Ice cold spots of rain hit my face as I walked along the street. On my left were hoardings surrounding a building under construction where even at eight thirty on a Saturday morning the noise of building work was hitting the air. Further along the street and past the theatre was a grey concrete building from the 1960’s. Built to replace the row housing that used to be on the site it was probably a flagship of modern architectural design with retail units on the ground floor held down at street level by the five or six floors of flats on top of them. Now, the once white concrete was stained grey by weather, pollution and chemicals leaching from the concrete.
In the parade of shops that seemed to be crushed by the weight of the upper floors was one café open that was advertising a bacon roll and coffee as the morning’s special offer. As I had half an hour to spare I went in.
On my left sitting on easy chairs at a low coffee table were two Asian gentlemen engrossed in conversation and pouring over some paperwork. The younger of the two welcomed me as he stood up to walk behind the counter where I placed my order which he said he would bring over when it was ready. I took a seat on the opposite side of the room to where he had been sitting. My order came and the man returned to his friend at the other table.
I could not understand a word of their conversation and as so often happens when we do not know the language other people are speaking it sounds loud and harsh.
When I had finished eating and there was a break in their conversation I asked which language they had been speaking and was told it was Punjabi. The man who served me apologised for not using English and then explained that the other man was his older cousin and had trouble with English so was more comfortable with Punjabi.
Unprompted by me the younger of the two men then went on to explain that he had lived in the UK for over thirty years and that he had owned and run the café for nearly twenty years now. He also explained, with a strong hint of pride, that the café had been refurbished four years ago. It was clean and minimalist but was still a throwback to the 1990’s.
I then asked how life had been arriving in the UK from one culture into another one, having to get used to different languages and going to school. He explained that when he was young he didn’t really see these circumstances as a problem. His philosophy was that there is only a problem when what you have isn’t normal and he accepted his circumstances as normal. So, at school he spoke English and at home he spoke Punjabi and accepted this as normal so there was no problem really. He also said that he was lucky because his parents were great believers in education and the ticket to get there was learning English.
He asked about my background. I explained that I was born in Canada and brought over to England to live permanently in 1963.
He then told me he had a sister living in Canada married to a doctor with a millionaire lifestyle. During his visits to her he said he couldn’t help notice the strong emphasis people placed on getting a good education. In his view the opportunities to achieve this were greater there than here. Despite being educated in the UK he explained that he was very proud of his three grown up children who all had degrees and were working. Now, all that was left for him and his wife to do was to arrange their marriages.
I tried not look surprised at this statement as it was the first time I had ever heard directly from someone I was talking to discuss this subject which is so alien to Western culture. He must have noticed.
‘My wife and I are in an arranged marriage’.
‘When did you first meet your wife?’ I asked.
‘About five minutes before the wedding…..she is still as beautiful now….we are still happily married. Thirty years next year, we must be doing something right’.
He really did look genuinely happy and proud of his family.
As much as he appreciated the good fortune of his arranged marriage he said he did appreciate the potential for serious problems for his children that arranged marriages could cause his children. So, as a sort of bridge of compromise between two cultures and two generations he explained that he and his wife were going to help their children choose their partners. They were going to do this by allowing their children to meet with prospective suitors before making any wedding plans and give them the chance to get married or move on to find someone else.
‘We are not going to force them into marriage if they don’t want to but we will give them just a little push here and there to help them on their way’.
I paid my bill and apologised for not being able to speak any Punjabi but knew the Arab word for thank you. ‘Shukran’.
We shook hands warmly.
His final words were:
‘Punjabi, Arabic, English – it doesn’t matter, we are all brothers’.
He wished me goodbye and I stepped out to the street which was bathed in warm sunshine.