Cheerful clapping bounces off the walls in my tiny apartment. Hindi, Arabic and Swahili mix together while an old 1970s Bollywood film plays on the television. My relatives sing, shout, and cat call as my mother in law dances to the music.
She has a florescent pink and yellow tie-dyed shawl loosely draped on her head, framing her face — highlighting her sharp nose and soft forehead. The music is a love song, about a woman yearning for a man to come and sweep her off her feet. Eryn shakes her little bum in time to the music. I’m laughing at her, but my eyes are firmly on the dancer. My mother in law is expressive in her dancing — it’s mostly her face and hands that are moving. She floats from standing to sitting, holding her hands over her heart, pulsing them along with the beat. She is gorgeous.
Through the dance she’s explaining just how much the singer yearns for a lover. And oh, there goes her hand again, resting against her forehead, crunched into a loose fist, eyes downcast, fingers splayed on her cheek and then grasping the shawl to cover her face. It’s desperate. It’s embarrassed. Round cheeks become flushed. Hoy hoy.
My aunt shouts out, “hadha haqey thyab al-salah” and the entire room erupts in laughter. I look around, eyes searching for context, for an explanation. Eventually my sister in law calls over, “She said, and that’s the scarf she prays with!” But the moment is gone and I laugh politely, but not as heartily as the crowd.
Sure, I understand: she’s singing a risqué, profane song and dancing suggestively with her eyes, mouth, and hands while draped in a shawl reserved for the sacred. A florescent pink and yellow, tie-dyed prayer shawl (now that’s funny). But I’m laughing alone, always just one step behind.
No matter how much I learn about my in-laws, there’s a context that’s always missing. My family has been together since forever, and they have secrets, in-jokes and a closeness an outsider can never really understand. Of course I became a part of the family once I married in, and some have even joked that I became an Arab on that fateful day, despite my inability to speak the family dialect well. Regardless of my honourary status as an Arab, ability to read and write Arabic, cook the family foods, wear traditional clothes like a pro, dance passably well, and know more intricacies about Islam than most in my family, and no matter how proud they are of me, I’m still a kind of outsider.
When things get going, conversation tends to flip only to Arabic, and I’m either just tuning everyone out because I’m obviously not involved in the conversation, or I’m terribly disappointed when the translation comes back as, “oh, auntie is just wondering when we can go out to buy spinach, and if she can wash her underwear in the sink.”
Mundane, everyday tasks made inaccessible to my understanding, and exotified in my imagination. For surely with so much facial expression, hand waving, and complex language exchanges a deep and meaningful conversation that’s not about spinach or underwear must be occurring.
Of course, it goes the other way as well. I’ve spent the last two months living with several in-laws in our 800 square foot apartment. Some of my friends have called me a near saint for “putting up with family” — but that’s just the way it’s done. It’s expected that family stays with family, even if we have to put three in the second bedroom and two in the living room. There’s space in the heart.
A few days after her arrival, aunt #2 thanked me for allowing her to stay and that she was sorry for being any kind of trouble. This self-abasing speech is another language dance where the guest gushes apologies and the host gushes back, praising and emphasizing how their stay is perfect and expected, no trouble at all. I didn’t know this at the time, and responded with a light joke. I said that her stay was not a problem, that I always enjoy her company and that guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.
Polite laughter ensued. Confusion abounded. And I discovered later that two family members cornered my Hubby to ask him to explain this strange western concept of comparing guests to fish.
I’ve been reflecting recently on Eryn’s amazing ability to take instruction in Arabic, English and German and the subtle cultural exposures she’s experiencing as she grows up in a mixed family. Our family interactions may not always be fluid and comfortable — but at least we all work to make each other feel understood.
When different cultures, different languages, different histories, different backgrounds and different life experiences all come together, one thing is certain: the process of mixing is bound to be colourful. I don’t think I would have missed out on all the drama had I married someone with a similar background, as every family has their hangups. But misunderstandings would be easier to navigate and there wouldn’t be as many surprises — things would be smoother in a sense.
Some may have an aversion to multicultural marriages, because in general, they are “more difficult” — there’s religion, culture, traditional familial gender roles, and language that compounds the mundane, every-day family issues. Regardless, I wouldn’t change the challenge for anything. The more I’m exposed to the differences between our cultures, the more I learn about myself and my capabilities to be flexible, patient and absorb cultural cues that I’ve fallen in love with. Besides, what’s life without drama? Especially drama in my own living room.
As a family we will be instilling values into Eryn — whether it’s teaching her how to be a Paper bag Princess who really doesn’t need to be pining away for some bloke to sweep her off her feet; dancing with her and giving her that amazing ability to speak volumes with a flick of a pinky; cooking with her and showing her how to make the fluffiest naan bread for a nice pot of German goulash; or arguing with her and challenging her to analyze the world with a critical mind. Hopefully she too will grow to be a richer person because of her multicultural exposure.
Besides, there’s always space in the heart.