Who are we? And who do we live with?

I thought about this on Saturday night as I heard loud music coming from a neighbor’s yard, a couple houses distant. It was good music, a Latin-ethno-pop interpretation of The Girl From Ipanema, and the lead instrument was a violin with accompaniment from a couple of guitars and an accordion, I think. I’m talking about a live band. Wonderful music and fitting the mood Nettie and I were in after an evening out for dinner with friends and now floating in our pool at 9:30 at night on this sweltering evening in Woodland Hills Suburbia.

oldhamii

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We enjoyed the sounds. But what if we didn’t? What if we hated the music? Then we would likely hate the attitude of neighbors who could be so insensitive and so intrusive as to host a live band whose volume level made it audible from blocks away, even through my protective oldhamii bamboo shield, which has grown pretty darn impressively don’t ‘cha think?

Yes, so who are we now, now that our neighbors are so diverse in race, religion, country origin, education, background, and all the other elements that make up what we collectively call culture?

As many of you know, I just returned from two months in Poland where 96% of the population is white and Catholic, that is if you don’t include the rainbow parade of tourists you see and hear everywhere. The Poles share a common history that binds them together and a visible future that seems to encourage optimism and a sense of common purpose. Such homogeneity has its downsides, of course, and diversity is not something I’m uncomfortable with. After all, I’m a British immigrant in a country born of immigrants and a strong supporter of immigration reform.

The Immigrants

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No, I’m talking about something much more internal, something more specific, and for me at least, something felt especially in the suburbs. Somehow, I expect big cities to be bustling with the noise and vivacity of many tribes, many cultures, many points of view. But the suburbs of my youth were homogenous and it’s that image that is stuck (and I do mean “stuck”) in my head.

I realized this Saturday night as the band played on and I reviewed in my head the neighbors on our street and the street behind us, house by house, family by family…Brazilian, Chinese, Mexican, Israeli, Iranian, Indian, Greek, British (not me but a new neighbor)…some I know, some I don’t know. But just about all of them recent immigrants speaking the language of their birth country in their home, cooking the foods of their culture on their stoves and barbeques (wonderful flavors that fill the air on a summer night), and often playing the music they grew up with in their backyards.

Suburbia

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I feel as if I’m living through a second Ellis Island phase in an upper middle-class suburban landscape this time. It’s not 19th century New York City, it’s 21st century Woodland Hills or Calabasas or Tarzana or any of the suburban towns that surround us. And what I feel most is that these diverse cultures are currently distinct cultures, living if not literally in the same neighborhood on the same street, nevertheless “living” and recreating independently the same cultural experience of their particular community.

What’s the effect on suburbia of yore? On the downside, some fracturing of the sense of a oneness and common purpose. The positives are obvious as well. Diversity as I said earlier is a good thing, an enriching thing. Who wants the constraints and simple boredom that the Leave-It-To-Beaver world of my youth brought with it? No me. In fact, our hippie generation was in part a strong reaction to it, and I still have my love beads to prove it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I find myself feeling out of place at times as if I’m in someone else’s country…at the grocery store, at the mall, at the movie theater, at the gas station, or even on my patio where the sights and sounds, the whirl of faces, the chatter of foreign tongues, the distinct clothing of distinct cultures swirls around me.

iranian food

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And yet, we seek it out, too. Nettie and I love our local Iranian market filled with foods and flavors not available at Whole Foods or Trader Joes and where the energetic rhythms of Persian music animate the produce and deli counters. We’re delighted every time an authentic “ethnic” restaurant opens near us. We attend multi-ethnic cultural events, museums, faires, and outdoor souks for the rich experience they offer. And of course we have friends in all a of these cultures (I hope that doesn’t sound too self-serving and civil rights-ish). And my sister, after all, married an Israeli decades ago so that his culture is now a part of my British/Polish family as well part of Annette’s Russian/German/Polish background too.

Maybe I’m just getting older. Maybe my brain is less capable of integrating the admixture of the cultural soup quickly enough so that I don’t feel as if I’m on the outside looking in. Yeah, maybe it’s just that. Yeah. That must be it. My brain can’t keep up.

And as I write these words on Sunday morning, listening to my Gregorian Chants (a weekly bow, not a genuflection, to a religion I no longer practice), my feeble brain also can’t remember if I left my outside stereo speakers on. I certainly hope not. I wouldn’t want to offend any Zoroastrian or Muslim or Taoist or Vedic or Hindu or Buddhist or Jewish or Anglican or even Protestant neighbors who may be listening.

And if they are offended, I’ll say to them nicely, “Sorry, but you and I live in the new suburbia, the slow melting pot of the planet.”

I just hope they’ll understand what I mean.

coexist

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4 Responses to The New Suburbia

  1. Ursula says:

    Happy Fourth to you both!
    Just returned from a month in SE Asia – incredible visits to Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. I wanted to see these countries before they became too americanized and still lived their historic cultures. Burma and Laos were my favorite but all the people were gentle, polite and smiling even though they had nothing but family and a hut to live in. The ugly Americans are now the Chinese!
    Miss you, Ursula

  2. Maxwell says:

    Nice piece…

  3. Beverly Pine says:

    Hi Frank – and then there are the neighbors we don’t have …. we had a group of southerners on our last trip (I mean Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia) … so I started listening to a country music station to try to understand them better. Among the popular songs today are “She thinks my tractor’s sexy,” “God is great, beer is good, people are crazy.” Let me know if you hear anything like that while floating in your pool. Happy fourth (and God Bless America). Beverly

  4. Lea says:

    Interesting topic and a fun read!

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