Us and Them

And so over the weekend, at a lunch party, conversation seemed inevitably to turn towards how our culture and norms are superior to those of the West. Which was interesting because the more I meet people from various cultures and backgrounds, the more I am struck by how similar all of us are. There is much more of ‘the same’ than there is of ‘the different’. It makes me wish people of all cultures would stop erecting walls separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ and ‘them’ from ‘us’. Drawing caricatures of each other serves no one. Yes, there are differences of belief, traditions, culture and norms. But these are outnumbered by the similarities among all of us as a race. The need for all of us, as a race, right now is to acknowledge and respect our similarities so that we can leave a better future to our children. The senseless violence our planet is embroiled in right now is a result of the divisive thinking that creates barriers between peoples. The underlying universality of the human race is something we must teach ourselves to embrace and rejoice in.

Pakistanis have a supercilious attitude towards people of other cultures in many things. We are proud of our morals, our values and traditions without feeling any need to prove their superiority through superior conduct. We love to brag, for example, about how nurturing we are as parents. The most oft-quoted example is that of the Western baby crying endlessly in the middle of the night in a room apart from its parents while the parents, we like to tell each other, sleep soundly in their own beds. We cannot fathom how a little child can be put through, what we see, as nothing short of torture. Well, I have news for us – many Western parents are now reconsidering this technique. In fact Dr. Richard Ferber, one of the  chief proponents of the practice of letting babies howl it out till they fall asleep, actually regrets having given this advice to new parents. New parenting books urge parents to adopt a closer, more intimate manner with their children.

Indeed the practice of making infants sleep alone and letting them ‘cry it out’ is not one that came naturally to the West. It developed over time. Aletha Solter notes that the fear of ‘spoiling’ children became prevalent after the industrial revolution. Parents were warned against coddling their infants too much to the extent that where there was room, mothers began to move their babies into separate nurseries, ignoring their maternal instincts when they heard their babies cry. Greater numbers of women joining the work force and a subsequent shift away from breast to bottle-feeding, also contributed to a detached style of parenting.

However, a great number of Western anthropologists are now writing regularly about the damage such detachment can cause to the infant. The benefits of ‘co-sleeping‘ are being debated. The term ‘family bed‘ is rapidly gaining currency and I would not be surprised if it became an established practice throughout the West in the near future.

On the other hand, most urban Pakistani mothers I have known in my adult life, have no qualms hiring unqualified ‘maids’, sometimes young children themselves, to care for their children. It is not uncommon to see mothers like these trailing a crowd of children and maids at shopping malls and restaurants in Pakistan. How is that superior parenting?

The case of one of my good Pakistani friends however is an interesting one. A staunch believer in letting children cry it out, she trained her children to sleep separately at six months by following the Ferber method to the letter. Yet, from what I am able to observe, her children are more well-adjusted, happy and polite than most Pakistani children I come across. If anything, her example demonstrates to me that there may be more than one correct way of achieving what all of us would like to. All of us seem to want the same thing, regardless of culture, from the number of likes this sort of picture garners on Facebook:

The example of my friend however is a reminder that people’s methods of ‘nurturing’ their children may vary, even within one culture. Because even amongst ourselves are so many different ways of thinking and so many different styles of doing things. Before we jump self-righteously to berating people’s methods of doing things in another culture, it might be wiser to give them some benefit of doubt.

From this example of cultural superiority follows the next claim Pakistanis like to make about themselves – that they take better care of their senior citizens. Most Pakistanis love to preen themselves, privately, on how respectful they are towards their elders. We love to gloat about how older people are generally held in much higher esteem than their counterparts in the West. Without an exception, whenever we discuss old people in the West, we talk about the stooping old lady crossing the street on her own, red lipstick plastered on her mouth, handbag on her arm, walking with a gait that is to our eyes, forlorn, cheerless. We discuss with disdain how old people in the West are deserted by their families and banished to old people’s homes. Well, take a few minutes to watch this video.

 

 

This is not the first such documentary I have seen. Many have been shown on various Pakistani news channels in recent years. Pakistanis need to stop fooling themselves about how devoted they are towards their parents. Certainly many Pakistanis do fulfil the demands their culture and faith makes upon them in fulfilling the rights of their parents. But just as all societies, in every part of the world evolve and change, ours has too. Too many of us have left our parents to settle in foreign lands to be making claims about cultural superiority. We have left for the sake of ‘a better quality of life’, or the security of our families or the acquisition of a more influential passport. It is hypocrisy to boast about a culture we have left behind in our quest for greener pastures.

On the other hand a surprising number of my Western friends tell me of siblings ‘living just down the road’ from their parents in their home countries. A Danish friend of mine is one of a brood of ten (which in itself is an anomaly we would consider a Westerner incapable of, mentally consigning them to a family of no more than four) with a sister living in the same street as her mother. The sister visits her mother twice a day and is always a few minutes walk away in case of an emergency. Pakistanis would question why an old lady is living on her own in the first place. But don’t our own parents want to live exactly like this? Here is the similarity again – try prising your parents from their homes in Pakistan and bringing them to live with you where you are. You cannot. They value their independence too much, just as my friend’s mother does.

Our sham moral superiority over other cultures makes me cringe. We make statements about other peoples with inadequate knowledge of their civilisations and their ways of doing things. We do not try to see the positive in anyone else. We do not attempt to identify our own weaknesses. We refuse to root out what is rotten in our society. And yet we sally forth into the world declaring ourselves to be better than everyone else.
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