Beginning with the small, but what we need to know

Watching intercultural life while sitting and writing in a café. I take out my earphones to listen.

At one table is an older woman waiting for two other older women queuing to get coffee. At a second table is an older man with a younger woman, perhaps his daughter. The daughter turns to speak to the older woman and asks her if the other women are her sisters. The older woman seems pleased to say that they are. Indeed, they do in some way look alike. There is a sense of pleasure and genuine fascination passing between the two tables in sharing something valued about relationships.

The daughter turns back to her father who then points to another nearby table where there is a little girl, perhaps three or four, sitting by herself. The little girl seems to be showing huge pride in arranging her own drink and a small toy, as though she is playing at being an adult customer with her own table. Something about her demeanour makes me think that she is perhaps Middle Eastern or North African.

Further along is a youngish man sitting in an arm chair watching the little girl. Around him are a sofa, another low chair and a lower table and full shopping bags. He shouts proudly across to the older man that the little girl ‘is interested in everything except her father’. The older man replies that he knows all about this and looks back to his daughter who also smiles with recognition.

After a short while the three sisters and the older man and his daughter leave. A woman in a hijab and another child come and sit with the younger man and his daughter who is now also sitting with him. I guess they are a family group. I try to catch what language they are speaking but can’t. But then it seems very clear, because he is pointing to the tables where his daughter and the older man were sitting, that he is telling the hijabi woman, who I think must be his wife, about their daughter pretending to be an adult at her own table and the older man commenting. The hijabi woman smiles, I am pretty sure, with her proud approval.

What has taken place between these three families is a good example of threads – resonances that bring people together and dissolve boundaries. It is an example of the ‘getting on with life’ grand narrative that Sara Amadasi and I have written about recently – which is where we can live and communicate with each other, and share our resonances, in appreciation of all our diversity, natural hybridity and differences in background. It is something that has always been there and can always be there – when we do not feel threatened by people who are different to us – when we can momentarily escape from the other sort of ‘us’-‘them’, essentialist grand narrative that fills our minds with racist hatred. 

What is very worrying, and what makes this difficult to write, is that even as I watch, I can feel this other ‘us’-‘them’ narrative at my elbow – trying to tempt me into its familiarity. It lures me into that other way of thinking, hiding its prejudice under the guise of well-wishing. The West as steward dis­course. So I find myself also falsely wondering if this family with the hijabi woman is somehow ‘liberated’ by ‘coming to the West’ – somehow ‘integrated’ in ‘our freedoms’ – so that they too can appreciate, as they never would have before, the individuality and creative self-direction of their daughter sitting inventively by herself. 

But no. I must not be lured! This is not well-wishing! It is a denial of who they are – of who we all can be. I need to be reminded that in all my experience I have never met people who would not appreciate this creative individualism, unless it was because of the narrow prejudice that one can find in any society, anywhere.

This is what we need to know in our observation of cultural life. That no-one has a monopoly on things like individualism, self-direction, creativity, freedom of thought and so on. These things might be more explicitly institutionalised in some places than in others. But we must be very wary of institutions. Beginning with the small really does mean that we have to put aside dominant cultural assumptions.

The ‘getting on with life’ grand narrative is discussed in chapter 5 of Holliday & Amadasi, Making sense of the intercultural: finding deCentred threads, Routledge, 2020. The West as steward dis­course is discussion on pages 17-20.

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