“It’s just a cultural difference,”
Ah, ‘cultural differences’. One of those bland rhetorical tonics for every disagreement that may temporarily (or permanently) obstruct forward progress of an otherwise cohesive interreligious relationship. And the conclusion to many a disagreement in the apartment I share with my Pakistani Muslim boyfriend and his childhood friend, also a Pakistani Muslim.
I occasionally express some incredulity when we use this little ‘get out of the dog house free’ card. My boyfriend, while the kind of Pakistani who says ‘w’ for ‘v’ (head out on the highway, looking for adWenture), is also the kind who likes a cold beer, bad pop music and, well… We live together. Take that how you will. He grew up partly in the UK, and our roommate partly in the US, each carrying dual citizenship and patriotism. They feel native in both their respective mother countries, speaking a dialect amongst themselves that I’ve dubbed Urdish (Urdu + English).
So, when my boyfriend and I end a discussion with, “Well, you know, we come from different cultures, so we have some different values and we have to compromise,” I am often baffled. Because, to a large extent, we do share culture, and sometimes the ‘cultural difference’ catchall just doesn’t feel justified.
But in any case, there are repeat discussions that wheel in and out like a merry go round of cultural differences’ greatest hits. These are the ones that circle back most often in our happy home and continue to baffle me.
I’ll kick the list off with a big one. I. Do. Not. Get. It. I apologize to all Desi food lovers of the world. I’m sure you’re slapping your foreheads and wondering what in the White-West-I-Hail-From is wrong with me. I’ve heard it before. But, come on. It’s chicken and rice – I’m aware there are other meat/meatless options, but this is the common variation in our house. Why does it take sooo long to make? It’s chicken and rice, people. My boyfriend and our roommate will spend over twenty minutes discussing whether a biryani is good or not, swirling it around in their mouths like professional sommeliers tasting a fine wine, considering every spice, every chicken chunk, even the texture of the rice. And they usually conclude it’s just ‘alright’ before devouring it with a speed that the Flash would envy. In all our time together, my boyfriend has only once given a biryani the official stamp of ‘it’s good’, at which point I excitedly tried a bite to see what all the fuss is about. And you know what? It tasted like all the other biryani bites I’ve had. Chicken and rice.
It troubles my boyfriend that I fail to grasp the rare culinary majesty that is biryani. And it baffles me that he craves this dish every few days, returning to shops he’s declared subpar just to see if they can get it right this time. “Cultural difference,” he says, and we compromise. He gets Biryani. I eat something else. We sit and stare at each other over our plates in pure disbelief.
Let’s take baseball and make it not fun. So said the creators of cricket, a game that lasts days (DAYS, dear readers, DAYS) and features guys standing around waiting to run back and forth between two sticks. Full disclosure – I’ve dated a cricket player before. I knew the risks of such a union. I’ve been dragged to games. I’ve even attended practices, being the dutiful and supportive gal I am. My boyfriend doesn’t play often, much to my relief. But, he watches. And so, we watch, because of all that stuff I said about me being supportive. “Cultural difference,” we agree, and compromise. I kind of watch, but actually read my book. He doesn’t try to explain the rules to me because they don’t make any sense.
Not, not the people you call to see a movie or go dancing with on Friday night. That kind we agree on – they’re good to have around and we share them comfortably. Nope, I mean the TV show. You know the one. Rachel. Ross. Smelly cat. Etc. Now, I like Friends as much as the next person. But not as much as Pakistanis. No one loves Friends as much as Pakistanis. This, I did not know until recently. It’s a thing. They have a Central Perk in Lahore. It’s popular. In 2016 (this year!). I can put on any episode, picked at random, and my boyfriend will know every single line. There are 10 seasons comprised of 236 episodes. He’s seen every episode enough to have the lines memorized. And this, to me, is baffling. Because, while Friends heavily influenced my childhood – I, like many others, believed I too could afford a Manhattan apartment in my twenties – I’m not about to memorize all of Chandler’s quips as a vehicle to that dream. My boyfriend idealizes NYC largely because of the show, believing we could move there tomorrow and afford to get coffee every day at a Manhattan coffee shop. No matter how many sobering financial realities I throw at him, his Friends dream is unshaken. And this boggles the mind. “Cultural difference,” we say, and compromise. When he moves to NYC someday, he’ll find out for himself. And I don’t shut him down even if the temptation to roll my eyes sneaks up from time to time.
Social Media silence.
My boyfriend does not post often on Facebook, and rarely about me. Yes, he is ‘friends’ with some colleagues and wisely chooses to keep Facebook PG and professional. But occasionally, I like to post about what we’re doing or the fun we’re having. And he does not. At all. And it baffles me. Because, while I hate the ‘look all our kissing selfies’ couples as much as any rational adult, I think it’s nice to occasionally express gratitude for a gift or show a positive aspect of our relationship publically. To me, that’s a way to declare our appreciation, so long as it’s done tastefully in extreme moderation. But to him, posting ‘look at our happy life’ entries on social media is a form of belittling the relationship and arrogance. He’s explained it to me like this: Our relationship is between us and displaying gratitude is something we do between ourselves, and he doesn’t want to denigrate that by perpetuating the idea that we need external validation. Plus, he thinks that I’m wonderful and beautiful and everyone will think that he’s just bragging about being in a relationship with me etc etc butter me up. While I understand his perspective and respect it, it still baffles me. Because I never see a tasteful of a couple I respect doing things together and think – DAMN those jerks are bragging! Rather, I think – oh cool, they’re doing that together and it looks fun. Good for them. “Cultural difference,” he says, and we compromise. He very occasionally posts a photo of us when I request it, and I can tag him in a post occasionally. I gained his approval before making this post.
And that’s the greatest hits list. All said and done.
I bet you were expecting a different kind of list. Or maybe hoping for one? You were thinking there’d be mention of mosques, or hijabs, or dietary restrictions. Or maybe you were expecting disrespectful language, demeaning attitudes towards women, sympathy with extremists, or conflicting moral judgments.
Sorry to disappoint. I come up short on those points.
Truth is, religion doesn’t come up often. My boyfriend is a secular Muslim, and he grew up in a developed, peaceful environment with access to excellent education and positive role models. He goes to the mosque for Friday prayers and leads what I consider to be a moral, ethical and kindhearted life. And he doesn’t talk about his religion unless he’s asked, same as I do.
So, to answer what I’m sure you’re wondering – When do real cultural differences affect our life together?
But not in ways that baffle me.
One of the positive role models in his life was his grandmother. She told him that he could gamble and have fun, of course, as fun is a necessary part of a happy life. But never keep winnings, because that’s where addiction starts. And a future should be decided by merit and work ethic, not chance. So, he and I go to the casino. We play blackjack. Sometimes he loses. Sometimes he breaks even. But he never wins. And he only plays with money he earns working, disposable income he’s okay with losing entirely because it’s a fun night out, not a way to change your life with one hand. I respect that, because while it’s different from how my family plays the lottery, there’s something I can learn from it. I’m not baffled. I’m enriched.
His father, a man who’s taught him humility and empathy, said that you should always be charitable, even in small ways. Never waste food. That doesn’t mean eat everything on your plate when you’re full, because in Karachi, there was always someone hungry outside delighted to receive leftovers. We currently live in a developing country, where likewise there are always hungry mothers and children on the street. He never lets the waiter dispose of leftovers. He has them packed nicely with plastic utensils and napkins. Then he walks the streets until he finds someone who is hungry. I never thought to do this before being with him, but I damn well respect it and I’ve changed my behavior to do the same, even when I go home to America. In American cities, there are also hungry people on the street. And I walk for blocks sometimes to find them. I’m not baffled. I’m bettered.
He is respectful. And I want to emphasize this one, because Muslim men get a lot of smack from some certain corners of the world for being disrespectful toward women these days. I’m not saying all Muslim men are or aren’t. I’m saying this one is, and it’s a cornerstone of his character and our relationship. He respects me, my career goals, my personal choices, my interests and my beliefs. He doesn’t patronize me. He actively listens to my concerns, enthusiastically celebrates in my triumphs and encourages me to pursue my interests. Even if they conflict with his own. Because our cultural differences have nothing to do with our human feelings. And our cultural differences don’t intrude on that genuine sense of wanting the best for each other.
At the end of the day, I have to shrug when people ask me when real cultural differences affect our life together.
Sorry to disappoint, but really the biggest one is Biryani.