bossymarmalade: man peeling sugarcane (this our native land)
miss maggie ([personal profile] bossymarmalade) wrote2015-04-22 10:54 am
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split-tailed mermaid

I have recently started volunteering for a couple hours a week at a Jewish old folks' home, since they had an opening for somebody to arrange their digital music collection and create playlists for the residents and this sounded like stuff that I do for fun anyhow. I'm not Jewish but they don't mind that since there are non-Jewish people among the residents and staff as well, although so far the people I've interacted with have been surprised to find that as a gentile I have a rudimentary knowledge of Jewish culture. Which I found surprising in turn, because I assumed that this was the sort of information that people absorbed naturally? I mean, lots of what I know is from Jewish characters in tv shows and books, and some from documentaries, and some from reading about cooking all the time. I mentioned this to [personal profile] glockgal and she said no, I shouldn't think that people generally know anything about religions/cultures that aren't their own. Her theory is that since we grew up in Trinidad, where we get Hindu and Muslim and Christian holidays off, we thought it was normal and natural to learn about other people's religious observances, but in North America it's not. But anyhow.

I went in for an initial orientation and was fed grapefruit punch, chocolate chip macaroons, and egg matzoh (it was a couple days into Passover) and listened to the coordinator while the teenagers next to me texted under the table. On my first day of actual volunteer work, Lori and I used a groupon to go to La Piazza Dario's, where we split an antipasto plate, fettuccine al pistaccio, and a piece of gateau St. Honore. I had an Italian sour. My volunteer coordinator called to ask if I could, instead of getting started on the music project, come in at 1 to fill in for the volunteer who was supposed to accompany some of the residents to the grocery store, and did I have any wheelchair experience. "Marginal," I said, "and I'm at lunch, I won't be able to get there till 1:30 when I was supposed to come in."

"Oh, they'll wait for you then," the coordinator said, and that's how I found myself crammed in next to a powder-blue walker in the front seat of a private bus filled with seniors as it careened the four blocks to the supermarket and my Italian sour sloshed around in my stomach. The shopping trip itself was faintly nervewracking, as my charge kept standing up from her wheelchair and I drove it alternately too quickly, too slowly, and too close to the shelves in the aisles. But she was a nice lady when all was said and done and paid for, and we joined some of the other ladies at the Starbucks in the grocery.

The lady next to me, Sylvia, was 101 years old and ate a croissant as she showed me her scarf and told me that people kept asking her where she'd bought it, but she couldn't tell them, as it was a gift. Then she started speaking to me in Hindi. It took me a moment to understand what was happening -- she was white, and I only recognize Hindi by sound -- and I had to tell her that I don't speak or understand. "Oh," she said, "I speak fluent Hindustani, I speak it with the girls at the home. I was born in Calcutta, you know, my father worked for Lloyd's of London in the tea trade there." I think she said Lloyd's of London, I'm not sure. I doubt I could have said anything worthwhile in response anyways. She tried a little more Hindi with me and then politely dropped it.

In that entire experience, the most surreal part of it was sitting with somebody who knew India, could speak and understand Hindi, knew Indian culture, and whose family legacy was directly the reason why I, with my brown skin and Hindu family transplanted from the tea to the cane fields, don't have that language and that knowledge. The white daughter of a tea merchant and the brown daughter of indentured labourers, and only one of us had Hindi in her mouth. She was eating her croissant. I was drinking iced tea. Sixty years and the kala pani and our positions in the colonial hierarchy separating us until randomly because some other volunteer couldn't make it, our disparate lifepaths came face-to-face in a Safeway in Vancouver, one rainy Monday afternoon. Our diasporas make strange travelling companions of us all.
metaphortunate: (Default)

[personal profile] metaphortunate 2015-04-24 05:26 am (UTC)(link)
Wow, that is....that is some encounter. Surreal sounds about right.