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Urban Culture: Time Immemorial

[ 0 ] August 1, 2010 |

During the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics, there seemed to be some confusion when Governor General Michaëlle Jean was escorted to the VIP seats. As people were milling around in the background, the television announcer commented that the delegations from the four host First Nations hadn’t arrived yet, and the Governor General was supposed to be the last seated. A bit of an etiquette faux pas, n’est-ce pas?

I was watching the festivities on my reserve with a room full of Native people. When we heard the explanation for the disruption, we looked at each other, smirked and said in unison, “Indian time.”

Indian time is a term used when Native people are late. I’ve heard it in reference to grand entries, meetings, dinner parties, hockey tournaments and even longoverdue births. In theory, it refers to a slower way of interacting in the world. Events happen at their own pace, not necessarily governed by that thing on your wrist or wall or microwave. Things get done or happen when they get done or happen. It seems that there’s a cosmic sense of starting time that only Native people are attuned to.

Some First Nations people dislike Indian time. When I ran a theatre company, I did. When you’re being paid to show up on time, late is late and rude is rude, regardless of the cultural baggage. Still, for as long as I can remember, Indian time has been an Aboriginal licence to delay getting out of bed for an extra thirty minutes or so.

After conducting a random sampling of friends and coworkers, I discovered that the Aboriginal people of Canada and the United States don’t have the market cornered on cultural lateness. Yes, there are other people in the world who, based on a geographic and ethnocultural background, can and do show up for dinner forty minutes late and cite socio-political history as an explanation. It seems Aboriginal people are not alone, and these pretenders to the tardy throne come from around the world.

Evidently there is something called Caribbean time, which can affect people on many of the different islands in those warm waters to the south. One Haitian woman wrote to me and explained:

Haitian time is pretty much the same thing as Caribbean time. When my mother, my brother and I were invited to an event organized by Haitians, we had to clarify if we needed to follow our time or regular time, which really meant white people time. We were also amazed that people would be outrageously late to special events such as weddings, christenings, first communions, funerals, job interviews, and the list goes on.

That sounds pretty familiar.

Same with South Asian time, meaning Indian time but not my Indian people, the other Indian people. A South Asian friend told me:

I believe that underlying this sense of time is the Hindu concept of yugas, or epochs. Time is calculated in epochs rather than by a clock, which is the gift of our industrial age. For a people who count time by epochs rather than hours, minutes and seconds, it stands to reason that temporal specificity has a somewhat different meaning than it does for someone who is a product of the industrial age. A South Asian seldom says, “ten o’clock sharp,” when making an appointment. She is more likely to say, “around ten o’clock.” And therein lies the clash between yugic time and clock time.

That’s just a fancy way of saying, “I’ll get there when I get there.”

When I was in California last month talking with a theatre company, they told me about a planned remount of Miss Saigon, a big musical about Vietnam during the war. The star, Lea Salonga, is Filipino, and the local joke in the Filipino community was that the curtain went up at 8:00, but 7:30 for Filipinos (so they could be half an hour late). That explains a lot about that Newfoundland time they always announce on the CBC.

I mentioned this concept to a Korean producer who was interviewing me about being Canadian, and she told me there is a similar Korean time but its effectiveness is split. Because of a desire to achieve success, like the Japanese, most Koreans are on time in the business world. However, on a social level, it’s a crapshoot.

It almost seems that white people are the only people who see a need to be on time. White guys, always bucking the trend.

Category: Urban Culture

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