Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Playground culture

Grace Paley wrote many stories about playground culture--thus elevating the constantly reconfiguring community of parents and children on a playground to a subject fit for literature. In the photo above, the parents are fathers, and they are staying quite close to the action. In Grace's stories, it's mainly mothers--moving more to the sidelines, chewing over their trials and tribulations with the other mothers. 
     When my daughter was little and I took her to the playground, I often thought of Grace Paley and her stories as I surveyed the scene: the variety of parenting styles, the variety of children, the bonds that sometimes formed between parents, or that seemed to be well-established, the skirmishes that sometimes broke out between children, the running, the climbing, the swinging. I don't remember Paley speaking of this particular theme, but I often felt left out. Parents (usually mothers) who were locked in conversation seemed unapproachable, their friendships already solid, so I often sat by myself while my daughter played. I often thought it to be like a single's bar, as I scanned for someone who might be "my type," someone who might want to connect with me. My daughter often has often felt left out of groups, or imagines them as being unapproachable, and only now am I seeing that she might have absorbed some of this from me at an early age.
     But that is not really the reason I want to write a blog entry about playgrounds on a blog about diversity. The reason is that along my walking route, I sometimes pass a small playground. And now that the weather is warm and lovely, it is often full of "customers"--children of many sizes (but mostly in the under-five-years-of-age range) and parents (mostly mothers). Most of the mothers wear shorts and blue jeans, and some play with the children, while others stand on the sidelines, observing or chatting with other mothers. Of course, the scene is constantly shifting, because children move fast.
     One day when I was passing, I saw a woman walking through the park pushing a stroller with a young child in it. These two looked like they could be customers for the playground. Perhaps they were heading there, except for one thing. The woman was wearing a long flowy kind of robe/dress, which I believe (based on recent research) would be called an abaya.
It was light blue, and on her head, she wore a hijab, or headscarf. I wondered what it would be like for this woman to step into the park with her child, as she was the only one dressed in this way. Because I live in a community that honors (to the best extent it can) diversity, I do not believe that anyone would look askance at this woman or hold any grudge or anything else against her for the way she was dressed. But, at minimum, they would notice her dress, and maybe they would feel awkward about her presence. And maybe she too would feel awkward about even stepping into the scene, standing out as she would. Would anyone speak to her? Would they treat her the way they would treat any other parent who stepped into the playground scene? Would I? 
     As I said at the start of this post, I often felt like an outsider at the playground, even though I wore the same uniform as all the other mothers, so perhaps I am simply bringing my own awkward, outsider feelings into the subject. The woman who wore the abaya and hijab did not enter the playground, at least not while I was around, but instead walked with her child on the various cement paths of the larger park that includes the small playground.
      The next part of the story is this: A few days later, when I walked past the playground, I saw a woman there, playing with her child, pushing him on the swing or some such, and this woman wore what I believe is called a shalwar (or salwar) kameez.
When I saw this woman, I did not for a minute think that she might feel awkward playing in the park with the other women. Now why is that? Perhaps just because she already was in the park playing? Perhaps because I am more used to the shalwar kameez (and a woman I took to be Indian) than the abaya and hijab (and a woman I took to be Muslim)? Tell me, dear reader. Grace Paley's women had plenty of things to preoccupy their minds as they sat in the playground (money and men problems and war among them), but they did not have this one.


Jim Poznak said...

According to a recent world-wide survey of Muslims, most Muslims believe that reducing religious extremism is of major importance. Let's remember that when we see women wearing abayas and hijabs.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, Jim. I think what you're saying is that wearing an abaya and hijab does not equal religious extremism, and I completely agree. So why might I be uncomfortable with that woman if we were on the playground together? That's the real question. I think it's has to do with my own ignorance and lack of exposure--not fully understanding what the clothing means to the person. I think I would feel the same discomfort talking to a nun in full, traditional nun garb.

Elaine said...

My husband and I went to a dinner party of Hindu Indians, business associates of my husband, and one other Caucasian/American couple was there. We arrived a bit late. They were all sitting at a long table in a private room of this Indian restaurant in a shopping strip in the, otherwise bleak looking, suburbs.

Jeff and I sat down, next to each other; everyone moving aside to give us room. The thing is that, gradually, Jeff moved up the table and was absorbed into the all-men section of the party, which arrangement I had not previously noticed. I was, then, remained among the women, all of whom were dressed in saris.

I felt a natural connection with the women across the table from me; when I spoke or she did, we, afterwards, met eyes and delivered that further communication of understanding. After appetizers, all the men got up and stood around at the other end of the room, joking and talking. Me and two other women stood up and talked together. One of the women was the other Caucasian woman, and she was dressed in a sari-fabric-type American outfit. I felt completely comfortable and completely accepted by friendly women.

When we got to talking during the main course, the woman next to me, who was born and raised in Ethiopia, where, she said there is a large Indian population (and a man, nearby called out that, rather than venture into Europe or other parts of Asia, Indians may go to Africa).

I asked the women around me about Hindu arranged marriage. I was told that everyone at this gathering had arranged marriages. One explained that these are the most successful marriages. I asked, "happy?" She said, "I didn't say happy, I said successful---a lower rate of divorce---because the marriages are arranged so that the partners come from the same area of India, so they understand each other's ways, and the families of the partners help solve relationship problems."

I am Jewish, and when I said so, a woman chimed in, "Indians are like orthodox Jews: they pray, they have arranged marriages, and the men and women stay separate." The woman born in Ethiopia said she was, later, raised in Brooklyn where she would assist an orthodox Jewish woman by turning on and off her hearing aides on Shabbos for her.

Susan Messer said...

interesting, Elaine. Thanks for this. It's a rare experience and opportunity to enter a group like the one you describe--so different in background and culture than one's own. Cool that you felt so comfortable.