lies in one’s perception of reality – a mere summation of one’s own experiences. The diverging perspective related to economic class lies in the vast difference between the culture in Canada as opposed to the culture in India. India was and still is one of the poorest countries in the world. My Naani’s experiences near her own home in Mumbai provided her with a different perception of poverty. Many streets – ‘slums’ – near her home were lined with poor, emaciated individuals, many of whom dressed in rags and wore no shoes. Her servants, who were essentially a part of her family, were people who worked for free in exchange for room and board. For her servants, having a roof over their head was all they needed. Work was not about the accumulation of wealth; it was about survival. So, people who were deemed ‘poor’ in my Naani’s eyes were not her own family – they had a roof over their head and a supply of adequate nourishment. Instead, those who she thought of as ‘poor’ were the individuals who lived in the streets near her home back in Mumbai. That was her reality. She could never truly perceive homeless people here in Canada as ‘poor’ because they had clothes on their backs and wore shoes.
It became clear that my perception of her experience differed greatly from her own due to my own individual understanding of economic class– namely, the influence of my bubble in Toronto. What I came to learn after much reflection and discussion is that I perceived her life differently than she did because of my own experience. The perceptions related to my individual experiences in Canada – a developed nation – differed greatly from my Naani’s perceptions that were forged in India – a developing nation. Private school, university, and holiday trips were the norm in my bubble. But for my Naani, these were luxuries that were not afforded to most people. Her diverse account of life was the greatest gift she gave to me. I have since developed a deeper appreciation for what I had previously deemed as ‘ordinary.’
Similar to many immigrants, my Naani never truly felt like Canada was home. Though she had lived a prosperous life here for many decades, she always felt like a foreigner. Her impoverished background back in India – and her dissimilar experiences from other Canadians – made her feel different and inferior. Most of the Jews she was acquainted with in Toronto were of European descent. While both European and Middle Eastern Jews share the same religion, there is little to no overlap between the two cultures. Her perception of life itself was just so different from those around her, and she never truly felt like she belonged.
Unlike most Jews during World War Two, my Naani never experienced Anti-Semitism. In fact, she lived in harmony with all religions around her – Muslims, Hindus, and Christians alike – despite the cruel nature of the world from a religious context. This harmony is in stark contrast to the anti-Semitic reality that most, unfortunately, became accustomed to in North America and Europe during this time. Her positive experience as a Jewish individual living in India emphasizes the religious harmony that our world could learn from, and the enlightened perspective one can take on as a result of this harmony. Unlike European and Middle Eastern Jewry, who emigrated as a result of persecution, my Naani’s family emigrated from India solely due to a lack of economic opportunity and prosperity.
My Naani helped me understand the world through a broader and more empathetic lens, and for that, I will be forever grateful. She was resilient amid the unstable political environment before India’s independence (the Muslim-Hindu riots), survived being poisoned from drinking buttermilk from the street vendors, and attended university for the first time at age 40 in Canada. She shared a small bed with three of her sisters, boiled water to get clean drinking water, and lived peacefully with different religions.
Her past experiences in India created a different perception of Canada than most would conjure from the same experience. It became clear to me that reality is actually subjective. There is no objective reality. Hence, the way in which we see our own reality is a reflection of our own culture and experiences. It is up to us as individuals to learn from others’ perspectives and have more empathy towards how one’s past experiences will shape their perceptions.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: TALIA BELL