Cultural Anthropology 101

We had a nice weekend; Saturday on bikes, first to the Red Bull Flugtag:


It was far too crowded to actually see any of this exciting stuff, so we moseyed over to the PSU Persian Festival. That was much more “family-friendly:” plates of food, little girls in folklore costumes dancing, live music both contemporary and traditional. As we approached, I thought: look at me, slightly sweaty, helmet-haired, make-up-less! about to enter the throngs of Iranian women, all of whom will be stately, elaborately coiffed, heavily cosmeticized. And I’m bound to see several of my former students. All of which was accurate enough. I have had the thought before: in some cultural, metaphoric sense, does makeup play the same psychological role as the veil in Iran and Lebanon? Except for cholas, I have never met a group of women so carefully and fully made up. I don’t mean to say being bare-faced is a problem for me, but as a teacher I do sometimes wonder if it seems disrespectful to my students from these cultures. (Of course, that’s an unwinnable battle, as students from other cultures would find a painted-lady instructor morally insulting.) But me personally – I’ll be frank: I seldom enjoy running into my students out and about. So, the 2 former students I recognized, I artfully avoided. Problem solved.

The day was cool and overcast (summer, where the #@$! are you?), the sound system piercing, the food not cheap. But we had a lovely time. Watching the little gangs of children tearing around the grass and the stiff-jointed, old-country grandparents, hearing the Farsi conversations
mixing with English, seeing the family-occupied tables covered with abandoned picnic accessories
– it all brought back a wave of nostalgia, half memory and half longing. I remember so clearly being one of the little kids at a big family gathering; it’s one of my sweetest, most persistent memories of childhood, though as I say, it’s less memory and more emotion. My cousins and myself, my little brothers, a little mob of all ages, forming and dispersing and regrouping. The older kids and some of the girls separating at times to sit and whisper, the tiny kids falling behind and being snatched up by mothers and joining in again; half-organized games of tag disintegrating when plates of food appear. The temporary autonomous zone of being in a group, safe under the eyes of the surrounding family — but, just as importantly, safe from that surrounding family, safe in the anonymity of your cousins and the fact that the adults are too distracted by each other to police you. The sun making shadows longer and longer, the light warming to gold then cooling to lavender as it grows late. And, for me, the specific non-American sense of it; the languages you hear mixing, parents and aunts and uncles laughing and speaking Spanish and seeming changed by it. The food, party food so different from everyday, but also so different than any the school cafeteria’s ever had. The unselfconsciousness of childhood, not questioning precisely what culture you’re in: not yet feeling henpecked by Anglo classmates, not yet ashamed of old-country grandparents who don’t speak English, not yet embarrassed by the word “Mexican.” Vaguely knowing that where you exist, culturally, is not the America of tree-lined streets and country clubs and college-track classes, but not really knowing much else about it.

Yet to come, for me at least: first the shame-laced desire to be simply, fully “white” and “American,” then the naively political backlash of “Viva la Raza” and “Brown Pride!” (which fits about as awkwardly as the first stage). And other stages of comfort and discomfort within a morphing culture, one chrysalis after another, until I’m sitting as an adult, as just myself, in a park, watching the sun making shadows longer and longer, listening to the languages mixing, adults laughing with each other and speaking Farsi and seeming changed by it. It strikes me: I work with immigrants, with people who have – for whichever of a million reasons – have left behind a culture that was all their own, where they unquestioningly belonged. People, in other words, who have left, who have lost, some precious thing that I have never fully felt. Does this make me a worse teacher, more empathetic, less? I think about this a bit, then … go looking for more hot Persian tea. It’s a lovely day.

The next day, dinner with Shannon, where I got to hear all the details of her trip to France, which started in Brussels and went on to Provence: the lavender fields around Avignon, the crowds of a society wedding … (do the new autocrats of the E.U. count as “society”? I’m guessing yes.) Imagine the slim pickins’ for a vegetarian in France; imagine being American (read: monolingual) in a crowd of Europeans chattering sociably away in French and Italian. We crunched our salads and commiserated, though not too too much, because after all, there were also those lavender fields, those golden afternoons, those fine bike rides, those equally fine wines. Sigh.

I have some travels in my future as well. I need to browse the Southwest Air website awhile first, but soon I’ll have dates, times, PLANS. I *will*. And I’ll let you know soon.

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One thought on “Cultural Anthropology 101

  1. Davina, your writing is so beautiful. I’ve never seen you so prolific in your writing, and so sustainingly *expressive* of your amazing thoughtfulness. It’s such a wonderful thing you have inside that brainst of yours, and inside the heartmeats. It’s so great that you are finally sharing it with us: what a gift!

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