Sunday, February 8, 2009

Of cultures, and J language matching game***

Can I ask you something today? There is a question at the end of these spiraling, sliding paragraphs which is intriguing me. Tell me if any part of this story piques your imagination?

(If it seems too confusing, take a look at the post-script first!)

In late sixties, a girl child was born in Poland. Was she born to a chorus of glad welcome, calm acceptance or resigned indifference? Was it a big city apartment, a townhouse, or a farmstead that she was taken to from the hospital? Where did her grandparents come from, which village did they trace their history to? Her father left the country when she was seven, to earn. Her mother, a year later. For the next three years, they could not visit while she stayed with her grandparents. Was she staying with them before as well? Were they nice? Strict? Orthodox, traditional or modern? Loving and generous or miserly? So much is conjecture, so much a case history can not tell us. We can only assume, fill in the blanks with our own imagination.

An imagination that is restricted by experience.

When we are told that she took care of an older disabled cousin, how can we know what it was like unless we know already what it means to live with someone suffering from severe cerebral palsy? To live, and to take care of such a person? And even then we can not say. Was she too skinny to hold him up properly, or buxom an
d strong? What was it like, those years long back, spent in low beamed smoke darkened narrow corridors, or in open cold fields, or comfortable though cramped rooms with warm amber hued walls and robin blue ceiling? I have not been to Poland, have no Polish friends. What smells wafted from the kitchen, which were the rhymes chanted by children? Was there music, were there nosy helpful neighbours, a posse of bustling relatives? What was her life like, those days, so far from me in time and space and understanding? She was proud of the work she did, caring for her cousin. The doctor questioned, wondered if she had not wanted to get away, whether her current symptoms may actually have an origin in that time when she had felt abandoned, overworked. Was that truly how she had felt, back then, at the age of eight? Did she have friends to envy, other children to emulate or compare herself with? Or, was it matter of fact, just as picking cotton under unrelenting white skies was for slave children a century back in America? Or, as taking care of four younger siblings may be, for the little girl in a village in Bihar, today? A reality from which there is no specific yearning to escape, for no alternative is known. Only a general, diffuse unhappiness within the only life one has seen.

Three years later, she got her father back, for a brief d
uration of time. He left again, this time for Greece, where he re-married, had another daughter. Where her mother was, the history doesn't tell us, but presumably she was back as well. When the father returned with his new family, mother and daughter were allowed to leave for the distant shores of promising future, the United States of America, in return for giving up any claims on their home and belongings. What was it like, this separation? The terms of this exchange seem patently unfair to us, yet, they were accepted, perhaps gladly? What was the kind of life that mother and daughter left, in return for this displacement, this relocation to a new culture? When they reached, were they able to talk in English, did they have any friends or relations to go to? In those teenage years, did she have any friends? Was she able to adjust to school easily, was she accepted? How did her mother feel, leaving her country alone, with a child, a growing daughter to provide for? How many hours did she need to work, how much of silent abuse did she take, for the sake of a future? Or are we looking at the wrong end of the social spectrum; did she just move in with relatives, and have it real easy? Surely not - surely if both parents need to leave the country to earn, there is an element of fiscal uncertainty involved?

Slowly, a picture builds up in my mind; a picture of bleakness and craving for the good things, for an easy, loving life. How much of it is true, who
can tell? For the words, only partly sanitized in medical detachment, come from someone who is trained to listen, dissect, question, expose, tease and fit into criteria, syndromes, disease. The compassion is, and perhaps must, be subservient to scientific coolness. But man is man, even when a psychiatrist, and there is excitement when you find a hidden clue; laughter at some unexpected turn; triumph on uncovering a diagnosis. So much is subjective even so, dependent on the observer's state of mind. The analyses may be faultless, yet false, for it is not easy always to know where the patient is coming from... Ms. A, the girl grown up, dropped out of college, married her sweetheart when pregnant. Six years later, there is trouble in marriage as well, and the husband may be required to leave the country any time. So much fact can be American, the common thread the investigator and she share, understand. But what of all that went into the making of this person, not just her own years but those of generations behind and around her? And of the doctor? Which culture led him to this meeting? What makes him think that "we need to ask if Ms. A slept with her mother nightly until she was 18 years of age to reassure herself that both she and her mother were safe and connected" ?

For is that so significant? Perhaps it is, for a people who are able to place a month old baby in a solitary crib in another room, and sleep. But for another culture? I do not know how it is Poland; can't pretend to have any glimmering of Polish customs. I can however, find no reason for this fact to be accorded any importance whatsoever. What more natural than to share a room when your quarters are cramped, when there is little money to waste on heating the rest of the apartment, if that is what it was? What else, with no family member to live under the same roof with? Just the two of them together against the rest of the world, unfriendly if not hostile? The loneliness of those displaced goes beyond the need for connections. Longing for a word in familiar tones, a gesture of old friendship, or even the crowds from far away 'home' is enough to bond strangers together. Why not mother and daughter? It is not that I am not able to appreciate what the doctor questions. It is just that were I was he, I would have found no reason to even note this as important, for I would have understood it as completely natural...

And there again I perhaps would have erred. For, like I said, I know not where she came from...

This post has been in the making this last two days, and I have been preparing to feature ABC, part II finally, but chance wins. The evening snack time was short today, and we both were cranky from lack of sleep. In no mood for games which would go on and on, I browsed through the bookmarks for something short and newish, and chanced upon something I had saved as language match game. Turns out that it was a link to a site called 'Jewish Education & Entertainment', which I thought would fit in with the theme of different cultures, different thoughts. So here we are!

The site is flash based, so I could not have given only a link to one game which we played. But it doesn't take any time to load, and is pretty simple really. It is the brainchild of Jacob Richman, who states that he wanted to create a "Jewish oriented site that would be educational, fun, simple to use and friendly." As far as I can make out, it is intended for Jewish children (and adults) who are trying to learn English as well. I expect it can be used by teachers and parents talking of the Jewish festivals and culture as well. As right now, I am not in that phase at all, with my sole interest having been in the matching game, I must beg our pardon if the rest of the site doesn't prove to be helpful or accurate.

The language matching game gives an option of learning or playing. When you choose learn, you are given a set of cards with an image and the name written in Hebrew and English, which is read aloud when you click on the card. You can choose the language to read it in, and the set of cards, for example, vegetables, fruits, tools etc. On choosing to play, you are given the additional choice of easy, medium or difficult games.

After that, it is a standard card matching memory game.The number of sets and the game level choices make it a great game for teaching toddlers and pre-schoolers. The illustrations are clear and easily identifiable for the most part. The naming of each object as its card is turned is an added advantage, both in terms of remembering where it was and in identifying the object.

The hangman game is likewise either in Hebrew or English, but the words are all Jewish themes, eg. Jewish months as in the example above, which I chose at random, and got right quite by accident!

The colouring book has Jewish themed pages only, which would have been quite useful had the quality of the illustrations been better. However, colouring is colouring, and it is enjoyable. I have avoided it for now, because I don't feel equipped to answer questions like 'what is happening here mama?' till I do some more research.

Briefly the other links - 'Hebrew sign maker' allows you to print out Hebrew characters even if you don't have a special keyboard, through their online one; 'My Hebrew songbook' refused to open for me today; 'In memory of' told me of the Jewish custom to read special verses at a grave, according to name of the deceased. You can find those verses here if you enter the name and sex. The databases and the trivia quiz I have not explored. The word search game is the usual one where you have to find words in a jumble of letters; the geography game has a learning component where you can read a para each about different cities/places, and then you are quizzed about these when you play.

The url -

P.S. And now for the background, and explanation:

New York, 2005. A Polish origin woman in mid twenties was brought in the casualty, after she called up saying she was afraid she'd hurt her six year old son if she stayed home with him. She was admitted.

New York, 2008. Grand rounds at the hospital. Case presented: Diagnosing PTSD: Does It Help Us Heal? The doctor who presented the case had been treating her for about a year. He presented the history, discussed his diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder relating to child birth as the precipitating trauma, and was advised, in turn, by others.

New Delhi, 2009. Published article is read by yours truly. One sentence catches my attention, leads to musing, wondering how much difficult it is to really understand another being, when so little a thing may be accorded no significance in one culture, and be viewed with horror in another. Result, above. :)

What do you think? It would be interesting to know your take on this - do write in!

1 comment:

Nino's Mum said...

Very touching post, Swati.
One particular observation hit me especially hard:
'A reality from which there is no specific yearning to escape, for no alternative is known. Only a general, diffuse unhappiness within the only life one has seen.'
and food for thought, the fact that culture does tend to affect our logical reasoning. I'm afraid it leaves me even more worried about being understood before being tagged.