Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Filling the Gap with new harmonies

STEEL DRUMS and bagpipes never did share playing time – which may be just as well for the audiences at this year’s Nova Scotia tattoo.

It would be a creative – and brave – music arranger who tried to bring together these two distinctive sounds. Imagine the racket that could emerge: the rhythmic ping-ponging of the pans against the mournful keening of the pipes. Oh, my tender ears!

Still, the week-long Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo that wrapped up last night in Halifax is to be applauded for this musical adventure: for introducing the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force Steel Band to this land of bagpipes. Whether booked merely as a novelty or as a nod to our increasing diversity, no matter. The sounds of steel pans in a hockey arena – accompanied by limbo dancers no less – must surely be a sign of our cross-cultural times.

Perhaps you notice this more readily in the people you greet, the foods in the new restaurants or, yes, in the music being played. For me, it lies in interracial marriages. When recent headlines touted Love in Canada Is Colour-Blind or How the Lines Between Races Are Blurring, I smiled knowingly. Sometimes we don’t need research to confirm what experience has already taught: that despite the odd challenge, society has become far more accepting of mixed unions, my own included.

Nevertheless, the numbers are telling: Nearly 300,000 Canadians were in mixed marriages or common-law relationships in 2006 – an increase of nearly 30 per cent over 2001. The segment is still small, just four per cent of all couples, up from 2.6 per cent in 1991. But the experts say the segment’s steady growth is what’s interesting.

Statistics Canada began tracking the data as one gauge of the country’s diversity and to examine ways in which ethnicities integrate. In our churches and mosques and temples. In the cutlery drawer where chopsticks are as plentiful as forks. In the faces of our children.

I balk somewhat at the word interracial: It takes me back to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a 1967 movie with the then groundbreaking premise of black marrying white. The word harkens back to a time when such unions were illegal in many states. And where it was legal, like Canada, it was still frowned on, tut-tutted at – an aberration worthy in 1935 of front-page treatment in The Halifax Herald when a "spinster" filed intentions to wed a Chinese man in Boston.

For immigrant families, whether white or of colour, it can be particularly hard on the parents. They watch, almost helpless, as their growing children shed much of their homeland customs to embrace Canadiana. And if their children marry "outside," they know the loss can be deep. They know that their son or daughter must adopt some of the ways of another culture, and that their grandchildren will fall somewhere in between.

Yet this blurring of the lines is to be expected in a multicultural society – where the cultures mix and the numbers of our own race could produce slim pickings. My siblings, cousins and I tried to explain this to our parents – as in turn we married "English," which meant anyone who wasn’t Chinese. The older ones paid the heavier price. My brother defied my parents in marrying a Trinidad woman of Portuguese and Spanish descent. It took my parents years – and the birth of the first grandchild, a boy – before they could welcome my sister-in-law into the family.

A cousin faced opposition from the other side – her fiance’s white American parents. They refused to go to the wedding and barred his three brothers from attending. They too came around with the birth of the first grandchild. But, as with my sister-in-law, the damage was already done.

My parents, and other immigrants of their generation, grew more accepting in time (though always hopeful for a uni-cultural union). When it was my turn, the main challenge came from strangers. The stares were intrusive, relentless. My husband, a normally calm soul, would sometimes become angry. How did I put up with it? he asked. I’m used to being visible, I replied.

Oddly, his discomfort eased too with the arrival of our firstborn. As we walked together, pushing a stroller, we were still stared at, and then the eyes would fall on the baby. We came to realize that this stare was different – in it was an honest curiosity about what a mixed union had produced. And invariably, a smile would follow. In this, my husband found acceptance.

Always, the hope lies in our children. My husband and I call them the Gap generation: the young faces of mixed unions, with features that are neither yours nor mine but belong to the globe. Because they come to more than one culture, they are raised in many. Children like my great-nephew who counts in his blood the flow of Chinese, West Indian, Portuguese, Spanish, Mexican and Peruvian Incan.

I worry sometimes whether these children will grow up feeling ungrounded. Whether they will miss a deep affinity to a past, or whether they will try to embrace several histories. Will our sons ever experience that sense of place and pride that their father, he of the clan MacLeod, does on hearing the bagpipes?

Likely not – no more than their hearts will pound like their mother’s on hearing the steel drums of her Trinidadian childhood. But these are our roots, not theirs. Our job is to give them a new grounding – one that I hope combines the best of two.

From there, perhaps they will create their own music, dance to their own beat – across cultures and across different races. For if there is a generation that could possibly harmonize steel drums and bagpipes, this may well be it.

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