The Impact Family Culture Has On Us

“I’m doing the dishes tonight,” my husband often insists after dinner. It gives him a sense of gratification when he helps me with house chores even when there is no necessity.  I try to resist as much as I can. But some days he is completely determined. My discomfort increases as he takes half an hour for the dishes, which I do in ten minutes effortlessly.

So, in our next trip to the groceries, I picked up two pairs of washing gloves (we always had only one pair at home).

When we were done with dinner that night, he took his plate to the sink and wore the gloves, claiming territory.

“Fine, I’ll do the soap and you do the rinse,” I said, while pulling out my pair of gloves. “We can get done much faster and chat along.”

He loved the idea, and the wrap up was a success, alhamdulillah! As we were removing our weapons (the gloves), my husband, impressed and surprised, said, “I’ve never seen anyone do dishes like you. You are fast, neat, and organized. That’s a very rare combination.”

“I don’t know, I think it’s because I do it everyday,” I shrugged, taking away all the credit shamelessly.

Walking through the corridor and preparing to get ready for bed, my mind froze for a second as I recalled “Sharfun Khala.” Khala means maternal aunt, but the term is used for anyone really.

She was our maid in India who came home everyday to clean the dishes. Sharfun Khala was excellent at her work. She was fast, neat, and organized. My mom raved about her to every relative she spoke to.

One weekend, my dad called for me and my sister and demanded our complete attention. “Oh no!” I thought as my heart sank. This always happened before he was about to spoil our weekend by giving us work. As expected, he did just that. “I heard this new Khala is good at her work; you girls need to learn from her. Stand by her and watch her do the dishes today. It will be your turn to do them tomorrow and I will ask her to watch you.”

No protests work with my father. But, as kids, we tried anyway.

“This is a life skill, and as future homemakers you must perfect it. Be content to learn from anyone and appreciate good work. This Khala is a single mother whose day job is to wash dishes so she can feed her kids. And she does it well. Appreciate it and learn from her. You will make duaa for me when you grow up,” my father said.

We stood by Sharfun Khala that afternoon observing her wash a good pile of dishes (we are a large family, BTW). She couldn’t contain her enthusiasm as she showed us her tips and tricks. And here I was, years later, an adult myself, washing dishes exactly the way I was taught that afternoon.

The whole scene came back to me and left me fulfill my father’s words. He was right, I made duaa for him.

I narrated the incident to my husband.

“I’ve always seen that you don’t mind learning something from anyone. You carefully observe the things you want to learn and put them to practice. Now I know where it came from!” He causally dropped these words and went to sleep.

But for me, the words triggered a chain of thoughts, events from the past, and lots of overthinking. I lay there and for the next couple of hours thinking of my childhood and what I am made of.

I realized that my thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and actions were all impacted by the people I grew up with.  I was them and they were me. Family culture is a real thing. Directly and subtly, we are molded by how as a family we think, feel, judge, and act. We grow up with ideas of what is right and wrong based on the values, traditions, and beliefs of our family culture. Our language, narratives, and perspectives are also highly impacted.

Bhai, let her enjoy the holidays, poor kid…

I remember doing my first grocery shopping as an adult after marriage. I opened the produce bags and arranged them in the fridge exactly the way my mom would do it, totally unintentional and completely involuntary.

Sharfun Khala’s dish washing skills reminded me of another ‘Khala incident.’ She was Zamruth Khala; a cook appointed for a short period of time when all the women in the house had little children and cooking three meals for a house of four, and sometimes five, families was too much of a burden to carry.

It was summer vacation. The most awaited time of the year for all kids. Everyday, after breakfast, the doorbell would ring, and everyone knew that it was Zamruth Khala.

One day, as she walked into the kitchen, my father stopped her and said, “Khala, from today, Zara is your assistant. Teach her cooking and let her do all the slicing and dicing for you.” She smiled and said, “Bhai, let her enjoy the holidays, poor kid.”

“She has the entire day to enjoy and taking an hour or two from it won’t harm.”

My father sealed the deal. So, I spent my afternoons with Zamruth Khala that summer learning basic kitchen skills and watching her cook. My slow learning hindered her work process and kept her from going home early, but she was patient with me.

After Zamruth Khala left, my mom would often call me to the kitchen (at my father’s orders) to assist her. But my mom is like a bullet. She is fast. Her speed and efficiency were hard to keep up with!

And she was not patient with me; she whacked and smacked me and did not take any nonsense. I quickly realized that my wild kitchen temperament came from my mom, especially when we have guests over.

Today, after many years, he called me to tell me that he is now…

As a curious child, I observed my family quite a lot. So much so that it bothered them! I loved overhearing my dad’s phone conversations. I wanted to know who he would speak to often and see how he would speak to different people.

One day I heard him speak on the phone while being unusually overjoyed and loud. I stood behind him waiting for him to end the call. As soon as he did, I jumped to interrogate him. Uninterested at first, he told me it was an old colleague. It didn’t satisfy my curiosity. So, I shouted, “Tell me!”

“Many years ago, there was a little boy in the factory who made and sold tea. His family couldn’t afford to send him to school. The factory had nearly thousands of workers and he made a pretty decent wage everyday,” my father started narrating the story.

“I would be one of the last to leave and the boy was always around watching us quietly. One evening, as all workers left the factory one by one, I looked out of my cabin and saw him sitting in the corner doing nothing. I called him to my cabin. When he came in, I was reviewing samples. I told him to pick up a shoe from the table and gave him a list of errors to look for in that shoe.

“As his first try, he was quite sharp. I asked him if he knew to read and write English. He said he didn’t. So, I gave him a notebook and a pen and wrote down some alphabets to start with.

“Every evening, after everyone left, he accompanied me in my cabin, learning to check samples and some basic English. I then moved on from the factory and started working in the head office. Months passed by and we lost touch. Today, after many years, he called me to tell me that he is now an expert in sample reviewing and is now working for a very good company. He called me to inform of his progress and thank me.”

My father was the general manager at a large leather shoe manufacturing company in India at that time. He loved his job. For many years, he had around 5000 people work under him. He was a workaholic and loved progress.

Learning, working, and teaching was for him a practical process that never stopped at any time or age. When I asked him about what made him teach this kid, he explained that the kid was a young boy who in a few years would become a man. He would soon have responsibilities and a family to look after. Life won’t be easy for him.

If the boy was put in school, he wouldn’t learn because that was a concept that was too alien for the background he came from. A skill and some basic conversational knowledge could make things better for him. This was my father’s best judgement, alhamdulillah, Allah blessed it.  

My father’s perspective of knowledge heavily impacted my personal learning journey. My parents were worried about our grades but there was never a standard. My grades were completely abnormal. Some subjects I would flunk and care nothing about and some subjects I would score really well. This would confuse my teachers.

It was simply because I learned what I loved to learn and did not learn what I did not enjoy to. Much of it also had to do with the connection I experienced with the teachers I had in my life. Putting me in a box was hard.

My parents were fine with me as long as I was not making foolish decisions, being lazy or behaving inappropriately and was engaged in something beneficial, smiling, having fun, and following religious and family values.

It is so painful to imagine that my house will not have my Lala running around anymore…

From school to adulthood, nothing changed in the approach. During this transition, my family went through a major change in religious consciousness. This led to me and my sisters pursing Islamic Studies in college. This is our prized possession so far and will be so forever, alhamdulillah.

During the last year of my college, my Quran teacher called my mother and said she had a proposal for me. In the blink of an eye, I was married. Things rolled pretty fast, alhamdulillah. The words and narratives my parents used during the process subtly defined the role I was going to play as a wife.

My husband was going to pursue his masters in Canada after marriage. My father knew it was not going to be rosy in the beginning for his first born. One of my friends gifted me a book filled with messages and wishes from relatives and friends on my wedding. On the last page I read:

“My Lala, it is so nice to see you as a bride, but at the same time it is so painful to imagine that my house will not have my Lala running around anymore. I’m afraid I can’t believe but that is the reality I may have to face this two more times if I’m alive in sha Allah, to see your other sisters leave me one by one. Anyway, that is a part of life. One consolation is that, by the grace of Allah I am leaving you in safe hands, Faraz. May Allah protect, bless, and have mercy on you both. Spend the rest of your lives as per our deen and enjoy, your Abba.”

While we were leaving India and it was time to say goodbye at the airport, my father held back his tears. I felt him hold his breath for a bit. He wiped my tears and put his hands on my shoulders and jolted me. “Never leave the dhikr of Allah and be your husband’s backbone.” These two words; “safe hands” and “backbone,” echoed in my ears on days I felt like the roof may crash on me and also on days when I felt like the sky was raining of happiness.

We arrived in Canada excitedly as we started life from scratch as students, in a strange country, far away from our comfort place. As soon as I put on my homemaker hat, I was unconsciously trying to be like my mom, but nothing like her.

My mom was always on top of her game and my father always gave her example (without her knowing about it, LOL). When we went out of the house, my father, a typical desi dad, was paranoid about our safety and wellness.

As soon as we reached home, my mom, chilling till then, would take over. She would enter the house like a basketball player entering the court; energetic and ready to play her sport. She knew what went where, who was hungry, who was thirsty, who had a stomach ache, and when should be the next meal.

Our meals were always cooked on time. She dressed well every single day and had us shower and dress well every single day too. The house had to be clean for her brain to function normally. Patient and positive during tough times, she was sincere in care (regardless of who needed it) and she never spoke about herself or the good she did to others.

As I learned the religion, Islam became the yardstick for everything…

It was quite hard for me at first to connect with people in a new country. But later, when we moved into a neighbourhood full of Muslims, it was a huge relief. We had kids come to our house to learn Quran and I met their moms on a daily basis. In my head, I instantly treated them as family, not knowing the norms and culture. It was hard for me to understand things otherwise. But I soon realized where this came from.

I did not live a childhood sharing my life with just my parents and siblings. We lived in a house with my aunts and uncles, and shared life with 12, sometimes 15, other kids: my cousins. We went to the same school in the same vehicle and ate the same food.

For a long time, I didn’t realize that my siblings were different from my cousins. From living in one huge house, we moved on to having every family build their own house in the same neighbourhood. It doesn’t stop here. Majority of my father’s relatives also lived in the same neighbourhood. which meant that his cousins were part of our lives too.

Uncles and aunts were all at the same level, whether they were my father’s siblings or his cousins. I had many grand mothers and aunts  too. The bond was close and strong. In any event, when everyone gathered (which was quite frequent), the house would be packed with 30-40 people. We were all neighbours and had no space for anyone other than family.

My grandparents had an exemplary presence and played a very strong role. They maintained order in the house with grace, honoring their own positions as well as that of others. We were also an expressive family; nothing hid behind the curtains or thrown under the carpet. Things were brought to the table, discussed, fought over, and made clear. Everyone was given the right to express and retribute in a fair manner. Even as kids, we were allowed to fight, take a stand for ourselves and the next moment we were best friends again.

We couldn’t imagine life in any other way. Gatherings were filled with hot cups of chai, wit and humour combined with class and honor, a kind that puts every other gathering unmatched and hard to beat till date.

No favoritism was allowed. Being my Nani’s first grandchild, I secured a special place in her heart. This often resulted in her giving me more attention and love than she gave her other grandchildren. Fearing the consequences it may have on my character and how other kids may feel unloved, my parents stopped the favoritism as much as they could, whenever they could, and always kept my actions at check.

From living life on the same boat to having our own boats now, and the waves of life taking us to different places, we still carry a part of each other in us wherever we go.

Was everything always positive, joyful, and perfect? Never. As much as I have to cherish, there is a lot more that I had, and still do, to unlearn. Can I mention some? Of course not! Apart from the fear of being disowned and bashed by my family for the rest of my life, it is not praiseworthy to mention the faults of others without a beneficial cause.

The Quran is called as the ‘Furqan,’ which distinguishes between the truth and falsehood. As I learned the religion, Islam became the yardstick for everything, alhamdulillah. Islam decided what should stay and what I must strive to unlearn and detach myself completely from.

This way, my family and all the people who have had an impact in my life, will get the reward for the good they instilled in me and will be free from the burden of passing on what was not.

It’s Allah’s blessing that I have so many precious moments and lessons to cherish and in sha Allah I will hold on to them close to my heart and pass them on to the generation to come so we can meet Allah with a sound heart.

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