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Culture De-mystified

Culture De-mystified

During mid 1970s, I did some work on “The Survey of Factors Encouraging and Constraining Citizenship Registration” investigating the issues that would encourage or restrain individuals in the “East Indian Community” to apply for Canadian Citizenship. The project had been sponsored by the Government of Canada.

It was a great opportunity to learn about my culture, its psychology and issues that either move us forward or keep us stuck in the past. The individuals I dealt with represented a cross section of demography. They were from university educated to those who could not even write their name. However, their level of education did not seem to matter. What mattered was one simple common denominator that ran through their lives. They all ached for the country they had left behind.

The majority of them who came to adopt Canada found it climatically harsh, emotionally cold, cognitively challenging, and socially isolating. They had no idea that adjusting to a foreign culture, more than often, takes generational efforts. The process is demanding of their long lived practices and traditions. It forces individuals to work on their cultural-addictions, cold turkey. On occasions, they find it annoying and questioning their judgement; even makes them suffer death-like-feelings of a loved one.

The majority of them came from families in which responsibilities were rigidly gender based meaning, men did not share domestic responsibilities such as, child-rearing, cooking, house-cleaning, doing dishes and laundry etc. Responsibilities to earn and spend rested with men. Women did not go out to earn and manage finances. No matter how hard they worked, they remained dependent on men, even for minor personal expenses, as bus fare.

For some, life in a foreign culture proved much too costly, beyond expectations. Stressors began to show their ugly impact on togetherness and love all around. The family walls that were built with mutual trust and support collapsed. Families suffered. Couples, I was just getting to know separated, divorced. Husbands walked out dumping their wives with several little children to raise them, alone.

Mothers cooked, cleaned and washed evenings and nights and left home early mornings to earn a living — to feed, clothe and shelter their sons and daughters. With no extended support in place, she kept the older children home to care for their siblings, which deprived them of education and the environment necessary for their personal growth. And when, she considered the younger ones old enough to look after themselves, she encouraged the older ones to find jobs to subsidise the family expenses.

Those who were lucky enough to go to school learned English and also some of the segments of Canadian culture such as, sense of independence and equality. It empowered children and increased parental dependence on them to do the jobs that required English. For certain families it proved a game changer. It turned the table of family dynamics in favour of their ‘English speaking’ sons and daughters. Single mothers literally felt left out of their world.

As nothing is permanent in life, the project also ended. I submitted my report advising the government that a cross cultural education to the newly arrived immigrants was a must for a successful integration. Then, soon after that the Ministry of Social Services hired me to help them out on domestic issues, where I soon came to realise that educating my white co-workers would be as essential as educating the newly arrived  East Indian families.

For ages, the only method of getting married known to us has been arranged-marriage. This complex caste and class based marriage decision-making has always been the exclusive domain of family elders in our society. The western custom of dating had been unknown to most of us until we reached the shores of our adoptive country.

Consequently, instead of spending time on interviews for the project, I started spending chunks of my time sorting out “dating” conflicts between parents and their children, especially daughters. Unresolved, conflicts resulted in restrictions being put on their mobility, including bans on attending school. Unresolved conflicts even resulted in violence. However, it seemed boys enjoyed a favoured status.

I recall a poor mother, who immensely suffered at the hands of her daughter, who manipulated the social service agencies to get from her home into their protection, where she perceived life was freer than her mother was willing to give her. She even accused her father of “doing bed things to her.”  It took a lengthy and well coordinated investigation to find the truth. In the mean time one could not imagine the hell she put her family through.

Another issue that some newly arrived Indian families failed to recognise quickly was the clear red line between child-discipline and child-abuse. Unfortunately, failure to understand and practice this distinction resulted in parents losing their children to the Child Welfare Department. On top of that, when police removed male spouses from home as they assessed them abusive to both children and their mothers, families broke down in three segments: fathers out of the house, children in care of the government and mother grieving alone at home.

I recall a family in which spousal abuse ended in mother’s death, resulting in husband going to jail and children being taken into the care and custody of the government. Later, somehow, the father managed to call me at 2 a.m. and ‘ordered’ me to arrange a visit with his children, and threatened, “If I failed to do so he would find me just as he found my phone number.”

Once, a supervisor from a different team, asked me to help investigate a case of alleged physical abuse. The child was reported to have marks of cigarette burns on his legs. I went along the case worker to help her and the family she was working with. After explaining the purpose of our visit we asked the mother of the child to pull up child’s trousers for us to see those marks. We both looked at them. My colleague seemed convinced that the marks were cigarette burns; a perfect small circle.

I took the worker outside the house for a private chat. I told her that I would like to show her something that she me might fine informative. Then I rolled up the bottom of my own trousers, pushed my sock down and showed her a similar round spot on one of my legs. “Please take a look at this round spot. Does it not look similar to the one we noticed on the leg of the child?” I asked and said. I assured her that it was not a cigarette burn. It is a boil mark. I got it when I was a child.

“I think we should return to the mother and ask her how the child got that round mark, which she did. The mother explained that her child had developed a few boils. They became infected with pus, and when they healed they left those round marks. “There was no child abuse,” we concluded and closed the case.

Another ‘enchanting’ opportunity to investigate a child-abuse complaint presented was when I was called to go out with another worker to investigate the concerns of a neighbour regarding a couple of children living in a rather unsafe environment. She alluded that her next door neighbours practiced Voodoo wrapping her concerns around the children’s safety. We decided to check it out carefully. I sure did not wish to step on any religious sinkhole.

When we arrived, we noticed the door was ajar. I heard them chanting “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna…” inside the house. I took a peek and noticed a few white women sitting on the floor in front of a picture of Lord Krishna, clapping and chanting. One of them saw us. She came to the door and inquired about the purpose of our visit.  We introduced ourselves and told her about the complaint. She smiled and told us the two children we were concerned about were sleeping, but if we wanted to see them she could take us to their room. As the first rule of child-abuse-investigations is always to see the child in person, we accepted her invitation.

We found two little cute kids sleeping peacefully in separate cribs. They looked perfectly healthy from a distance. I lifted off the thin sheet they were partially covered with, looked at them up close and looked at their bodies for indications of physical abuse, but found none.

After a review, we returned to the front room to the Krishna’s picture on a wooden platform. I bowed to Krishna. When the lady saw me bowing she gave us a few pieces of sweets. For my co-worker they were candies; for me it was “prasad.”  On the way back I explained what was going on in that house.

The most disturbing aspect of social work for me was removing children from their homes.  It was not that I never apprehended children, I did, but most of the times I found it heart breaking. Many times I found myself in serious conflict when on one hand I would play the role of a supportive individual, but on the other hand I would stand before a Family Court Judges and recite a catalogue of their parents’ short comings, and recommend the legal custody of their child or children be granted to the government, temporarily, even permanently.  My heart really ached the day a young mother dropped her only child in my office and said, “You look after him. I can’t any more.”

Another story worth telling is about a couple. They had serious alcohol issues. The man used to tell me that Nazis had installed a microphone chip in his ears to be able to listen to distant conversations. One day he left her and she started drinking heavily. I tried to connect her with all different counselling agencies to address her drinking problem, but she wasn’t interested. Once I tried to seek support from her daughter, but she blasted me fore contacting her. Boy! Was she vulgar?

Co-incidentally, I had an under-age young mother, also a child-in-care, living in the same complex. I used to visit them more often than the client with alcohol issues. Let’s name her Ms. C. One day Ms. C saw me coming out of the apartment of the young mother. She invited me to have coffee with her. As I was pressed for time, I told her I would visit her next time.  But she kept insisting and I kept assuring her that I would do that next time. The end result was that I walked down the stairs without accepting her coffee.

The next day, I heard she was killed in a fire in her apartment. For weeks I kept thinking of her and her request for coffee. To date, I regret the moments I wasted not doing a good deed.

Suresh-Kurl 1By Dr Suresh Kurl
Dr. Suresh Kurl is a former university professor; a retired Registrar of the BC Benefits Appeal Board and a former Member of the National Parole Board.

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