The hypocrisy of ‘cultural appropriateness’

Migrants need to be more inclusive than insular in their adopted countries – the case against a ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home

By Dev Nadkarni

About a month ago, someone called to ask whether I would like to express my opinion for a story in a mainstream newspaper on the idea of a ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home for elderly members of the South Asian community in New Zealand. Not only did the caller seem to be aware that my 90-year-old father is in a care facility, but also seemed convinced in their assumption that I was displeased with the facility.

I said I was perfectly happy with the care facility and its service and so was my father – who is physically severely disabled but mentally and psychologically fine – as well as my family. I also said I did not believe in the idea of a segregated rest home and care facility along ethnic lines. I do not believe that there is a need for a so-called ‘culturally appropriate’ rest home and care facility.

Here’s why:

People leave their countries of origin in search of a better life and make their homes in other countries of their own volition – well, in most cases anyway. Nobody denies them their need to stay in touch with their roots, religions and social mores in their new adopted homes. They build their own places of worship, their own shopping facilities, eating places and the like.

While some people would see this as migrants’ insular mindset, luckily most do not. These activities are rather seen as adding to the cultural diversity of their adopted countries – more and more people welcome it. But asking for a separate system along ethnic lines within the government’s long established system of services which is targeted at all New Zealanders equally is not only going too far but is downright insulting to the founding principles of an egalitarian society.

It’s akin to a group of guests telling their host that they don’t like the food they’re being served so they would like to cook their own food in the host’s kitchen while they are there and expect the host to pick up the expenses of their special menu. The host might oblige in the interests of politeness and civility but the relationship undoubtedly will be strained. So is there a way around it that would make both and guest happy? There is – and we’ll come to that in a moment.

Food is the biggest reason why the need for this ‘culturally appropriate’ facility is most felt. The other is cultural and religious needs and compulsions. The person who called me wanted to know if we were happy with the food that was served at my father’s facility. I said we had found a way around it.

For one, the number of ethnically diverse residents – particularly of South Asian cultural stock – has progressively increased. This has ended up in an increased frequency of food options catering to these tastes. Secondly, thanks to hordes of Kiwis leaving for jobs in Australia and elsewhere, there are vast numbers of caregivers who are from India, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Philippines and several countries in Asia and even Africa.

In fact, if at all anyone must clamour for a ‘culturally appropriate’ caregiver, it is the falling number of white New Zealanders at my father’s facility: at the dusk of their lives they’re having to make adjustments with a diversity of tastes and accents. But I have never heard such a clamour – which, indeed, is a measure of their feeling of inclusiveness as against the demand for a ‘culturally appropriate’ facility for South Asians, which reinforces the impression of the insular mindset associated with migrants.

Ethnic organisations that are promoting a separate care facility along ethnic lines must first exhaust other options before embarking on this insular path.

Most of these organisations are well established and have a track record for working with elderly migrants. They also seem to be well funded by national and local government programmes. So rather than spend their energies trying to raise funds for a facility that will host 35, 45 or at the most 50 elders of South Asian origin while leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others to their own devices in other care facilities, they should come up with a strategy to cater to bigger numbers of such residents across all care facilities regionally and nationally.

Unlike governments in their countries of origin, the government and the political class in New Zealand is alive and responsive to such finer human concerns. It would therefore not be inconceivable to come up with a programme that could help take South Asian food and cultural services across a great number of facilities rather than just one dedicated facility to the exclusion of others. Such a programme would help serve large numbers across geographical areas, irrespective of whether they were of South Asian origin.

Now, going back to our example of the guests wanting to cook their own meals in the host’s home at the host’s expense. They would be far better off suggesting to the hosts that they would love to cook meals in their style for the whole household, adding diversity to their collective mealtimes. This is inclusiveness winning over insularity.

So there is no need to reinvent the wheel. When the Muslim community found that there were increasing numbers of Muslim students studying at the University of Auckland and they needed onsite prayer facilities, they canvassed for it and got it – they did not ask for a whole new ‘culturally appropriate’ place for tertiary education.

All too often the idea of ‘cultural appropriateness’ in misplaced. For instance, it is quite amusing to see community leaders of South Asian ethnicities in New Zealand proudly display the Queen’s decorations that they have been awarded here on occasions like their home countries’ Republic Day. How culturally appropriate is that!