Monday, January 31, 2011

"A vision in passing"

As I left work last night/ this morning, making my way through the snow at 2:10am and chatting with my coworker, Flo, she made an intriguing comment in regards to my presence on campus and the few times she spots me (particularly outside of the library): "A vision in passing."

First, naturally, I had to chuckle a bit at her choice of wording... then we decided that we quite like it. "A vision in passing." Such an intriguing thought - and after the weekend I've had, my brain was already in intense thinking mode. These little phrases get me from time to time, a few words that could describe so much or be applied in so many ways. I'm the kind of person who, in the midst of a conversation, would pause, repeat a word the other person had just said, and say "____. That's a great word."

"A vision in passing".... still undecided as to what I want to make of it, but either way, I think I like it.
Between scrolling various news sites and fastidiously checking my twitter feed for updates from Egypt and the Middle East, I've just come across this comment, posted via Facebook from one student now abroad to a friend of mine:

Athens is going great. I love everything about this country. Even though I'm not in Egypt the effects are still here. There was a demonstration a few blocks from my apartment last night. And we could hear the tear gas guns, chanting and see burning torches...... it was really cool

Tear gas, chanting, burning torches - "it was really cool." That last phrase still echoes in my head. I can't help but wonder how Egyptian protesters would react to hearing such a comment, hearing their efforts boiled down to this. Surely, of course, the student did not intend to lessen the significance or gravity of the situation... but we do have to be conscious of the possible connotations of what we say, don't we? Be wary that it doesn't come off as flippant, ignorantly patronizing via belittling, disrespectful. It's fantastic that so much of the world is carefully observing such historical events as they unfold, but just as important as observing is maintaining a sense of reality and, if not some level of understanding, acknowledging the existence of the causes and possible consequences, the significance and the weight it holds for real people battling real injustice, fighting for real freedoms. 

Being so seemingly distanced from that which we watch on tv while comfortably sitting at home half a world a way... the surreality risks a certain lack of understanding and flippancy, doesn't it? A similar thought ran through my mind yesterday as two visiting students discussed their difficulties flying back from the UK this past winter in the midst of snow and innumerable delays: "The snow really brought out the Third World country in England," complained one. Granted, I've only spent any significant amount of time in one developing (note: not "Third World") country and I've never been to England, but I think it's safe to say that the comparison is not an apt one. Sure, her intention was merely to continue their jesting at the expense of the British (and the whole of Europe at times- rather set on the superiority of the US, these girls), but I couldn't help but feel she'd simultaneously and drastically misrepresented and belittled the situation of developing countries. I immediately wanted to posit a (rather rude and rhetorical) "Have you ever been to a developing country?" Had the answer been yes, I doubt she would have been so ready to compare the state of English snow delays to that of a developing country.

Of course, there's that risk that I'm reading too much into this, too easily perturbed by these rather thoughtless side comments. At the same time, though, the very fact that they're said so naturally, so flippantly and easily concocted and accepted... well, it's a bit troublesome, isn't it, or is it just me? Perhaps I'm carrying this too far, but it seems almost as though it's become rather too easy and acceptable to belittle the experiences (read, perhaps, hardships) of others for lack of our having experienced them ourselves. There are many things I'll never understand (though I'll try as much as possible), having been spared those experiences myself, but I'd hate to risk belittling or dismissing them, feigning a greater understanding, simply because I'm unacquainted with the reality of the situation.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Just say "empanadas"

On one hand, it's rather sad that the world seems to have such low expectations for Americans when it comes to our knowledge of cultures other than our on. On the other hand, it works out wonderfully well for those of us who are at all interested in or willing to learn about such things outside of our own box.

I love the reactions I get when I've clearly exceeded someone's expectations, be it from knowledge of geography and current events, religion, language, or food. The young Ghanaians I joined on the canopy walk through Kakum National Park impressed by my few phrases of Twi, including "please," "thank you," "I'm going," "I'm coming," "I'll be right back," and, for the sake of the older woman who lived with and worked for my host family, "Please, I can do it myself." That last one always got a kick out of Ghanaians, as did my responding to declarations of love with "meda ase" (thank you). Uruguayans discussing the World Cup and Diego Forlan (ignoring the un-sportsmanlike Luis Suarez, whose handball ruined Ghana's run), sending a young Mexican custodian into a fit of laughter when I finally and sneakily owned up to the fact that I understood the Spanish ranting of his coworker on the elevator one day, gaining bonus points with an older Indian woman for my ability to roughly sing part of the theme song of "Kal Ho Naa Ho," points with a friend for vague familiarity with Eid al-Fitr, and points with a fellow student for raving about the deliciousness of some popular Salvadoran food.

This last one is what brought to my attention how little it takes sometimes to improve your standing with others via an interest in their culture - mere mention of atol de elote, platanos fritos, empanadas, and pupusas, with a tiny smattering of Spanish and vague familiarity with Salvadoran geography, and I feel as though I've progressed leaps and bounds, far exceeding expectations. ...Of course, then I couldn't help but guess at the level of expectations set, considering the notoriety of Americans (especially white Americans) when it comes to knowledge and appreciation of other cultures, validated or not. Far too many books, references, jokes, and stereotypes about the culturally ignorant American, no? Kind of bittersweet that it's made it that much easier for those of us who do exhibit any sort of interest to thereby exceed these expectations, isn't it?

Regardless, I can't help but love the reactions, inspired by low expectations though they may be. Not only do we get to enjoy learning about and experiencing (never forget the culinary/gastronomic potential!) something outside of our own cultural box, but we get the huge bonus of pulling in the interest of someone else... which will likely lead to further experiencing, like bhangra parties and delicious feasts. I love how excited other people - even strangers - get when they realize you've displayed any level of interest in their background and culture, how happy and proud it makes them when you demonstrate appreciation.

...Really, all I can think to say to wrap this up - and in anticipation of ongoing cultural feasting (literal and figurative) - hails from the toast of my friend Omid, non-Muslim though I am: Bismillah! Salud, cheers, etc.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Flashback: MJ in Ghana

Weeding through the 'drafts' folder of my Gmail (goodness gracious, the danger and chagrin that would await if anyone ever stumbled across some of those little intellectual and emotional outlets!), and I've discovered a list of the peculiarities heard on a Ghanaian radio station this past summer:

Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You, Gotham City, I Will Survive, and I Believe in Miracles

These one after the other, perhaps with the occasional interruption for a commercial advertisement for Milo or a snippet of the World Cup song "Waving Flag." Hearing the Zac Brown Band blaring as we dodged potholes en route to a relatively rural Ghanaian elementary school was quite something, to say the least, as was my coworker's declaration of love for Mary J. Blige.

Did someone say "globalization?" And here I'd thought no one outside of the US listened to American country music, much less enjoyed. Huh.

Friday, January 21, 2011


As I've been recently reminded of the lack of updates here, and as I do some reading in preparation for thesis writing and critiquing this coming spring, I came upon a poet new to me, and I do think I'm a fan:

by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.

"Famous as the one who smiled back"... that might just be what made this grab me in the first place, smile in understanding and appreciation. Just the other day, I found myself chatting with a friend about the apparent hostility of most Washingtonians as observed on the Metro, where I always chuckle to myself to see masses of people standing together, packed in hip-to-hip yet virtually never smiling, making eye contact, or saying anything. Nothing like the small town America I'm used to, where it really does seem like everybody knows your name, "Cheers" style, while the Andy Griffith Show theme song plays in the background. 

"No one ever makes eye contact or smiles on the Metro," I laughingly bemoaned. "I did," he corrected with a bit of a smirk and a nudge. I couldn't help but glance over and smile. "Yes, yes you did - and I'm glad you did." Indeed, earlier blog posts even show mention of a fellow randomly met on the DC Metro last April - and see what's come of it. Because, instead of acting like Washingtonian drones, we smiled back. Almost makes you think of the Coke commercial of spreading the joy (or the Amtrak commercial, if you're feeling romantic).

"Not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do." ...What a great thought, eh?

A little-acknowledged divide

The US is a country of immigrants. This, at least, is what we learn in grade school. The pilgrims escaping persecution, the Irish escaping famine, everyone looking to start anew. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," etc etc. It's become on the poignant side, though, to hear what modern immigrants have to say about the US, and what many Americans have to say about modern immigrants. Ironic, to say the least.

We all know well the ideal of "the American dream," the streets lined with gold, the inevitable disillusionment upon arrival but continued circulation of tales of the grandeur and wealth of the country that would remain mythical to most. It's disturbing, then, to hear a young Kurd from Tabriz declare the US to be good for finding money and for fun, but terrible for living. Really? A Kurdish immigrant from Iran would rather live in Iran than in the US. Add to that his Cuban roommate also declaring the US a bad place to live, and you've got to take a moment to consider. The orphaned Cuban who grew up in war-torn El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, was shipped to Moldova, Ukraine, and Canada for political asylum, says he wouldn't want to live permanently in the US. An Ecuadorian student recalls having been called a spic in an American high school; a Ghanaian student comments on the prevalence of racism directed at African Americans. The list goes on. What say you, America?

Fresh off the bus from an eight-day visit to DC, I can't help but think of the difference, the often ignored rift in society as it's become so painfully obvious to me of late, highlighting a feature of my last visit. On a quick overnight trip in December, I'd been roped into joining Salvador and his Kurdish co-workers, Omid and Kamran, to a work party, sponsored by an Iranian company they occasionally worked with - all of us arriving with little intention of staying long and, unfortunately, garbed in jeans and slightly skeptical smiles and smirks. The resulting story is one in which I unavoidably find myself referring to "the Americans," for once not considering myself one of them. Instead, the older, wealthy, white Americans present, lounging in tuxedos and floor-length dresses while enjoying duck appetizers and wine, made it quite obvious that the young, foreign crew I'd arrived with was just that - foreign - and I was quite the odd man out due to the association. After about twenty minutes, we laughingly ducked out, Salvador and Omid commenting on the sad state of the food and boiling down the event to "a night of bull shit." I don't know when I last felt so blatantly un-American or so disappointed in the image of "Americans" that had just been presented.

This past week was spent with these same fellows, joining their everyday lives for a brief period of time and learning about their pasts, their hopes for the future, their interactions and lack thereof with "Americans," always differentiating between white Americans, Spanish Americans, Hispanic immigrants, Persian and Kurdish immigrants, etc. The chief similarity was, unquestionably, a sense of judgement and/or hostility from native-born Americans (particularly in reference to white Americans) and plans of being in the US for work and/or education, but certainly not for living. Live here? No, no. So stressed, busy, self-important, unfriendly. People lack connection, family life is in complete disarray (my own story, unfortunately, emphasizing this. ha). "In this country you never really know someone else, you only know what they tell you," says Salvador.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm certainly not a self-hating American, and, as my friends had to admit, there are good and bad in every country, wealthy bullshitters in every country, hostile people and genuinely kind people in every country. No person or place is perfect. Out of all of it, though, I can't help but think that perhaps the largest problem is often a lack of recognition of the very existence of a problem, let alone attempts to make a change for the better. I come home to the small, white Christian agricultural town of North East, PA, and am unavoidably reminded of this. Do you see the immigrant and racial divides, have you ever experienced, observed, or even considered what it's like to be in the minority?

I was reminded of my time in Ghana as I became the object of more than one curious look when Salvador and I dropped into a Central American restaurant for lunch one day, making me the only non-Latino and native English speaker in sight. Hispanic immigrants live, work, and eat with Hispanic immigrants, as Kurds live, work, and eat with Kurds (with the occasional Persian gatherings to mix it up), all in an understood agreement of avoidance from white Americans unless somehow thrown together. Call me crazy, but it's a divide and virtually unspoken sense of animosity that bothers the hell out of me.