76. The Roots and Seeds of Culture

“The Roots and Seeds of Culture”

If there is one overarching value that autism parenting has taught me, it is to respect people when they have had enough, and not give them pushback for setting a boundary.

This stuff is really hard in South Asian cultures. It is an unspoken ethos–that we rise or fall based on everyone agreeing to group norms, even if they turn us inside out to follow. And since they are often imbued with a positive glow, it is seen as easy to submit when it doesn’t seem to carry any imminent danger. Children have their cheeks pinched even if they are struggling to get away. Women are touched on their bellies and waists by other women even if they loathe the lack of consent. We are constantly asked to participate in what Gavin de Becker, the author of “The Gift of Fear” calls ‘forced teaming,’ whereby we are linked to others’ agendas even if we never agreed to them. In his book, he uses it to show how women get manipulated by stalkery, rapey men, but I think it applies here too. For example, someone who is self conscious of her weight may turn to another woman and say, “Well, you know how it is. We well endowed women have to stick together!” The second woman did not ask to be put on the spot, but there she is, being expected to co-sign that violation, while people around either sympathize but don’t say anything, or they run their eyes over her in unsolicited dismissal.

The bow on this gift wrapped box is that nothing is ever ‘that bad,’ so why are we overreacting. Bowing to these codes of misconduct earns you a social circle, which must always be better than being alone, so instead of saying no, we are told to work on quips and comebacks that will put people in their place. Occasionally, someone rebels and claims a new world order but too often, won’t recognize or grant the same oxygen to others.

Here is where I will insert the obligatory “not all South Asian norms are bad” and “not all bad norms come from South Asia” caveats. Please know that I love many things about my culture, but I believe we can always improve, and this is how we will rise as a group, by not asking people to suppress who they are so that norms don’t have to change. If empowering ourselves is so potentially damaging to the group, we must be willing to examine why.

Autism parenting has lit such a fire in my mind and heart about respecting boundaries that I cannot agree to this co-signing anymore. After all, we are so much on our own that we no longer fear it. I’m making one of my lists again. Here are some things I will not co-sign:

1. Forced teaming with other special needs parents, assuming we all think the same way. We don’t, and that’s okay.
2. Relentless positivity. It’s okay to say we are not always optimistic. Our parenting journey is daunting, exhausting, and endless.
3. Well meant attempts to integrate my children, which actually turn out better for the other people than for us. What are you willing to do differently so that my family is not struggling to belong? Our token presence may enhance other people’s good feels about inclusion, but it is not really inclusion if you expect my child to take on the role of recipient of charity every time, and won’t give them a fair chance to volunteer or take a paying job.
4. Other people’s fear and discomfort of autism behaviors in public. In most things, I am willing to see shades of gray, but not in this. We either believe that public space is for everyone, in which case we accept some inconvenience and shift in perspective, or we don’t. My family should not have to isolate ourselves so that society can carry on unchanged.
5. Treating our grief and anger about the treatment directed at our children as some kind of anomaly. The problem is not our sadness and it is not our rage. It is not going to be solved by meditation, attitude tweaks, life coaching, or Ayurveda. The root cause is societal indifference, and critiquing our reactions is just lazy thinking.

Having said all the above, I do want to add that I appreciate my chosen community so much for loving us, for wanting to try, for being about something more than just everyday concerns, and for using their professional and personal skills to aim higher in every sphere.

If the gravest problems so often have deeply cherished cultural norms as their root, these norms also contain the seeds of change. It just depends on whether we choose to sow them, water them, and nurture them to their fullest growth. Change sucks. But not changing is not an option.

Radha.

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