What happens when cultures collide over the most innocent of things? How would you feel if someone refused your hand for religious reasons? How should I feel and what should I do in future? Your comments and advice are gratefully received.
We have a new family on the street and, as we’re a lovely bunch on our road, we’ve made sure to make them feel welcome, just as we did for our new nextdoor neighbour and our neighbours did for us. It makes me happy to instill in others the love and pride I have and we share for our little road.
We live in Shipley / Frizinghall, and it’s not the most salubrious of locations: the postcode, ward and constituency facts and figures show it’s an area of low income & low education and high-ish unemployment & high-ish crime, but it is, by no means, an awful place to live. Our road, though, is an oasis, as everyone comments when they come to visit or move on to the road. Despite living near three busy roads, our houses are sheltered from the hustle, bustle and noise that others just around the corner cannot escape, and our well-kept yards and cultivated gardens are a source of escape and pride. Another thing that’s at odds with those on other streets around us is that our new neighbours are only the second British-Asian family on the street.
I’ve seen the man of the house many times as he’s been carefully and diligently renovating the house, making it habitable for his young family, and I’ve often stopped to say hello and have a chat, as have many of my neighbours; indeed, he commented, tongue in cheek, the other day that he reckoned they’d have moved in a couple of months earlier if we hadn’t been so friendly. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, his Bradford accent, pride for the area, and pedigree of living in houses within about three miles of here all his life showed that he’s a Bratfud lad, just like me.
His two daughters have been rushing up and down the street all summer, getting to know the other kids round here and loving that they can now ride and run and play without the worry or inconvenience of traffic. At first, they were scared of our dog, Jess. Jess is a Staffordshire bullterrier, so is victim of bad press – no-one seems to remember that they are nicknamed ‘the nanny dog’ for very, very good reason and love children (though she couldn’t eat a whole one –haha. Erm, actually, she could). So, patiently and over weeks, I spoke to them about Jess and they’ve moved on from fear, to saying hello, to patting her through the gate, to giving her treats. Now, they call for her to see if she’s playing out – I kid you not! – and we’ll hear them shouting for her by name whilst they have no idea what
OK – I suppose you know why I’ve told you all this. What these anecdotes show is that I am not racist; I welcome people on to our road no matter what their colour or creed; I treat all the kids, all the adults, all the people on our road the same. I’ve done it jovially, to show I’m a nice guy, and I’ve demonstrated that I havebeen nothing less than a good neighbour. Now we all know this, can I tell you about something that happened the other day?
The new guy (I’m purposefully not using his name and consciously not giving him a moniker) was in the street looking at his garden. It’s overgrown because whilst he’s been working on the house, they’ve been living elsewhere and, of course, the house came first. Now they’re in, they’re looking at what to do with the garden. I went up to see how they were getting on and he said he didn’t know what to do with the jungle he was staring at. I told him what the previous owner did, to give him an idea of what he could do, and offered to give him a bit of a tour of ourgarden, to give him ideas. He beamed! He beamed just as I had when a neighbour had done the same for us. He said, “My wife would love to grow some veg,” and, at that minute, out came his wife from the yard. I shoved my hand in her direction and grinned, “Hi, we’ve not met. I’m John,” as I stepped towards her. That’s when something odd happened:
I’m not sure she recoiled, but in my memory, maybe she did. She stepped back – is that recoiling? The guy jumped in and explained that, “My wife can’t shake your hand. It’s a religious thing.” He insisted I shook his hand to show we were friends and that it was not intended to cause offense, but a religious observance. I said I had no problem with it (I’m not sure that I was truthful; I was certainly confused) and we walked up and into my garden. The bloke and I chatted about veg and plants and weeds and greenhouses; his wife followed at a distance, and anything I said that might be of immediate interest to her, he raised his voce to repeat. She never spoke. She never spoke to me. She left after a bit of a wander without thanks or even acknowledgement.
Me and the guy carried on chatting for ages – about half an hour. I told them what we’d done with garden, how we’d planned it and why we’d done this and chosen not to do that. After a while, his daughters and nephews, after the girls had introduced the boy to Jess, wandered up and I showed them how to select and pick the best, ripest apples, which they ate straight from the tree (they are not observing Ramadan yet). When I could, I asked the bloke about his wife’s not shaking my hand, and wondered if it was just during the holy month, but no. He again reassured me that it was not me, was not intended to cause offence, was not personal, but ‘a religious thing’. He said that his wife would happily talk to Sharon, but not me. He seemed to want to close that part of the conversation and I felt it rude to press, but I had questions.
Anyway, we carried on talking about veg and, at that point, Sharon came out with a bag of apples, potatoes and courgettes from the garden. He beamed again. With Sharon, we talked of recipes and what to do with each, and told him that, anytime, he could take rosemary from our bush to roast with the potatoes, and told him, simply, see what you buy and try growing that. He grinned when we told him of our success growing coriander – “Great! If it’s not got coriander in it, it’s not a proper meal,” he said. We said our first or
second goodbyes (very British – why must we say goodbye 3 or 4 times before leaving) with an apology – “I’m so sorry. We’re talking about food and you must be starving!” He said it was no problem, and then I asked about how he was finding fasting in the summer. He told me of 4am feasts before getting back to bed with a full stomach, but of the joy of breaking the fast in the evening. So, two or three goodbyes later, and an offer to wander round the garden or inspect the herb patch any time, off he went.
So, I’ll get to the main reason for this, and I could’ve been quicker at getting to this point, but then you wouldn’t know what a good non-racist neighbour I am, and might have thought this was just to an Ooh, aren’t they weird? post which accompanies any and every article on the T&A website which mentions race. I hope it doesn’t come across like that!
How should I feel about the lady of the house refusing to shake my hand or speak to me?
Of course, I had an immediate reaction – I think I panicked and worried that I’d done something wrong; should I not have offered my hand in friendship? I also had later thoughts as I mulled it over. Is it wrong that she reacted like that? Whose ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ had been transgressed? Why can’t she speak to me? Is it because I’m not a Muslim? Does she see me as less than her? Is it because I’m a man? Does she see me as a threat? Does she see me as less than her or her as less than me? I think the main thing is, I was offended by her reaction and our cultures clashed. There is little that a civilized westerner can do that is worse than refusing an offered hand – think of how many times you’ve seen it on TV and in film, and how it jars, and how the would-be-shaker and refuser react, and how it sets up an entirely unequal relationship which is filled with animosity and screams These two are about to fight. The ‘hand of friendship’ is entwined in our language as a metaphor, based on the literal act of making welcome and introduction. To refuse it is, well, wrong. It’s rude. Refusing a handshake is designed to hurt. I know this because I’ve seen it so many times and I’ve been brought up to know that.
I know that her refusal was not intended to cause offence; I know that it is her religion and her culture which forbade her from shaking my hand. However, my culture says that we are equals and we cannot treat each other differently just because we are of different genders or religions or colurs; and my culture says it’s rude to refuse an offered hand.
So, what I’m saying is, how should I feel about this? I know some things. I know that I want to be friendly with them, but also that I don’t want to friendly with someone who thinks that I am less than them because of religion or more than them because of gender or inherently different to them for pretty much any reason dictated by mere geography or genetics. I know that, had the bloke refused to talk to Sharon or refused her hand, he’d have left my garden quickly and horizontally. I know that I want to understand why she couldn’t shake my hand, but I’m not sure I could agree with any reason for it. I know I’m
confused: I don’t really know what I think, what I should think or what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Can you help me?
- Why did she refuse my hand?
- Why wouldn’t she talk to me but will talk to Sharon?
- Is there a hierarchical status thing going on here because of gender or religion, and where am I on it?
- Am I right to be offended (or feel that my sensibilities have been offended is possibly a better way of putting it)?
- If I see her in the garden, should I blank her, because that’s her culture, or give a cheery “Hi” because that’s mine?
- If someone is going to have their cultural rules transgressed here, should it be mine or hers? Why?
- And, why do the British need to say goodbye so many times?
I’d be grateful for your thoughts here. I’d ask that you be gentle to me because I honestly don’t know.
Thanks Irna – :^)