Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Are you a stranger in a strange land?

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller

Immigrants often feel unwelcome in their new land.  Out of step with the prevailing culture, maybe not fluent enough in the local lingo, serving the wrong food to guests, it must be intimidating.  When I step into other culture’s activities, I’m forever wondering if I’m offending anyone by clapping my hands the wrong way, having my feet pointed in the wrong direction, using a Kleenex in public. 

It’s so easy to make cultural mistakes.  I recall being less than grateful when an Ismaili couple invited my family to a New Year’s Day brunch.  They had been living in Canada for years, so I suppose they believed themselves to be acculturated to Canadian customs.  They weren’t, quite.  They served us wieners, grey broccoli and cornflakes on a table that had been decorated with pieces of linoleum.  I tried to hide my shock as best as I could, telling myself they weren’t, they couldn’t, they wouldn’t be purposely trying to offend me, but my oh my.  Imagine their dismay at my troubled and conflicted face during what should have been a wonderful morning.  I would have given them more slack if they’d recently arrived, or were making very little money, but neither was their case.

I often think of how easily any of us make similar mistakes when entering another culture.  Note to immigrants to Canada: never ever serve wieners, grey broccoli and cornflakes on a special, holiday morning.  In fact, never serve those items to guests, ever. 

But these are hardly cultural crimes. The whites in Africa during Apartheid made much bigger mistakes. They behaved so ruthlessly that eventually they had to form armed convoys just to get to the grocery store.  Serving grey broccoli to the resident Africans might not have been welcomed.  But it was their own callousness and cruelty that led to their eventually having to resort to military tactics merely to buy their broccoli.

Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight details some of the shocking behaviors committed, but goes further.  In this novel arrogant and highly dysfunctional British parents subject their young daughters to incredibly harsh conditions in Apartheid Africa, because back in Britain, they can’t lead a lifestyle that involves servants or beautiful vistas seen from large homes.  They would have to live like commoners if they lived in Britain, and that would not do.

This novel has a wonderful irony in that you’d expect the daughters would grow up like princesses among paupers.  But the large homes they move into, and then lose, and move into again, are moldy, rusty and decrepit.  There are servants whose living conditions resemble slum conditions, so they must be resentful and envious of their white bosses, but we readers living in a middle class Western lifestyle are horrified at the ramshackle poverty this British family faces. 

Despite the parents’ racial superiority, lack of common sense and arrogance, they have some good qualities.  Their sense of humour endears the reader, a little bit.  At one point the mother points out a “small plague of missionaries” who are about to enter their property.  Two profusely sweating men in white shirts, ties and black pants are struggling to catch their breath while introducing themselves.

Since the men are of European descent, the mother invites them in, and allows them to take seats in the dilapidated living room.  The red faced still huffing men immediately start frantic scratching, as they’re sitting on the flea infested furniture that is normally reserved for the dogs. 

Their eyes brighten when the youngest daughter, the narrator, brings a pot of tea into the room.  They are bewildered when she serves it to several dachshunds, who have been staring these men down for having stolen their chairs.  When one of the missionaries remarks that he’s never witnessed dogs being served tea, the mother says “How extraordinary!”

Despite the frequent humour in the novel, the girls do live in terrifying and hostile conditions.  Born in what was then known as Rhodesia, they love their land passionately, regardless of the political changes.  Much more open to democracy than their parents, they appear to have a future in what they believe is their homeland. 

But their parents have no desire to be integrated into the land they have emigrated to.  They could not care less about being welcomed.  Consequently they don’t suffer in the usual sense from cultural isolation, because their answer to unfriendly neighbors is just to shoot them if they become a tad too unwelcoming.  The parents are remarkably well armed.  So as long as they can legally remain armed, they’re content enough.

It’s the daughters who are torn between their parents’ views and the unfairness of how the neighbors are treated.  Although neither daughter desires to be fully integrated into their homeland, they want to be safe and welcome.  

If you feel like a stranger in a strange land, this could be a therapeutic book for you to read.  It won’t give answers in how to live in these conditions, but perhaps a few insights.  It is a fascinating read.

No comments:

Post a Comment