Heather Subba lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and 3-year-old son.
The Venn Diagram of Backgrounds
July 16, 2012
Wear pink and park away from the house. These were simple enough instructions for my sister-in-law's surprise baby shower. Twenty Nepalese women gathered in her friend's home to celebrate our soon-to-be newest family member. Shades of pink kurtas (traditional loose-fitting shirts) sashayed from room to room as echoes of giggles brightly filled the narrow halls. Following my sister-in-law's arrival, she was whisked away for makeup application and a clothing change. When she emerged in a pink dress that gently hugged my growing niece, she blushed and seemed pleased. Her friends set out fried donuts, spicy potato salad dishes, spring rolls and dumplings. This first course was followed by a variety of colorful rice, saucy vegetable and creamy chicken dishes. Since the women spoke mostly in Nepalese, I took on the role of observer. I watched how they interacted, teased and laughed with one another. After sitting on the floor, perched close to one another, eating their spicy food and chatting, they took pictures in the sun-filled garden. They snapped photos of my glowing sister-in-law and eagerly jumped in to pose with her.
As with most baby showers that I have attended, we played baby-themed games, including a game which utilized fruit to mock delivering a baby. Unlike other showers I have been to, there was also a meaningful prayer session. My sister-in-law's friends provided a seat for her and in front of her was a silver tray filled with a deep, rich orange-red powder, referred to as tika. In order to give the prayer or tika, each guest dipped her finger in the crimson powder and placed it gently on my sister-in-law's head. While doing so, each guest recited a prayer for my sister-in-law's health and well-being. As she gave the soft-spoken blessing, each guest also fed her a taste of an Indian sweet, in order to wish her good luck, health and happiness. This custom also includes placing flower garlands around the guest. Flowers are always a part of happy Nepali occasions, as they symbolize positivity and beauty. As I prayed for my sister-in-law, I appreciated the special custom and I felt emotional to be part of this unique tradition.
While I had admiration for my sister-in-law's friends' kindness and for their creativity in blending American baby shower traditions with Nepalese traditions, I could not help feeling a little bit left out. While someone would try to talk to me from time to time in English, I felt guilty for making them include me when I was the only exclusion. I felt uneasy for invading a similar space with shared language, culture and values with my awkward and glaring otherness. Socially, I felt separate and physically, I looked different.
When I arrived home, I told my husband about the food from his homeland. I surprised him with some fried donuts as I confided in him that I felt separate. Surprisingly, he smiled as he curled his lower lip and said he understood. He felt just the same when we lived in Chicago and celebrated Jewish holidays in my family's home. I wondered, how could he feel like the other in our home? It was comfortable for me and I had always hoped he had felt the same natural ease. The more I reflected, however, it was not any different. In our Jewishness, we share our own world with boundaries that are years in the making and that are hard to understand and penetrate. Without necessarily being conscious of our actions, we are always forming a community. Community necessitates belonging. Sometimes, in our communities, we define and recognize ourselves by what we are not, which makes exclusion the norm rather than the exception.
Based on my husband's experiences with my family and mine with his, I have realized that we will never completely fit into one another's worlds. Ties that enclose a faith, ethnicity, race and culture are strong and rules apply. Without those rules, cultures die. Since my husband and I have broken the rules of inclusion and expectation, we have to find another space that is our own — one that is part of each culture and yet singular in its originality. While the ties that make up a culture are strong, the ties that make up a loving family are undeniably unbreakable.
In our home, we have formed our own sphere where cooking, religion and values are a mix of beliefs and traditions but above all, unconditional love supersedes any differences we have. The best visualization I have for this separate space relates to a Venn diagram. My husband's life formed a circle, as did mine before we joined lives. Now together, we've formed a new shaded circle where our two lives have collided and been reborn. Forming our own circle can be challenging and risky but it can also be stimulating and invigorating as we have the joy of diversity in our lives. I think most married couples have to chart their own circle but some do so without the extra layer of mixed faiths and ethnicities.
I accept but also appreciate that I live in an overlapping space that has not existed before. While I understand that I will never fully belong in one circle, I've also realized that I feel most at home in between places, cultures and boundaries. I set out to continually draw my own lines instead of living inside of them. So next time I go to a baby shower, instead of feeling like an outsider, I will remember the metaphor of our overlapping circles. Since I cannot completely fit into the world of another culture, I will not try to. I will create a new space where their world meets my world and where my world blends into their world. While merging cultures requires accepting differences, it also encourages us to expand our thinking and to grow from knowing more about what lies beyond the surface of a circle that we have not yet known. Together, I'm sure we can find a common space to laugh, learn, and wear pink together.