Kulturbrille – using a cultural lens in practice

“Shall we stop there today?”  This very simple sentence is one that I have most effective in both closing a session or holding the door open for further, deeper discussion. It has served me really well over the years in different settings- running focus groups or community consultations, in group therapy or case work and in my work with students and parents. It implicitly gives the person participating a choice and a sense of comfort in knowing they have the ability to either close or continue an uncomfortable discussion.

Over the last 18 months, a large part of my work has been with culturally and linguistically diverse families with young children. A key aspect was to support young parents in the early years, as they navigate lives in a new country. Much of the group work I did was around maintaining healthy relationships, managing conflict that often arises within families and focusing on having respectful relationships.

The supported groups were nominally meant to run for 90 minutes, often went on for two hours or more. At some of the sessions, the “real” conversation only happened after the session was technically over!

A client recently lamented that in some of her interactions with parents from diverse backgrounds, she came away with a totally different understanding than others parents, teachers or support workers. It transpired that she had indicated to a mother that the 3 year old in her group was having some difficulties and she felt it would be good to have the child see a speech pathologist. The mother was understandably concerned and agreed with the teacher that child should be seen. My client was pleased with her conversation with the mother and thought it was positive.

A couple of weeks later, she found out that the family had pulled their child from the group and had told some of the other parents that “teachers were keen find children with special needs, so they could get extra funding”.

The sense of shock that the teacher and her colleagues and supervisor felt cannot be overstated! They attempted unsuccessfully to get in touch with the family and discuss the matter.

That an innocuous discussion with a parent could unfold this way is something that many of us won’t ever expect. In my work with parents, families and professionals working within our different types of services, I often see simple, everyday interactions misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Our cultural lenses lead us to place different values and meanings to the same things. Everyday observations like “she’s such a princess” or “what a sook” or “he goes for what he wants”  can be understood in many different ways.

In some communities, casual observations by  authority figures like teachers, doctors and sports coaches are taken very seriously- children often face strict disciplining if parents think they are not pulling their full weight.

In some cultures, it is very difficult for parents to hear that their child is “lacking” or “falling behind” in any way. It is often perceived as parental shortcoming.

When I intervened with the family in question in the story above, they told me the casual manner in which the teacher spoke about their child’s issues was uncomfortable for them. It was inconceivable in their culture for an outsider to bring up health matters casually, without a context in a perceived “cavalier” manner.

In this and many other cases, an understanding of the cultural background and overlay that families operate from, can really support teachers, community workers and allied professionals in breaking barriers and fostering engagement. Practitioners do not need to put on new shoes, just need to understand what size fits the other person!






India se……chronicling the invisible bonds

Sea changes…..transforming filial roles

Retirement- it has been a recurring theme over the last few years!

In 2012, as I was brainstorming with my supervisor about possible thesis topics, I told her that I wanted to work on something relevant to migrants, specifically Indian migrants to Australia.  Zeroing in further, the topic that caught my fancy was retirement. I finally did my 2 year research and thesis on the factors that influence retirement decisions of 1st generation Indian migrants.

Over the 2 years I had several community workshops, interviews, surveys and sessions with service providers all offered different points of view for the same issue. During a trip to India, I met with a focus group there to understand how Indians living in India plan their retirement, to compare with what I was seeing here. As I finished my work on the thesis, there were several things that stuck me.

So many of the issues affect people the same way. The worries that keep people awake and concerns they have, these see no boundaries and nor do they particularly care for your bank balance- in a way it was comforting to see that migration had not changed people all that much!

One of the things that struck me immensely was the guilt that so many felt- people in my generation, men and women in their 40’s and 50’s who have older parents living in India. Many of my generation have moved overseas, many live in India- among both sets of people, there are many whose parents don’t live with them. And this is for a huge number of reasons.

Sometimes it’s not practical, sometimes its personalities or lifestyle or financial. For people living overseas, it is hard- you depend on extended family in India to be there for many things. And it can be hit or miss, while everyone has good intentions, life is such that you cannot actually do it all. And a throwaway comment can cut you to the bone. And simple statements over the phone from your parents keep you awake for days. And even more difficult is the gratitude you feel for your family and friends who do the hard yards- it is not easy and you can never re-pay the favor!

For people in India, it is even harder, there is every expectation that your parents will stay with you, if not from them, from others. So many families have 2 sets of parents to look after and their own children and work and home as well to manage- It is certainly not easy!

In all of this, it seems logical that many who can would plan their retirement and move to more amenable facilities- but it seems not.

It amazed me that many I spoke to said they could not imagine their parents moving to an “old age home, as if they had no one to look after them”. Others were more prosaic, “it’s easier to have them here, then you don’t have to rush across the country for every doctor’s appointment”. And elders in talking about a retirement village would discuss it in fairly somber, sympathetic tones ” X has put his mum in an old age home” or  “What option do they have, they have no one to look after them”

Where parents were staying in retirement villages, children would do everything possible to not refer to it as retirement living!

Words have such power, they normalise and rationalise things – we need to consciously change how we both think of and address these things. Even living overseas, it pains me to see many people casually mention that they have told their children not to put them in homes or that they will live in a outhouse in their kids houses or they have told their kids that they would look after their grandkids, so can they please stay with them! Really- while this may be in jest, it is scary!!  In one of my sessions, one respondent said- I have told my daughter, it is fine, go where ever you want to work, I am fine, but after I am in my 80’s you must come back to Melbourne- who else is there to look after me?

So, this daughter may have to uproot her family and her career- and who knows if the daughter has in-laws who may well have the same situation! This may have been a joke, the daughter was just 20 and the man 52, but I wonder….

A good friend once said that our gen is cursed – our parents are not happy with us and neither are our children! And she also said that the next gen will not face this issue as we would be better planned…….I sure hope so! Let us not test those filial bonds