Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Is A Time For .....

...Sex, Bingo, and Dried Fruit and Nuts.

You wouldn't think that Christmas would be celebrated in a Muslim country, but here in Turkey it has become a fairly major shopping season celebrated by many. Of course, the religious component is absent - no reference to JC, the Virgin, or Magi - but, instead, has been re-termed the "Yılbaşı", or "New Year" festivity. Everything is the same in the seasonal celebration - Christmas trees, house decorations, and even Santa (after all, St. Nick was born in Turkey), are included, and the period of the celebration is the same, roughly from mid-December through to early January, gifts are exchanged and everybody has Christmas cheer.

Of course, not everyone shares this enthusiasm for this Christian celebration. Some - presumably hardcore minded Muslims - encourage the faithful to avoid participation in general, and joint participation with Christians, in particular. Since we live in a relatively conservative area, we are, naturally, exposed to some of this opposition to Christmas. Last year someone was kind enough to leave several extremely well-made, and expensive-looking flyers in our building that warned believers of the unsavoury nature of Christmas.

The flyer sought to discourage participation in Christmas celebrations by warning believers that Christians celebrate by having sex, playing bingo, and eating "kuruyemiş" or dried fruit and nuts. I was shocked because if I had known about the sex, then I would have attended midnight mass more regularly as a youth. This kind of makes me think that this tactic might ultimately backfire - which man isn't willing to endure a bit of bingo and dried fruit if sex is available as part of the package?

Of course, I remained confused about this notion that bingo and eating nuts and dried fruit were in some way morally suspect or irreligious. Luckily, I have an acquaintance who belongs to a community known as "Levantines" who are of Italian or Greek ethnicity but were born and raised in Istanbul. This acquaintance and his wife are an older couple, who have lived through some extremely turbulent and harrowing times as members of a minority group, and were able to shed some light on this dried fruit and bingo debauchery. The reference to the dried fruit and nuts was a mockery of an Orthodox Christian tradition of exchanging these items as a symbol of unity and sharing. The bingo allusion was an insinuation that gambling is an integral part of Christmas - and gambling is frowned upon in Islam.

Naturally, I found these characterizations ludicrous and laughed, but my friends were clearly rattled and disturbed by all of it, and seemed confused by my lack of concern about such obviously (to them) inflammatory bigotry. What enabled me to be casual about this bigotry was that I had simply not shared their experiences and, therefore, couldn't find an emotional attachment to them. Amongst Americans of Asian descent in the US, this is a similar phenomenon to our own - when first-generation immigrants (or Asian observers in Asia) don't see how or why American born or raised Asians would feel disturbed or dehumanized by racial slurs or racial mockery in American culture. To them it is something that they are, perhaps, emotionally detached from because they were not exposed to it since childhood.

What this shows me is how closely history - personal and group experiences - are intertwined with culture and identity. Without acknowledging that history, it is almost impossible to find commonality or understanding between either individuals or groups - even groups of similar ethnic background. For my Levantine acquaintances, these seemingly (to me) innocuous jibes represented a far more serious historical culture of hostility (that has now, thankfully, significantly receded) than I knew. Likewise, because the Asian-American historical experience - both personal and communal - is culturally invisible, our life stories seem to get lost in the wider cultural context of American society, hence, an ongoing perspective of Asians as outsiders and foreigners with whom there is little commonality.

So, in some ways, integration and acceptance of minority groups depend to a significant degree on the integration and acceptance of a minority's historical narrative. In fact, calls to end ethnic studies highlight the importance of the minority historical narrative and can be interpreted as a way to avoid integrating such narratives into mainstream culture and consciousness, whilst at the same time weakening the all-important foundation of identity; historical experience.

For example, imagine an America that does away with narratives surrounding Thanksgiving, July 4th, or even the Boston Tea Party. These histories reflect and represent the very foundation of what we Americans believe about ourselves and which informs our American national identity. Thanksgiving reflects a religious bedrock narrative of America as a manifestation of divine providence, and religious freedom. The Independence Day and the Boston Tea Party narratives remind Americans that their refusal to acquiesce to an unrepresentative and despotic monarchy reflects their fundamental nature as freedom loving individuals and whose personal and national identities are informed by this nature. These historical experiences and narratives are fundamental to the American identity and to end such narratives would significantly alter the way Americans feel about themselves and hence American culture. This is why most authoritarian governments aggressively control historical narratives - doing so shapes the national identity and creates a more easily manipulated public whose uniformity of opinion diminishes dissent.

In this light, it is easy to understand the sentiment amongst some Asian-Americans of feeling disconnected or "cut adrift" from mainstream America. Our histories and experiences are often white-washed such that it becomes normal to accept that pervasive anti-Asian racism is actually only an anomaly perpetrated by ignorant individuals - even though casual racist caricaturing and stereotyping normalize such racism in the first place. Without even the most rudimentary knowledge (let alone acceptance) of our historical experience as Americans and as targets of colonial expansion, it is hardly surprising that American culture continues to view us as outsiders.


  1. Good Read. Gives me something to think about.

  2. Disagree that asian immigrants dont view racism as bad. The only difference between them and us western born asians is that they never had to grow up in it therefore they arent either:

    1. sensitive or aware to the insidiousness of anti-asian pervasiveness as we are
    2. desensitised to it as we have trained ourselves to become

    what is more interesting in your culture is the embracing of western cultural festivities and events because western asians, by and large tend not to hold onto their traditions. In this respect, when the festive days we celebrate are western but at the same time we are ostracised and yet we dont have our own cultural celebration ( look how korea, japan etc also celebrate christmas) then asian culture has nothing to stand on. There is no 'asian day' is there? Until asians decide to feel that we are worth celebrating, then asians will never bond, and those who do celebrate festivities that are say Chinese eg Qing Ming, or Midautumn festival, or Solstice will do so privately. The only other option is to become a cultural nomad, which has been a trend enhanced by the immediate interactivity yet simultaneous detachment of social media

    For those who think its just history repeating itself, then it makes no difference anyway. The truth is that all time we are being distracted from the bigger picture, held in constant panic or sleepiness from the real evil out there.

    1. Anonymous

      Welcome and thanks for your comment. I think I agree with you more than disagree. I'm not saying saying that Asians in Asia don't view racism as bad - I'm simply saying that there are nuances to the experiences of Asian-Americans that may reflect an underlying culture of racism which non-Western-Asians may not be attuned to.

      And those are great points about celebrating Asian-American culture - I've actually been throwing around some ideas in my head about that subject which I may blog about at a later date.