Love Traditions

I used to hate celebrating my birthday. It was so bad that I didn’t tell my friends the date of my birthday.

And today I love traditions from celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. How can hate turn to love?

I got help from two books. And it’s not everyday a book can give you a 180 perspective change. It happened because in Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering, she explained why we can become irritated and even dislike some of our ritualised gatherings.

Gatherings are made up of two components: purpose and form. And we often, if not most of the time, conflate the two.

Purpose focuses on the why. Why are you gathering in this moment? And the relevant part of this is “this moment”. Taking the birthday example, it may seem obvious why we celebrate birthdays – to celebrate our life. Yet, wasn’t your 7 year old birthday gathering different than your 18 year old one?

There were different purposes in those ages and every year there is often a different reason to gather and celebrate. And because of this, we chose a different way of celebrating each birthday year.

Form is about who we invite, the location, the food, etc. My 7 year old birthday party definitely had a different form than at 18 years. It’s often the unbeknownst linking of purpose and form that causes headaches.

Christmas traditions become about who should host or what traditional food should be cooked. All of this discussion happens without even clarifying the purpose of the Christmas gathering for that specific year.

In weddings, often the purpose needs to match what the couple wants but all too often discussions are centred around (and argued) over guest lists and bridesmaids. Having the wedding celebration be about the parents of the couple rather than the couple.

Traditions take shape and are changed over generations and often what was true decades ago is no longer applicable. Weddings are different even to the fact that weddings today include same sex couples and brides no longer wearing white in Christian weddings. We now have gender reveal parties (although this is currently changing as well) instead of baby showers.

And maybe even more relevant is how we changed our gatherings during the COVID pandemic. Our gatherings became digital and the form took a different shape. And in Priya Parker’s podcast episode she highlights how the Passover Seder could still have meaning and purpose with this new form (the video call).

Our traditions, although having a past element, shows us that they’re also about the future. A point Manning Nash touches on in his book, The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World.

It seems quite logical to think of the past when it comes to honouring traditions but what we often forget is that traditions need and must include the future generation. For then what is the point of honouring a tradition if the future generation does not carry it forward.

When I could separate out the purpose and form and look at how traditions are about honouring the past, present and future, I began to see the value in the celebrations in my life. I now look at my birthday each year and think of its purpose in this year and make a plan around that purpose. One year it was a trip, another it was just with my family and another I spent time on my own.

Traditions needn’t look to the past to gain wisdom in honouring the reasons why we gather. Every tradition, no matter how old or its origin, has evolved, taken shape and form and served a purpose in our humanity at a certain time.

I discuss my personal journey with traditions in the podcast episode 10: Love Traditions. Every 10 episodes I feature something I didn’t like or hated and now Love!

Ethnicity and Identity

What a heavy topic! And I dare to tackle it here. At least a part of it.

I finished up the book by anthropologist, Manning Nash, entitled The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World. And I drew so much insight from it on both ethnicity and identity.

First, ethnicity can be difficult to define and how each of us define our own ethnicity makes it more complicated. There’s a lot of emotion attached to it primarily because it represents our family of origin and how we live. It doesn’t get more personal than that.

But anthropologists have found a way to look at ethnicity without attributing definition to it. For starters, Nash views ethnicity from a build block stand point. So, no matter what ethnic group you belong to there will be one of these core three building blocks in it:

1. Bloodline, ancestry

2. Who you eat with (also including who you go to bed with)

3. Your religious beliefs

One of the most striking things for me is that language or nationality are not part of the core. They indeed make up the building blocks of ethnicity but Nash views these as secondary to the core 3.

And well, I agree with him. I’m often asked about my ethnicity from people that I share language and nationality with. All because I look different from. And this, of course, is attributed to my bloodline, my ancestry from South Asia.

Then, what’s ethnicity got to do with identity?

Do the three core building blocks of ethnicity link us to who we are? It’s a tricky question because the number one question we ask people when we first meet someone is where are you from?

Whatever you may think your reason is for asking this question, it’s most definitely linked to finding out more about the person. And then, in some cases, attributing the answer to a sense of who that person is.

The only thing this answer provides, according to Nash, is instant gratification to someone’s identity. We know that a person is more complex than their ancestral line. And it brings up the question, do you have identity when you don’t know your ancestry i.e. persecution, enslavement, adoption, mixed race?

If you link ethnicity, even if you include the other building blocks like language and nationality, do you have a better sense of yourself?

No. And that’s my answer. And Nash even addresses this in his book. He looks at identity like an onion. On the surface you have ethnicity and other outwardly features that distinguish you but there’s more to you than the surface. And like an onion, if you keep peeling back the layers you get deeper into your identity until you reach the middle – where there’s nothing.

And this concept of identity was further reflected in The Life Coach School podcast (I don’t remember the episode number) where the host said Identity is nothing more than the thoughts you think about yourself. Making the onion concept more blunt.

Identity is nothing more than what you think of yourself. If you attach identity to your race or ethnicity to the degree that defines you then that’s how you see yourself and your identity. If you think ethnicity is a smaller component and that the layers of the onion are based on your experiences and influences that aren’t visible, then that’s your identity.

Each of us places a certain amount of weight to the components of our identity. And like an onion and our thoughts about ourself, we have made up identity to be a construct in our head that can never be manifested outside of us.

If you’d like to listen to this topic, then head to podcast episode 9: Ethnicity and Identity.

Questions about your ethnicity

Where were your parents born? or What’s your background? Questions that are referring to ethnicity in subtle ways. Yet, with all these questions, what does ethnicity really mean?

Not being an expert myself, I recently read a book by anthropologist, Manning Nash, called “The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World” and watched the EPIX docuseries entitled “Enslaved” featuring Samuel L. Jackson and came to an unexpected idea about ethnicity, something that surprised me and maybe helps you look at questions (and your answers) about your ethnicity in a new light.

First, it may seem like questions about your ethnicity are more direct than “Where are you really from?”. And well, although it may be closer to the person’s intention of understanding why we don’t look or sound like them, it’s actually a very complicated question.

How would you answer the question: what’s your ethnicity?

By the time you’re an adult you’ve probably answered it by choosing a box on an official, institutional form (Black, Asian, White, etc.). Maybe it’s “Other”, maybe you choose it if you’re mixed race or adopted or don’t know. And today, in some countries (i.e. United Kingdom) you can even write in your own ethnicity.

Which brings me to two ways we can actually view ethnicity:

  1. How institutions/governments or others (friends, co-workers) define your ethnicity.
  2. How you define your ethnicity.

When others (including institutions) define your ethnicity it comes from a reference point (based on historical policy). It’s how they (policymakers) view and group people together to create a narrative that serves multiple purposes.

At a societal level, it allows for resource allocations (time and money) and research inquiries and policy formation (law and order). Often, efficiency and self-interests interfere with societal effectiveness.

At a personal level, our brains want efficiency as well. It organises information about others into common stories or narratives. This allows the brain to do its one job: running efficiently. This helps us survive while riding a bike, thinking and conversing (and today using our hand held devices).

It’s, by far, more efficient for the brain to notice a difference in another and fit it into a predetermined narrative than it is for it to spend time and energy to evaluate all the differences it comes into contact in one day. And then decide if this difference is “safe” for our survival. And to do so for similar “differences” we encounter multiple times would run the brain amuck.

This is what happens in mundane, small talk conversations where questions like “where are you from” or “what’s your ethnicity?” create an efficient (and instant) way of determining who the other person is (erroneously linking ethnicity to our identity) and thereby determining safety. When our responses to these questions match societal standards, our brain also benefits from responding in familiar patterns.

But what is your reference point? That’s maybe the more salient question before deviating from society standards.

No doubt, it’s been influenced by society, culture, history, those official forms I mentioned above, media, and our family and experiences. We learn various reference points all throughout childhood and early adulthood.

Deciding how you reference your own ethnicity is, in essence, your power, your story. Your reference point is for you, not for anyone else. You get to decide knowing you can choose your reference point consciously and that you don’t need to condense it for someone else to hear your story better.

Your reference point might be the test you took to find out your lineage, it may come from the stories of your parents or it may come from your earliest memory of home.

However you choose your reference point, your story can be a part of the “everyday” narrative in society. It may not matter to the person asking the question but your story with all its differences has a place in all parts of society, ultimately to become part of the everyday narrative in society.

When we’re asked the ethnicity question, we can consciously choose to answer how we want. We can, then, change the dynamic of any conversation for ourselves. When we’re enabled to influence organisations in their reference points for the betterment of humanity, we change the world in which we experience.

I discuss the ethnicity question in relation to my personal experience and my learning from the book by Manning Nash as well as the docuseries, Enslaved, in the podcast episode 2: What’s your ethnicity?.