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?