Thursday, September 10, 2009

Culture and Physical Attributes

Like I used to do in the days when I had more time in the afternoons on my hands (as in, when I didn't edit two community newspapers and juggle a plethora of other freelance work), I used to go out, run errands, and then park myself in a coffee shop for the rest of the day. Armed with notebooks, letters, and a book or two, I was set - combined with caffeine, it was a pastime that was creative and productive.

Yesterday, I relived those days when I spent several hours in a nearby Starbucks - OK, I know what my activist friends think of that place, but I had an early evening get-together and it was the most convenient spot for both of us. After locking up my bike in the parking lot, I passed by an elderly couple heading into the drugstore that neighbours the coffee shop. Older folks in that shopping complex are nothing unusual, but this couple caught my attention because the husband was dressed in a suit, aiding his wife who was using a walker. I had one of those intense, "these people are noticing you" kinds of feelings.

In Starbucks, I sat at a table in a comfy chair, finishing off correspondence, writing in my journal, finishing a poem. I noticed that Mr. Smartly-Dressed and his wife occupied a table near the door. After a while, I looked up, and there he was, asking me if he could have the Edmonton Sun someone who occupied the table before me had left behind. Of course he could (I did not even flip through the thing). In his dignified British accent, he made mention of my "cross." I wasn't wearing a cross - I was wearing a large, silver-coloured Star of David I purchased recently. However, I knew what he meant. He went on to ask me if I was a Jewess (yes, I do believe he used that word). I answered in the affirmative. He said he and his wife had noticed me wearing it, and figured I must be pretty proud. I said I was.

He went on to ask if the symbol had any political meaning to it. I said in this case no, it was just an indication of my culture and faith. He proceeded to tell me he was Roman Catholic, even though he wore no symbols indicating such, and said there were lots of Jews who had become Catholic, and recommended a certain cable tv channel which was Catholic-oriented and featured some personalities with Jewish backgrounds. I thanked him for the information.

Picking up on whatever suble clues I apparently give out that I am a keen student of human behaviour, he launched into a story about his family's ethnic and religious background, the worldviews of Jewish philosophers versus Greek ones, and how Jesus never discussed Aristotle. Pointing to my wire frame glasses, he said he could tell I was an intellectual and thus interested in such things. Which I am, on both counts I hope, but wonder what his reaction would have been had I been wearing my sunglasses or thicker, plastic frames.

Finally, he asked me if I spoke Hebrew. While I know a few words here and there, alas I do not. He added that I certainly do not, "look that way." Rather, I looked Northern European. Yes, I have gotten the, "That's funny - you don't look Jewish" line before, so I was gracious about it, but I always wonder what the subtext actually is. Are cultural stereotypes still so ingrained in us, that we assume just because someone is a member of such-and-such group that they have to have certain physical features?

Now, I don't assume for one moment that this man - who said he was a scientist, no less - was an anti-Semite. Nor was I offended. I just find these kinds of comments curious. A friend recently told me she thinks I look Dutch (that's Northern European, isn't it?), and I found that interesting as well. On the other hand, I have also been told that I do, in fact, look Jewish. What does that mean or imply? Does it really mean anything? Would this same person have gone up to someone wearing a cross and tell them that he or she looked Christian?

I know a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds. Whether or not they fit the "look" of a particular group is usually not a discussion topic. Yes, there are some ethnic body issues, but again, those are universal. White, Anglo-Saxon women have issues also. In popular culture, we do sometimes discuss personality or temperamental cultural behaviours (again, stereotypes like the hot-tempered Irishman, stingy Sottish person, or over-protective Jewish mother) and sometimes even exploit them - where would Woody Allen, or even Jerry Seinfeld, be without playing up neurotic Jewish characteristics?

I am purposely bringing up more questions than answers, because, frankly, there really aren't any answers. These are philosophical questions one can continue to mull over - just how tightly is the physical tied to the cultural?

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