Friday, September 18, 2015

The Defining Issue

(Photos show our encounter with people in Tanzania)

Judy and Mama Lucy in Tanzania
As a child, I early-on developed a sense of the ‘other’. My own identity was clear.  I saw myself primarily as a Czech Protestant, (never mind that my Mother has half Swedish and half English).  My community was largely Czech so that became my dominant identity.  The ‘other’ included Catholics, Norwegians. Germans, … but also Native Americans (Potawatomie), and if we travelled to Topeka I came to recognize African Americans, Mexicans, and the most exotic of all …Asian people. I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about Methodists and Lutherans.

Me joining in a jumping dance with Swahili people
Since I was a kid, a lot of things have changed.  The main thing is that world transportation has become a lot more feasable and faster.  The wars that America has fought have exposed many Americans to ‘far away places’.  Television has exposed us all to information and images that were not accessible even in the time that I was born. The international finance system has made us much more interdependent.  A far away financial event can now have world wide implications almost instantly.  Also, of course, computer communication and the burgeoning instant access to vast amounts of information change how we see ourselves. 

Me making friends with a young orphan
I live in a community where over 95 different languages and dialects are spoken – I can choose to eat in a vast array of restaurants established by people from all these lands… The classrooms that I visit in my student teacher supervision look like the United Nations – with many newly arrived young people learning to work together and to discover new friends with different cultural perspectives.   And by and large it works!

Me and my friend the wood carver
But I realize that not all communities in America or in the world have the same approach to multiculturalism.  In many communities it is much like my childhood where people clung to their identify and were suspicious of all others.  I was taught to be cautious about the outcome expected from the ‘other’.

So the question of our time, the question that will decide our future as a nation, and out continuance as the dominant species on Earth is how are we going to live with our deep human differences both in the United States and within the wider world community? 

A meeting on empowering the role of women living in tribal societies
There are real dangers in making the wrong choice.  We live in a dangerous world and not everybody loves us.  There are those that wish our downfall.  There are real factors on economic well being in terms of world competition.  Is it better to let is foreign workers when we need them for certain tasks or not; it is in our interests to attract the brightest and best in work in US research and development, in medicine, and computer science – or exclude them because they are foreign?  Do we need them more that we fear them?

Judy celebrating her birthday with a group of friends - we provided juice and cupcakes for all 
In our day-to-day lives, how can we interact with the ‘other’ that we encounter?– is our impulse to protect and isolate ourselves or is it to open ourselves to learn from others?  There will be cultural differences that seem odd.  How close or far they stand physically when talking, how loud or quietly to they speak, is their accent hard to understand, do they have beliefs that conflict with your own…?  
Is your primary goal to change them to be like us, to worship like us, to have the same desires and wishes that we have... or can you be open to learn from them?  If you look, there are ways to learn about the cultures to be found in your neighborhood, you can visit the Mosque open houses, the Buddhist Bazar, the Jewish bar-mitzvah of a neighbor, a meal served in the Sikh temple… what riches! It really comes down for having respect for our fellow human beings way of life.

Our good friends and guide that took up to some of the more distant sites
What do we teach our kids?  Are children taught as I was taught that it is paramount to know your own cultural identity and then have a note of caution with all others?  Or to we teach our kids by the way we choose to live…?  Do we find ways to live and work with those who are different? Do we invite 'different' people into our homes, share food with them,  and enjoy doing things together.  That is the real way that kids learn.

Invited to tea
In my life, I learned about ‘other’ways of being human simply by meeting and getting to know one person from that group.   I was very suspicious of gay/lesbian people until I worked with, and became friends with one lesbian woman.  My understanding of African Americans was the same – spending time with, learning about, and befriending those with dark skin opened up a whole new appreciation of them as people, their cultures and lives.  Travelling to Mexico turned me from someone a little unsure about Mexicans into a great appreciation of Latino people and culture.  The answer is “put yourself out there”.  Don't expect “others” people to become like you… the adjustment has to go both ways – it would be wrong to expect ‘others’ to think and act just like me…

Our friend the blacksmith

You can be the one person that 'the Muslim' gets to know and trust, the person from Bangkok or Swaziland… the one person that lets them know, “ I have this one American friend and he (she) makes all the difference.

Judy and a young village child