Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cultural Norms

Chillin' like a villain in the car.

Daniel, Bethany & Stella playing with Oobleck

Granny loves Stella a little bit.

The Kentucky Cousin Symphony Orchestra!

I'm sorry I went AWOL there for a while. The Brooklyn Baby Empire made its summer pilgrimage to my home state, Kentucky, for some much needed R&R and Brooklyn Baby Adoration -- Southern Style, and I found it hard to tear myself away from that to blog.

We drank an ocean of sweet tea, ate our weight in biscuits, sat on the porch swing, saw lightning bugs, enjoyed Granny's free babysitting (I saw two whole movies, at night, sans baby), and revelled in friends, family, nature and the general upbeat kindness that pervades most social interactions there.

I've lived in NYC now for 11.25 years, but every time I leave and come back, I am consumed with culture shock. I guess the 22.25 years I spent in Kentucky still win out in my head, no matter what.

For example, I grow accustomed to saying hello to people I encounter in Kentucky -- friends or no, but when I say "hi" or even nod my head to strangers here, they sometimes gather up their belongings and run the other way.

There's also a general sense of familiarity with folks in Kentucky that's missing here. A good Venn diagram could be drawn using two bathroom experiences I had -- one there, one here. In Kentucky, I waited in a line at McDonald's to relieve myself of my McCafe. (Would that be McUrine?) A woman rushed in, obviously in as much need as I, and I bristled, waiting for the fight for my spot in line. Instead she smiled at me, said she was sorry, shuffled in behind me, and made conversation about how all this morning coffee leads to a rush on the facilities. Nice, right?

Back in the North (not NYC, but close to it, on the drive back), I went to the bathroom at a Perkins. When I went to wash my hands, I was dumbfounded by the soap dispenser. It looked spage-agey and confounding. I pushed this button, I held this trigger down, all to no avail. Finally, I pushed the right part, but my hand was under the wrong section, so the soap sprayed all over my shirt. I laughed and looked at the woman next to me, saying, "well, I guess the worse that'll happen is my shirt will get clean." Nothing. Crickets. She didn't even make eye contact. Then another woman did exactly what I did, and I laughed again, saying, "the same thing just happened to me!" Silence. Awkward silence, as if I just asked both her and her husband out for a date.

The variance in social interaction is also apparent among parents. Stella, as my loyal readers may recall, can be prone to extreme mood changes and Earth-shattering tantrums. Out of the clear blue sky, my little darling can arch her back, smack her face, scream at the top of her lungs, throw things, and attempt to crack her skull on the sidewalk. This happened a few times in Kentucky, and it was such a relief to me when other parents either smiled at me sympathetically, shared an similar experience they had with their own kid, or even laughed and made some remark like, "she's quite the firecracker, isn't she?" It made me feel connected, supported, normal.

Here in New York City (in fact, as recently as Monday) my experience is quite different. Stella begins to freak out, and people look the other way. Some even move away. Some look gratefully at their own child as if to say, "thank God you don't do that." Some look suspiciously at me as if to say, "what did you do to cause that?" If I try to make a joke about it, something along the lines of, "OK, OK, I'll get you the Chanel swim diaper if you just cut it out," people ignore me or do the pained-looking half smile.

This has been a major source of chagrin for me, because the way I deal with tough situations is by joking and connecting with others. I find it very hard to wrap Stella and me in a cocoon, waiting for the fit to pass, and then act like nothing happened.

However, I don't want my loyal readers from all parts of this country to take offense and think that I'm a xenophobe. I did think about this quite a bit, and realized that my fellow Yankee playground-mates aren't bad people. I think the cultural norm up here above the Mason Dixon line is to give someone personal space, to not get in their face, to not embarrass them. What I take as judgment and coldness may, in fact, be their way of respecting me and giving me space.

Did I mention that it's part of my culture to be easily offended and take things personally? I'm not sure if that's a Kentucky thing or more specific to my family.

Anyway, I remain dedicated to my new goal of seizing the day, even if I really do wish that the Brooklyn Family were in Kentucky and not here in Kensington. Readers, I will find the good in people, even my chain-smoking neighbors who move furniture at 3 am and let doors slam in my face!

I must take a moment to brag on the Brooklyn Baby for surviving a 26 hour round-trip car ride! We broke it up into 3 days down and 3 days back, stopping off in Charleston, WV and Hagerstown, MD (speaking of, I must recommend the Charleston B&B: 28 Bradford Street -- excellent proprietors and beautiful accommodations). She had her moments of crankiness, but they were few and mild. My little girl is a born traveller, loving the open road, smiling at all the new faces, revelling in all the new stairs to climb at the various stops along the way (stairs are her new obsession). She even, dare I admit this, slept pretty well, despite the hard-as-a-rock pack and play.

And she frankly adored her cousins. Her twelve-year-old cousin Daniel was a tremendous help to me, watching Stella so I could shower or check my all-important Facebook page, sitting next to her in the car and keeping her occupied so she forgot to get cranky, fetching her the many items she dropped so she could utter the words, "uh oh." Her four-year-old cousin Bethany played so gently with Stella and showed her neat tricks, like how to blow bubbles or how to get messy with Oobleck. Her nine-year-old cousin Kaitlyn shared her cute dachshund with an animal-fanatic Stella and tried to cuddle the least cuddly kid known to man. Add to this the pure adoration and patience of her aunts and uncles, Nora, Brian, Jason and Nikole, and I guess I can understand why Stella's experiencing a recent bout of "get out of my face, everything annoys me" crankiness now that it's just me and her between the hours of 9am and 7pm.

The Brooklyn Baby Daddy may not agree, but I think the Brooklyn Baby is quite Southern in her ways, and is having just as much culture shock as her sweet-tea-craving momma.


Tiffanie said...

btw, Randi ~ i know this isn't necessarily what you intended, but reading your frank parental musings has really helped me to be more mindful in my interactions with parents on the sidewalks. though no two families do things exactly the same, we all try to do our best in every moment, and we all love our children. this is what i try to keep in mind. i don't want to be one of those judgmental and silent parents you speak of. i wanna be one who smiles and winks in understanding.

Holly said...

Yay!!! Glad you're blogging again, Randi! Welcome back to NY!

Anne Stesney said...

About the playground, perhaps it's your neighborhood? I live in Prospect Heights, and whenever my kid is having a tantrum at the Underhill Playground, I get very sympathetic, encouraging remarks. But I do find that the Park Slope playgrounds have more standoffish parents, with the exception of The Garfield Tot Lot.

Randi Skaggs said...

Ah, Tiffanie, that's cool! It is a hard thing to keep in mind, and I'm certainly not perfect at it.

Hi Holly!

Anne, maybe you're right. I actually go to a playground in Windsor Terrace, but maybe it's a bit Park Slopey. There have a been a few kind exceptions to the rule, but for the most part it's "try not to look at the crazy lady and her tantrum-prone daughter."