Culture Shock


by msabaye

When you come to Canada, or it used to be that when you came to Canada, the immigration office would hand you a book that was supposed to help you with many things including how to obtain language training, medical care, job interviews, etc. And it was very useful in that regard. There was another part to it that was supposed to tell you about the culture here and warn you about culture shocks.

The weather and food and language and transit system were different from what I was accustomed to. But most of these I learned to cope with quite fast (transit system is an example) and some I continue to be challenged with (the language is a good example). But there were other things that caught my attention and literally shocked me. My own perceptions (perhaps biases), the Canadian perceptions of what may shock me, and my little discoveries of where these two intersected and where they diverged. At the end, I realized the culture shock worked both ways: I was surprised at the ways people in the new country behaved, but looking back and observing from a different perspective, I was equally surprised at how people in my homeland behaved.   

At first, it seemed remarkable to me how realistically Canadians dealt with death of a relative/a loved one. Then, there were times where I was surprised or rather shocked. I remember one occasion a friend of mine told me that his parents went to a dance on the evening of his uncle's funeral.
I kept asking, what? They buried your uncle and then they went to dance!?
And he said, well, they were depressed.
One could spare a little sadness over one's brother's death, I exclaimed (I know it wasn't any of my business but imagine my state of shock, I had just arrived in Canada). At that point, he realized it was a bit odd not to want to be sad and mourn for just a few hours over one's brother's death.

On another occasion, I witnessed a Canadian friend of mine, who had just lost her father, condoling a common friend (an Iranian) who was crying over my Canadian friend's loss. The friend, who had suffered the loss, kept saying that it was natural to lose one's father. There was a great deal of truth to that, but, to me, it also seemed natural to be sad about it too. These examples do not represent the attitude of the whole population, but they exhibit certain aspects that seemed in sharp contrast to what I was used to.

Iranians, in my experience, grieved or rather savored the grief over the death of a loved one, a relative, or sometimes a stranger. It was fairly common all around me to mourn for at least a year, wear black, disregard appearances, avoid all celebrations, ...  My mother's family is Kurdish, and you would know what I mean if you have ever attended a Kurdish mourning or funeral. They scratched their faces to the point of bleeding and robbed soil/mud on their hair and ... And they took offense if others didn't.

Over the years I have learned that the general feeling in Canada is to fight grief in any possible way. Sadness is not encouraged. This aspect of human emotion is highly undervalued and underrated perhaps because it is counterproductive. In Iran, it is highly overrated and overvalued. Even though we are generally happy people, we don't seem to want to miss the opportunity to immerse ourselves in sorrow. Ashoura was a good example of this.

I hear that is changing and nowadays, and in many places, specifically in Tihran, some funerals resemble weddings in terms of preparations, food, flowers, etc, but that was not the case when I lived in Iran and for many more years after I left.

This was one of the examples where I was shocked at a new experience which prompted me to re-observe my old experiences. I think I was equally shocked at both.


Recently by msabayeCommentsDate
Freedom to be Poor, Ill, Forsaken
Oct 14, 2012
Newfoundland: Leave your Camera behind
Sep 29, 2012
Test (Result)
Sep 20, 2012
more from msabaye
Bonny and Clyde

dealing with grief

by Bonny and Clyde on

I don't think it's just the Canadians who seem indifferent to the way we deal with grief. It's the case with a lot of the Western World. I sometimes admire them for the way they see things and deal with casualities and other heartbreaking issues.

For us, if there's not grief in our lives, we tend to go look for it and frankly, we seem to thrive on it. But then again, not all of us are the same. 

I do agree with Niki's comment as the same had actually occured in our family where the kids were not been told that their father may have cancer!!! I found that quite shocking. 

I do enjoy reading your blog and look forward to many more :-)




by yolanda on

When conjoined twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani died in 2003, I saw an army of crying guys on was unconsolable shocked me.....I know it is sad event 'cause the whole world was pulling for the 2 ladies to make it.....


I think sadness in our culture is not the text book sadness.

by Anonymouse on

Yes if you look at our traditional music or movies or poems and novels the sadness is pretty much universal.  I think there is so much sadness to go around.  When our artists create a new medium they create it based on shortcomings of our society which is often sad. 

While there are artists who don't always try to reflect the problems and do art such as comedy or pop music, the shortcomings are so much that everything is often one sided! Half of our population (women) are treated as second class citizens and their rights trampeled on.  So of course it is sad.

We're of course used to it and I think we should be because that makes the struggle fresh and in the forefront.  We need to be reminded of the sadness on a daily basis.  Most of us understand it and it makes us stronger.  On the other hand the sadness will also make us to enjoy the good times more, albeit on personal levels.  That's why we have so many good humor movies, people and culture in general.  We've found a way to humor our miseries.

Now as far as death of loved ones other have made good points, I'd just like to add that family members dress black for a full year for untimely, unexpected or "unfair" deaths.  But in cases of our old loved ones passing away of old age, usually they dress black for 40 days not the full year.  Of course on the first year anniversary there will be a memorial and depending on the family an annual memorial thereafter.  We remember the 3rd, 7th, 40th days and 1st year.

Everything is sacred.

Niki Tehranchi

Culture shock indeed

by Niki Tehranchi on

I was having dinner with a friend last night who told me her friend's father has been diagnosed with cancer in Iran but "they haven't told him."  My jaw dropped.  What do you mean they haven't told him?  Oh, she replied, they told the kids and the kids said not to tell him.  This is absolutely mind boggling to me.  Can you imagine a doctor in North America violating the patient's right int his way?  I don't know how many friends and relatives I know that somehow I, a complete stranger, found out their relative has died but the family has yet to come around to tell them.  What is this?  If grief and collective mourning is such an important process, why rob someone of the chance to share his or her grief along with the clan instead of being kept intentionally in the dark only to find out years later that a beloved aunt or grandpa or whatever has passed away or has a life threatening illness? I have not been raised in Iran so I don't comprehend that kind of cultural group think.  As you say, I am sure it is just as jaw dropping for people raised over there to imagine why would someone give straightforward news about one's medical diagnosis or the passing of a loved one...

persian westender

eye-opening encounters

by persian westender on


There are good and thought-provoking points in your piece. I agree that grief is much more valued in Iranian culture. Why? Theoretically speaking, isn’t it because we Iranians collectively learned to submerge in to sadness so much that it actually turns to something else? We overdo it; rehearse it until it is no more sadness, but is kind of neutralized state or an emotionless thing. Is this process the same as resolution for grief? I don’t know? But it seems we do not run from sadness of grief; on the contrary we totally submerge in to grief and there is a strong tendency for it and for expression of it. You may be right about counterproductive aspect of the sadness in the West. But it begs the question why a subject which is counterproductive in one culture, can be so much overvalued in other? Besides, is it true that we Iranians are basically too much emotional? Or emotionally expressive (hysterical)? I think along with other factors, there have been significant historical contributions to this tendency of excessively expressing sadness over death of loved ones.

Another interesting point in your essay is considering yourself as surprised or shock at some cultural aspect of Iranians(your culture of origin) when you look at it from a foreigner perspective. I guess it has somethingto do with assimilation to the western culture (also known as acculturation).

All and all, Canada as a multicultural Nation is a great place to come up with some insights regarding cultures. Interesting eh?!!




Dear Msabaye

by Esther on

I am very much enjoying your series!  I think you are right that Canadians don't really know how to grieve (or deal with unhappiness generally) very well.  I don't know if it's that we don't value it, or it just makes us uncomfortable, so we prefer to ignore it or not really acknowledge it.  I think if we feel sad, we tend to worry about bothering other people with our sadness.  And if someone else feels sad, instead of accepting their sadness or being sad with them, we tend to offer platitudes or try to "cheer them up".  But those are just my impressions (I don't claim to speak for all Canadians!).


unresolved grief definitely catches up

by Monda on

with person over the span of their life time.  



by yolanda on

Thank you for the super interesting article.......I saw Reza Aslan on "Daily Show" with Jon Stewart after the presidential election....he said Iranians are 'good' at 2 things: the way they mourn the dead and the way they is probably true.........but other Southeast Asian countries emphazise on mourning the dead also.......funeral homes end up making a lot of money....