I was introduced to a new concept in Sociology class when I was in college. The idea was that every family has its own culture, and every household its own microculture. This point was made by our instructor when one of my fellow students asked her opinion about the differences that intercultural marriages may have. Her response was profound. It was something like this: “of course intercultural marriages will have issues that arise from culutural differences. But here is a concept that you need to grasp before you marry: Every marriage is an intercultural marriage. Every marriage has problems that arise from cultural differences.”
cul·ture (klchr) n.
These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
mi·cro·cul·ture (mkr-klchr) n.
The distinctive culture of a small group of people within a limited geographical area or within an organization such as a school or business.
(These definitions are borrowed from http://www.thefreedictionary.com)
This idea that every time two people unite, a whole new microculture is born was astounding to me. I had always thought that if you married someone from your community, there would be very few differences in culture between you. That scenario is possible, if you share religious background, ethnic background and are involved closely in the same community. But honestly it’s quite unlikely. Families do things differently.
It starts at Marriage. Some families have one spouse that works, some have two. Some share domestic duties and others prefer traditional roles within the home. When children are introduced, this microculture evolves further. Some women want to stay home to raise their kids and others prefer to go back to work when they can and leave their child in the hands of a skilled childcare professional. Some families feel strongly about breastfeeding, and others cannot understand why anyone would want to do that. Some families co-sleep for years, and others teach their children to sleep alone from day one.
The differences in culture from family to family continue to grow greater and more varied as the children grow up. What happens at meal time? How do we deal with the teenage rebellious years? Are we a family who openly discusses most issues, or do we feel that some things are better left unaddressed? What clothing do we feel is appropriate for people at different ages? What do we find funny and what do we find to be in poor taste?
Ultimately, each family will have a different answer to these questions, and literally thousands more. This is how the microculture of each household comes into being. Generation after generation, some cultural traits are passed down within families, and each household adds their own twist. For the most part, there is no right or wrong among this process. Different things work for different families. Different people believe different things. Variety adds to the beauty of life.
My instructor was correct. When she told us that every marriage is an intercultural marriage, it was a statement laden with much wisdom. There are no families where compromise has not been used to resolve differences of opinion. There are no households where two people have never disagreed about how things ought to be done, based on their experience. She told us that if you marry someone who grew up across the street from you, it is possible to have more cultural conflicts with that person than you might with someone from another country. That surprised me, but I have found it to be true.
As an in home caregiver, I see examples of this daily. The opportunity to see people in what I like to refer to as their ‘native habitat’ (their home) is really a precious one. People all do things differently. For the most part, none of these families do things wrong as far as I am concerned. They just have a different culture than I am used to. Let me give you a few examples:
I cared for a woman whose family all referred to their themselves as Japanese Hawaiian. They had to tell me, because I wouldn’t have known otherwise. You see, their ancestors were from Ireland and Germany. They grew up in Minnesota and then moved to Washington. Their skin and hair coloring and their English speech patterns were very similar to mine. But some of their behavior was different. They loved hula dancing, and they had Japanese art all over their home. They often used phrases in Hawaiian or Japanese. They preferred food from those cultures, and I needed to learn to cook that way for my client. I will never understand at what point they went from saying they appreciate the Japanese Hawaiian culture to saying that they are Japanese Hawaiian. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me. It wasn’t wrong, it was just different. The fact that they explained their family culture to me helped me to be able to care for their mother in a way that she was comfortable with, and I did appreciate that.
Another of my clients had me sweep, mop and sanitize every floor in her house each day. It was a big house, and she had no pets or other family members living there. It seemed rather excessive. Her background was as a microbiologist, and her specialty was in virulent strains of toxic bacteria. Suddenly the excessively sanitary floors made sense. I still don’t keep my floors nearly that clean, but in my case, ignorance is bliss.
I have a client who although she has lived here for 56 years, still considers herself Canadian, and would be very insulted if I called her an American. She has rituals that she practices daily with a statue of the queen of England. I consider myself an American, because I am by birth. I do not practice rituals with any statues. It’s not wrong that she believes differently than me. We certainly have a different personal culture though.
One of the clients I have cared for has advanced dementia. She is in her 90’s and is convinced that she is pregnant. Although the idea of it is humorous to many of us, for her it is very real. When she beams at someone who enters her room and gladly shares her good news with them, she doesn’t expect them to laugh at her or to tell her that she really isn’t pregnant. In her mind, she is. Understanding that she raised 10 children over the course of almost 30 years and was a stay at home mom who devoted her life to mothering helps me understand why this part of her life has come back to visit later. So I smile and ask her what she plans to name this baby, and when it is due.
Some of my clients prefer that I use bleach on every dish I am rinsing to put into the dishwasher. Others don’t even own dish detergent, and figure that hot water and a good scrubbing is good enough. At home I wash my dishes by hand with hot soapy water. To my knowledge, none of us has become ill from having dishes that were too clean or not clean enough.
We all have our own culture. It is based on our experiences, our mentors, our community, our fears, our strengths, our preferences, and our dislikes. We are all unique. We all have something to offer the world, both as individuals, and as families. We have many things we can learn from the world also. I have learned that there are many right ways to do most things. I have learned that being unique is ok, and even desirable. I have learned that no matter who I marry one day, we will have cultural differences that we will need to work out with good conflict resolution skills and the art of compromise. I have learned that people are greatly varied, and yet very much the same on the inside. We are all driven by a desire to be loved and accepted. We are all beautifully individual. I have also learned that I prefer my home to be cleaner than many, and dirtier than some, and there is nothing wrong with that. I have learned to be patient, and try to understand why someone does the things they do before jumping to the conclusion that my way is superior. Maybe it isn’t. Or maybe for me it is, but I have learned a new way that I do not prefer to do something.
Next time you see someone do something that to you seems ridiculous to you, consider getting to know them, or politely asking why they do that. Maybe you will learn a new way to do something. Maybe you will discover that what they do still makes no sense to you, but they are a lovely individual. Either way, you will learn. And in my experience, learning is usually superior to judging.