Vegetarianism, Santa & The Nude
intersection of culture, religion & self
I wrote this essay in 2009, when my daughter was 6 and we were just beginning to have deeper conversations about differentiating religion from cultural predispositions, as well as the discourse about identifying self with v/s through communal celebrations.
Six years later, I find us struggling with the same stuff – racial, cultural and religious intolerance. Just to scratch the surface, our headlines news includes racial tensions in Missouri, meat-bans in India and the problems with an overpriced coffee cup. Seriously?!
These are just a few first world problems being experienced first-hand amongst my own circle of friends. Are we not learning anything as we become more aware? Are we lapping up benign micro-stories sold to us by troublemakers and making them bigger, more toxic? Is our consumption of this slowly perpetuating toxic matter making humanity less human?
On the eve of a religious holiday and a family celebration in our home, Diwali, I urge friends to simply shed this ‘invisibility cloak’ of judgment, cultural biases, religious and communal intolerance, under which we would often like to hide. Unless we relinquish this guise, we become the harbingers of unknown damages for not only our fellow humankind, but also the generations that follow in our ill-conceived footsteps.
Vegetarianism, Thanksgiving, Santa and the Nude: an observation of cultural predispositions.
As skewed and unrelated as they seem, these have been the topics of interesting conversations between me and my six year old, in the last 3 weeks. They came up at different times, in different contexts. But all in all, the dilemma of raising a child to be culturally appreciative but not confused – is now part of our household. And it makes me wonder, how do they all tie together? Is it possible to do so, without blinding the mind with a giant ball created from a tangled mess of ideologies and cultural fantasies, some alien and foreign, others self-derived, some inherited, still others – defined by pop culture, mass media and Hallmarking? What started as a simple goal: to appreciate and respect cultural diversity, traditions and beliefs, without refusing childhood curiosity or being disconnected, has quickly become a journey to seek why, or even how a grown-up’s cultural predisposition can influence young adults’ in their classrooms, playgrounds, lunch room conversations and most importantly, self-image.
Three weeks ago, vegetarianism became the dinner table topic. Lunchroom banter at school started a discussion at home about the appropriateness of eating and appreciating cultural meals versus critiquing foods for the sake of differentiation. For example, just as Indians ate a lot of spices and only certain meats, others ate other things, and obviously there were cultural and some religious tendencies towards it. But the topic was brought into focus after we participated in a few cultural classes that were intended to guide children towards ‘moral’ behavior. Within these, they brought about the subject of vegetarianism. The fact that killing equates to bad behavior, remains undisputable, but is it the right conversation for a 6 year old who cannot yet comprehend death: either natural or otherwise? Is it appropriate classroom conversation, and if so, at what age? What about killing bad guys? Does exposure to the concept that was until now foreign justify any moral lessons that are to be derived from it? We talked through it, and simply stopped going to class. Also, as much as she did not like eating it, peanut-butter sandwiches become an every day school-meal staple.
Not too long after that, we received a sketch of a ‘nude’, it was another matter all together, and we had a tough choice: was it art or was it inappropriate? Our conversations of creativity and art appreciation were unknowingly laced with cultural undertones. Coming from a culture that defines public and private as two separate realms that seldom overlap – we had the conversation that the display of private activities in public is a socially charged issue. It was simply not about assertion of right to speech, self portrayal but about having a healthy self image, this was artwork had to be shelved away as such. Yet, everyday when pop culture plays tongue-n-cheek; glamorizing flesh and straddling the fence between obscenity and ‘G’ rated visuals, lyrics and attire - does one cringe and try to find a ‘clean’ version for everything? Is that really possible without relying on materials that also then begin to push religious beliefs through subliminal messages?
Close on the heels of this, was everything Turkey and gobble-gobble. In our usual gusto of celebratory spirit, our Thanksgiving came with a small twist - a baked bird and pie sufficed, with some leftovers and some shopping. However, I was appalled that someone assumed that our geographic roots had something to do with whether or not and even how we celebrated the occasion. If indeed Thanksgiving was a feast between Pilgrims and Native Americans, why does the rest of the country celebrate it, people whose predecessors neither came on that boat, nor gave up their lands for a new people to settle? In that regard, shouldn’t this be a micro-culture-specific religious holiday, and not a secular celebration of excesses?
With all this talk happening at home, it stuck me as ironic that there was a local uproar about plans for an oversized Mosque. At the same time, bulky churches are being built everywhere that dwarfs their adjoining residential areas. Clearly they both look out of scale, but how is one more appropriate than the other?
Christmas and Santa have come up next – who, why, where and more. Movies and stories that had dusted a young mind’s dreams with glitter and fantasy are being relived. Meanwhile malls portray recycled stereotypical images of Christmas: white-and-red-and-, green everything, glitter, Santa hats, snow, decorated Christmas trees and presents, without much in the way of the Spirit of the season. Was it possible to pick a single item in these commercialized depictions that truly defined Christmas? Does everyone need to celebrate it the same way or with the same imagery and ‘stuff’? Why does whether or not one believes in Santa involve a classroom brawl and subsequent disciplinary action? Should such culture-specific beliefs become a part of the classroom dynamics? Or do simple acts of family togetherness or joyful relationships have any place within these chaotic metaphors? Meanwhile, should I take down our Christmas tree, and holiday lights, tell my child that there is no Santa or elves at the North Pole and proceed through the season, never to indulge in any of the mass produced festivities?
Raised in a multi-cultural family, with local and international migration within the last three generations, I believed that only religion was absolute and it belonged within an organized framework of core values. To me, its incorporation into day-to-day life became our culture. We refined each passing generation with derived and enhanced richness in order to allow a continuum of perpetual growth, as individuals and as a people.
But I see one common thread that appears to influence our people today. The deciding factors are the beliefs not the mutual respect or acceptance. They have become where one was born or raised, adopted into, or assimilated within, what side of the border one lives on, what one eats or abstains from, but more so, if one follows the same messages as the rest of the masses. Are we raising a generation to be so insecure about ones self worth or have such poor self image, that they must rely on the norms defined by others? Does one have only two choices: conformity or catastrophe? If indeed that is, what a sad portrayal of humanity we make.
Until a few generations ago, it was believed: “It takes a village to raise a child”.
Now, we have begun asking: “Who lives in that village?”