On Matters of the Heart

One of the fringe benefits of my mom and dad’s move is receiving some gems of books. Some are old favorites, others are brand new. I began reading one of my new treasures this weekend and, as sometimes happens with books, found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is An Uncommon Correspondence, described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy and Love”. It is a book that would be deeply appreciated by anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries.

It is a series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth, but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, a third culture kid, also a professor, who is living and working in England. The correspondence spans a one year time period from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered, the pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets.In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to appreciate more and more some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stress no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

For as long as I can remember I have analyzed and thought through both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love,marriage and friendship. I have often felt  the west displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the east, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life. This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it, like I would to a person; it gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen and felt.

Full of insight, wisdom and some humorous moments, this book challenged me to think further and farther about love, marriage, intimacy and friendship across oceans and cultures. Is it that there is something better than what both sides of the globe present? Can those of us who want to seek a better way; an attitude that transcends both cultures? As Margaret says in the introduction, being offered a different perspective can be disturbing. And it can also be “profoundly liberating”.

What do you think?

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11 thoughts on “On Matters of the Heart

  1. Just ordered the book! Can’t wait to read it.

    I have never lived outside the western world, but have had a lot of friends in the Indian and Pakistani communities in the UK. It struck that the whole issue of marriage/relationships was probably one of the areas where my cultural view of what is right and good was most deeply engrained. Yet over the years, I grew to appreciate a lot about my friends’ culture. I also realised more and more that whatever the “system” is, it is still two sinful human beings coming together, who will seek from each other what only God can give. And when a marriage is built on la ove for one another that flows out of God’s unconditional love for us, it doesn’t really matter what the cultural context is.

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    1. Oh you captured this so well. Marriage as that picture of complete reliance on God as giver and sustainer of love. And that is the heart of transcending cultural values to get more at what God sees and longs for, not being locked into man-made systems that prescribe who we are and what we are to be. Thank you so much for this.

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      1. I did but haven’t had a chance yet to read it. Finally off on a break, though, at the end of the month and I look forward to reading it then!

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  2. I would like to read the book, and am glad to be made aware of its existence. Having first lived abroad in my mid-twenties, it has been a delight and blessing to move back and forth between the West and the Middle East and Africa ever since. With many friends, acquaintances, and colleagues of multiple nationalites and races, our children have always known a multi-cultural world. My own four, closest, female friends of many years standing are an American Christian, an Egyptian Muslim, an Australian Buddhist, and a Russian Jew. I am a committed Christian. Obviously, we each have somewhat different views on marriage and have had different experiences. As my friendship with each has been intimate and long lasting, we have had many discussions regarding marriage and relationships, and faith. From both observation and discussions, I have come to appreciate both approaches to marriage. Neither is perfect, as life is not, but both have strengths, and good marriages have come out of both systems, as well as unsuccessful ones. The current western model has not always existed. Even as recently as my grandmother’s generation of hundred years ago, marriage was more a matter of economics, necessity, and convenience, as women did not work outside the home. If someone lost a spouse, he/she generally remarried quickly, or if he /she chose to remain single, he/she would end up living with the family of close relative for a life time. The centrality of romance in the choice of a marriage partner is a by-product of affluence and women in the work force.

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    1. The book brings up the fact that the western notion is fairly new when we look across history. I feel the same way about the friendships I have had Kathy – those friendships that have taught me so much about valuing another view and growing from those who think differently. And as you put so well, successful marriages have come out of both cultural beliefs. I think you’d enjoy the book. There is an interesting twist as they live out the year.

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  3. Loved it and love Ivy’s words. Echoes of my own thoughts but put so well. The West is close minded about many things East. This is a very narrow minded attitude. it is when you are open to ideas and cultures that you can grow and develop and find a path which may be right for you even if it does not have the comfort of being known or familiar.
    What is totally sad is that the Western educated Easterners also reject much that is from their own culture and traditions. By Western Educated I do not mean educated in the West but those who have studied in English schools, who have grown up reading books from the West watching their movies, tv shows etc. The Western culture is drilled into us in a way that makes us not bi cultural but makes us reject our own culture, traditions, language, clothes, In short everything that defines the East. I speak English better than I speak my mother tongue Urdu, though I am lucky to speak it much better than most of my peers.
    It is not arranged marriage or love marriage that is the reason why a marriage lasts or not. The reason is deeper, it depends more on he reasons and expectations of the two people involved.
    In a love marriage a couple thinks the other person is going to do anything for them, break the stars from the sky, bring the moon to their backyard You must have heard taare tod kar layega. They put each other on pedestals and leave no room for human faults and errors. When the rose coloured glasses crack after the wedding
    there is a feeling of deceived. The ego that was being pandered and pampered all the while thinking of how much the other person loved them is now shattered at the very though of how could he/she do this to me? You were so different when we were courting! How could you? There is no room in the heart for understanding, forgiveness, compromise, letting go. No every time they have a fight all the old grievances come out, till whatever feelings were holding them together are tattered and eroded by the gall and bitterness of it all. Were you in love with him or yourself? The truth is most people are in love with themselves so they love the person who makes them feel good. The minute they don’t feel good the love is gone. Love is so much more than sexual attraction. It involves, patience and caring, understanding,, putting the other person above our own needs and a host of other things.
    Thats on love marriages for now more later on arranged marriages. Sorry might be a bit garbled as my thoughts are a bit mixed up

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    1. You are a poet even in your commenting….”Break the stars from the sky…” I love this. You have captured so well that pouring of every expectation into a flawed and human relationship – too much pressure on all involved. Frankly, given that marriage is two flawed and selfish human beings who commit their lives to each other I’m surprised that any marriage can exist without God. So now I’m ready for you to weigh in on arranged marriages. You have an in with both of these so a lot of insight.
      I think you would relate much with Ivy in the book.

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  4. I’d love to read the book! It makes me think about how one navigates cross-cultural conversations and tries to avoid judging cultures (including one’s own). When I didn’t have much contact with Muslims, for example, it was easy to make sweeping generalizations. Then, as I got closer and had Somali friends, it was easy to romanticize and consider Somali society as a kind of utopia, because I enjoyed the relationships so much. Then, as a decade passed, I felt comfortable taking a slightly more critical look (as Somalia is clearly not a utopia), even as I valued the relationships. Maybe the key was that conversation couldn’t take place in a vacuum, but had to take place in relationship.

    From experience in both kinds of settings (my marriage was set up but I did have the opportunity to opt out), I found pressure to constantly be in same-sex settings worse than pressure to seek intimacy in marriage (which yielded great friendships along the way). Perhaps because I’m from a western setting.

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    1. I love your walk-through of how learning more from you Somali friends brought you to a different place – exactly how I feel about cross-cultural friendships. I think you’d like the book for the very reasons you state above. It’s a lovely picture of honesty across cultural barriers and being willing to learn from another. Of course, there is something as well about being able to express through letters. Some of the drama of our deep connection to cultural values can play out in a more thoughtful way perhaps. By the way – my brother has really appreciated finding your blog through your connecting with CAB. He is a Christian environmentalist – has written a book called Our Father’s World. This is the web at it’s best!

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