Monthly Archives: January 2012

Turning 26…and reminiscing about being 19

Apparently every 7 years or so, we seek some major changes our lives. And I’m not just talking about our married lives/relationships, a la the famed Seven Year Itch. I’ll be turning 26 soon, and I certainly feel like I’m due for some major changes this year. Maybe last year was a preparation, a lesson in taking on more responsibility? (Though I certainly did my best to shirk this responsibility through a lot of temper tantrums). The last seven years were definitely shaped by a lot things I did when I was 19. I guess for many people, especially if they go through the school-uni thing, it’s an age where you come out of your shell, explore yourself and your world, make new friends and enjoy your maturing relationships with existing friends. I loved being 19.

At 19 I hitched-hiked with a friend from Melbourne to Sydney for the first time.

At 19 I was in my second year of uni, finally starting to overcome my shyness and make friends who actually shared my interests.

At 19 I was deep into political activism on issues that really burnt me. These issues still burn, but since then I’ve turned into an average Joe Bloe and politics deludes me a bit. Just a bit. Still, it was this activism that pushed me to open my mind, try new things, learn alternative theories about the way the world is organised, and encouraged me to understand the lives and perspectives of people who may be very different to me. And it gave me confidence…in making new friends, relationships and learning to stand by my principles rather than being kicked around.

At 19 I met L ūüôā Although it would be another 3 years until we got together.

At 19 I worked in my first non-chain store job where I wasn’t screamed at, ripped-off, and actually given responsibility.

At 19 I learnt to drive.

At 19 I was totally rocking wharehouse parties and squat parties.

OK, maybe not totally rocking. But I was certainly rocking the dance floor when the DJ played Like a Prayer and Billie Jean, while all the hippies boo-ed and demanded the trippy alternative stuff (whatever that was)!

Without these opportunities to explore my interests, meet new people and just have fun, the ensuing years would have been so different. I would have turned out so different. Turned 26 a different person…

I wouldn’t have had the confidence and esteem to travel by myself in South Asia the following year. To think the first time I went overseas on my own was to India for a year! If I had my time again, I would’ve tried to fit in a ‘practice run’ somewhere. Like, maybe in New Zealand ūüėČ

Being young and having fun is all good. I still love travelling and I still love partying and these aren’t the changes I envision in the next 7 years. Indeed, I’m quite fortunate that my work involves a lot of travelling. But I think the changes will come in my relationships. Now that I have some distance from the insanity of last year, I realise how serious – S.E.R.I.O.U.S – life can get. How commitment in a relationship also involves a whole lotta responsibility. How selfish I can become when pushed to the limit.

Being in my relationship was all-consuming for most of last year. Just getting through each day seemed to take up all my physical, emotional and intellectual energy. I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything so intense, for such a prolonged period of time. We’re not completely out of the woods, but I’ve stuck my neck out long enough to reflect a bit. And that major shift I’m sensing…? Maybe turning 19 and the seven years since then have been about discovering myself, my potentials and my limitations. No doubt I’ll continue to do this. But I hope the next 7 years are not just ¬†me me me. I don’t just want to learn to be myself, I want to learn to be in a relationship, somehow radically decentre my self-centredness. I’m not ready to do something ¬†‘out there’, like have kids, not quite yet (although I hope this will happen in the next 7 years!). But I’m certainly ready to start a family – and really be there – for the partner and family I already have.

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Filed under About, Music and Dance

Healing and Understanding Cultural Difference within our Relationships

Before Christmas I had a great session with a new psychologist. I went in freaking out a bit, because things were rough last year, and towards the end it all felt out of control. At the same time, I’d been doing a bit of reading on brain/neuroscience. Except… well, I’m no brain scientist, and I don’t think I really understood what I was reading. Somehow, in all of that, I convinced myself that I was behaving like a manic psycho and my brain was totally rewiring itself to model my behaviour; meaning I was falling further and further into manic mode. So despite all the pain of my first few therapy sessions, I decided to give counselling one more shot.

And just for the record – I’m glad I did. I was shaking going in, and launched straight into a cautious tirade about how I was “regressing” into infantile communication strategies (umm, like not talking to anybody and literally locking people out when I was feeling really down). Unlike the past therapists, this one didn’t focus on aspects of my behaviour that were abusive and crazy (not that there’s anything wrong with focussing on that). Instead, she calmed me down, acknowledged I was going through a hard time, and asked me not to be too harsh on myself. Wowie….

OK, so it’s obviously good for the ego to hear that locking people out of the house doesn’t make you a manic psycho bitch or regressive infant, and that it’s in fact a self-care strategy. What rocked my world about this therapist, though, is that she acknowledged my relationship (i.e. didn’t just focus on me as an individual), and finally (finally!) addressed the fact that there are some cultural differences between me and L which I should probably try to get my head around.

We’re onto something here folks!

I guess most people in an intercultural relationship don’t need a therapist to tell them¬† they should explore and understand cultural differences between themselves and their partner. But hey, what can I say, I’m not most people ūüėČ And the other therapists I’d seen had taken very different and more individualistic approaches to recovery and healing, with absolutely no acknowledgement of the intercultural dynamics within my relationships. Indeed, as readers of my older posts will know, one therapist even suggested I was only with L because I was fascinated by him as an object of intellectual curiosity and humanitarian assistance – implying that I was the type to fetishise difference. Needless to say this was rather hurtful, and made me self-conscious of exploring any kind of cultural difference between us, thinking such exploration would be evidence of pathology and co-dependency in our relationship, rather than an expression of love and understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been mindful of cultural difference. I started this blog, after all – and my very first post is about how I’d always resisted the label ‘cross-cultural’ when maybe the idea could actually help sort out some resonating truths about our relationship. Yet I’ve also been mindful of exoticising L, of appearing too keen and interested and naive, of making him feel like some kind of African specimen for an ignorant western mind. My attitude was (and is) compounded by the fact that L has, shall we say, very little patience for my discipline and profession of choice, anthropology. To simplify his position , anthropology is the most colonial, the most exoticising, objectifying western discipline. Ironically, my very training in social science took away any intellectual resources to argue back. First year anthro right through to graduation is all about the evolution of western social sciences in the context of colonialism, eugenics and economic expansion; about the academic discourse that justified the imperial control of bodies and minds and resources; about the privilege that makes western projects of objectification such as ours possible in the first place. It’s self-critique all the way, and speaking for myself and a few close friends, we certainly came out of it cringing at our naive fascination with ‘other cultures’.

After such wide-ranging accusations¬† of being exoticising and objectifying (from too-many-years-at-uni, from L, from the previous counsellor) it was refreshing to hear this new therapist encourage me to learn about L’s culture. She suggested I read up on the history of his country, the politics, and what he might have experienced in the early formative years. Read up on the position of women in his country, try to understand how this affects the way he relates to me.

I might cringe at myself all the time for wanting to learn more about different-ways-of-being-in-the-world. But the truth is, reading up on politics and gender and culture in other societies is right in my zone, and true to myself I stumbled across this fantastic article by a medical anthro from L’s country (redeemed, I hope, by the fact that she’s not a foreign researcher) writing about cross-cultural experiences of trauma and healing after the civil war. For many people in L’s country – which has been subject to a long period of political violence – physical and psychological ill-health can often be interpreted as a sign of malevolence in your relationships. That is, health is not just an individualised phenomenon, because the ‘person’ themselves in this culture (as with many cultures in the world) is understood via their relationship with others. Western ideas about healing can be counterproductive in such societies, as western medicine treats illness in a very clinical, scientific way that locates a particular disease/incident of trauma in the body or mind of an individual. So for instance, individual therapy would be considered an appropriate strategy for a rape victim in a conflict situation. Indeed, medical organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres often send out teams of psychologists to conflict and crisis zones. However, the western method of verbalising and essentially reliving trauma over a prolonged period of time until some kind of symbolic catharsis is reached, and what’s more in a clinical setting with just the individual and the therapist, can do more damage than good in cultures where recovery is not just about healing the individual, but about restoring fractured relationships in a symbolically potent and culturally resonant way.

The author uses an example of a boy from L’s region who was stolen by the rebels and forced to fight as a child soldier in the civil war. After being reunited with his family as a teenager several years later, the boy¬† did not respond so well to prolonged individual therapy. What really worked, however, was a subsequent healing ritual in which he was placed in a hut, the hut set on fire, and the boy rescued by his uncle. The ritual involved not only the boy himself (as therapy would), but his whole family, restoring familial roles and responsibilities torn apart during the conflict by allowing his family members to ‘save’ the boy from the fire, since they were unable to save him during the war. It’s a ritual then, that reinvigorates relationships and facilitates family healing in one symbolic moment (rather than ongoing and prolonged individual/group sessions where you would normally verbalise your trauma in a quite literal way). By overcoming the traumatic event symbolically, you can move an continue to foster healthy family relationships…and from this healthy selves.

Now I suspect a ritualistic approach to healing wouldn’t really do it for L, since his circumstances are quite different. And the truth is, I don’t need to read a paper about his country to know him and know what would work for him. But some cultural and contextual information doesn’t harm (that is, so long as it’s not used as the basis of simplistic generalisations…of the “Africans in conflict zones won’t response to individual therapy, they’re all collectivist and need to do these full-on rituals involving their whole family” sort). Ultimately though, in pondering cross-cultural attitudes towards healing (from brain science to fire rituals) I’ve come to recognise a truth about myself: that my health and wellbeing are also intricately wound up with the health of my relationships. I think most people in the world – including us ‘individuals’ in the west – realise that we can seek to heal ourselves by healing our relationships, even if the standard clinical and medicalised approach to health doesn’t always make room for this (with the exception of certain types of relationship/couples therapy). I think that’s why, as I wrote in my last post, lying to my father tears me apart so much. Because it undermines our relationship and is causing a lot of unhappiness (and health problems, my dad in particular has not been well in the last few months).

Stress caused me to isolate myself last year. This year is all about health, healing and connecting with others.

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Interracial Relationships, Race, Western Privilege

Goodbye 2011!

Well thank goodness it’s 2012!

The last few months of 2011 weren’t that great for me. And that’s an understatement. I wasn’t sure where my relationship with L was headed. Without confidently knowing that our relationship had a future, the last thing I felt like doing was blogging about intercultural relationships, or anything remotely related. It would have felt fake.

I flew to my parent’s for Christmas and New Year, giving me and L a well-needed break from each other. And although I’ve only been back home for a couple of days, I’m pleased to write that we’re slowly getting back on track.

NYE was fantastic. Being with my uni friends again meant I had the fun, wild nights I never would have had in my current town. It almost makes me miss the big city (almost, but not quite. I’m still not really a big city kinda girl).

But of course being at my parent’s meant I had to confront their questions, worries and fears about my relationship with L, especially given what they saw when they visited us last year. My mum approached the issue in her usual way: demanding to know what my plans are, insisting I was causing unnecessary stress, and then when I refused to talk about it (how could I, when even I didn’t know where our relationship was heading at that stage, and my mother can hardly be relied-upon for neutral relationship advice?), subtly falling back on the betrayal trope. Well, at least she was subtle about it.

Dad took a different approach, for which I’m eternally grateful. He recognised that any conversation involving me and my mum is always going to become emotionally intense and unproductive. So while Mum was occupied with the tennis one night, he called me upstairs asked me to tell him the whole truth, promising confidentiality. Without being confrontational, he also asked what I see in L, whether our values and interests match, whether we’re compatible (in arranged marriage speak, I guess) for a long term future. I know my dad is so worried about me, and for him it means so much that his kids are open and honest. And he came close to guessing the truth…maybe not the details, but he certainly guessed that our situation is uhhmmm…let’s call it ‘high pressure’. But as I’ve said before I can never tell him the truth, he simply wouldn’t understand. And the last thing I want to do is cause more stress. So I tried to be as honest as possible about the state of our relationship (i.e. that I wasn’t sure where it was heading, and that being under pressure to provide an answer on the “what are your future plans” question was extremely stressful), while outrightly lying about the reason.

Not the most satisfying answer, but he didn’t press the point. Instead, he noted that “a good thing about living in Australia is that you can live with a partner before marriage”, ¬†and make a more informed decision about whether you really should commit to them forever. As he didn’t fully understand the good things between me and L (I was pretty stunted in communicating this, as I wasn’t feeling great about our relationship at the time), he seemed a bit perplexed about why I was with L; when after a year of living together we were still being tossed around by strong undercurrents of¬†turbulence. “Maybe you’re only with him temporarily? I don’t know why you would do that. Maybe so you don’t feel alone? But that’s not for me to judge, it’s your life”. I assured him that L and I had always intended living together to be a permanent thing.

Despite his cultural generosity, he obviously held onto a flicker of hope that perhaps I would ask for his involvement in my marriage one day. “You know, you can always tell us if you want help in finding someone.” I always get defensive at ‘hints’ like this, even if they’re meant with little or no pressure. “Dad, whatever happens between me and L, I will always find the person I want to be with. I don’t need anyone’s help.” He leant over then, and lightly touched my wrist, “That’s ok, chhori, you don’t need help. I understand that.”

Oh please, I hope we’ve clarified that expectation now, for good.

It was one of those talks, you know, where you’re supposed to come out feeling great (and I hope my dad came out feeling great, or at least less concerned), but I came out feeling awful because I know I was hiding so much of the truth. Uggh…that awful burning feeling, knowing he was so close to the some of the truth (but not the whole truth, not the positive things, because that’s what he wouldn’t understand) and I was responsible for steering him away from that. Responsible for steering him away from the truth he values so dearly.

A lot the negativity I feel about this conversation reflects how I was feeling about my relationship at the time. L and have talked a lot since I came back, and we have solid plans and resolutions. Which gives me hope. We know there’s going to be no miraculous relationship blitz. Some habits are hard to change. But we have done it before and there’s nothing like a new year to¬†revitalise¬†and inspire us into doing it again.

So bring on the hard yards, the joy and the love, 2012!!

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Filed under About, Family Acceptance, Parents