This is a journal entry—my stream-of-consciousness thoughts I still ponder nearly a year later as I try to figure out a very important topic to me: how do I teach culture to my children while trying but not truly understanding differences myself? Feel free to read it. Feel free to comment. Please don’t misjudge my honesty as I work through it.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Dear Travel Journal:
I jumped off my vanilla Salt Lake City flight to Detriot, boarded flight 5573 to JFK, and entered another world with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, speaking foreign languages. I looked forward and saw an Indian baby wrap her fingers around her mother’s finger instinctively. I watched one woman, head covered in a modern mauve scarf, smile to another woman with a stylish chocolate head covering. A million words of understanding transferred between smiles. It was a silent language foreign to me, yet intriguing at the same time. Questions spring to mind but go unanswered.
An African-American guy sits in 4A, sporting an intricate corn-row weave and is seated next to the modern head-covered woman. Observing the two side by side, I am astutely aware of how significant hair and head coverings are in politics, style, cultural traditions, religion, and storytelling. Storytelling? Because everyone has a story and tells it in their own ways—starting at the tips of their heads. Without the ability to speak to each other, how do we tell and understand our stories?
The Mary Englebright quote “Bloom where you are planted” both inspires and confines me. It releases me, empowers me, gives me ideas, and at the same time reminds me of entering a small opening to a bat cave while sea canoeing in Thailand—a claustrophobic, apprehensive moment that nearly shaved the skin right off the top of my nose. Restrictive. I could follow Englebright’s urge and create the most amazing cultural-awareness program in white city USA where I live. Bring the world to us, right? I could introduce a culture in my home on regular intervals by learning and preparing new recipes and such. I could, along with my children, visit exhibits. I could travel and bring back information and trinkets, and candy, of course. But, how do you bring a culture into your own living room—bring back the actual experiences that forever make you see life differently? How do you teach your kids culture?
How do you communicate the experience of visiting a guinea-pig-raising family who lived in a shed inside the gates of a used-car parts lot in Ecuador? Did I mention the dirt floors they slept on or the one room they cooked and ate and slept and reproduced in? We worshipped together every Sunday, where differences didn’t matter. They let us into their lives, and I walked away with friendships and something even more precious—perspective.
What about the “clean” river dividing Bangkok? The stark contrast of our dinner cruise with its exotic fruit and superficial conversation with Thai life around us. Children bathing in the water, squealing in delight, as their moms washed dishes next to them and their grandmothers on the other side collected leaves for their basket-weaving livelihood, making possible the family’s meager existence. Their eyes: deep, dark, seemingly knowing, but utterly, almost blissfully, ignorant. All living in the shadows of lavishly adorned temples and gold-plated Buddhas.
Or, what about the commute to and from work in Frankfurt, Germany? Eating vegetables and fruit bought at the train station or at corner markets. Running into stores from the rain to be totally avoided—ignored really—by shop girls. No fight over customers to increase their commission. Not wrong, just different. Looking in their eyes time and again to see the distrust and anger of a nation so torn apart and beaten that nothing makes much sense anymore—even more than sixty years later. Realizing that I just don’t understand—not the distrust, not the anger, and not the claim that Americans are too superficial when we are just open. Is being an extrovert so wrong? Again, not wrong, just different.
When I look at my own road to forgiveness and my lack of understanding in certain situations and contrast that with the Germans’ horror of a past, I realize I just can’t compare my experiences to a whole people crushed by their very leader. Betrayed by not one neighbor, but by possibly and very likely every single person they came in contact with—all for a chance to trade you for power or food or clothes or sleep or faulty ideals. How do I make sense of my own path to forgiveness when I put these experiences side by side? Yet, mine are real. They make up my story. That said then, how do I not become untrusting—so bruised that all potential friends get pushed aside? How do I keep a Western country, small city, trusting perspective after feelings of betrayal—however significant in world history? What can I learn from the survivors? What can their forgiveness, their ability to move on and rebuild teach me?
Out of my thoughts and back on the plane, a Jewish mother and son sit across the aisle from me—asleep, mouths open. My immediate neighbor—Middle Eastern—quickly changes seats with them to oblige a son’s request to sit next to his mother—even though he doesn’t like aisle seats, as he confessed to me after the switch. Behind my neighbors and across the aisle sits a hip Japanese boy next to a balding, white haired, seemingly upper-middleclass man. Both are wearing button-down shirts, one striped, the other checked. Mary Kay is our, I’d like to say Mid-Western, flight attendant, although she sounds Southern.
The woman with the maroon head scarf exudes confidence. The Jewish mother seems at once totally dependent and yet strict—the type where you play by her rules. The lineage does pass through her, you know? She carefully opens her peanuts. She talks to her son with such respect, calculated and calm. Babies cry. They don’t notice differences—not in themselves, not in the passengers. They tell their own stories: “I’m hungry. I am wet. I have gas. I am dependent on you and you aren’t meeting my needs. Waaaaa!” What is everyone else sharing?
Every passenger sits upright on his or her best behavior. All of the skeletons in our closets are behind closed doors. All of our storybooks are tightly closed, not revealing the tales we would spin or share if we felt we could—if we knew we wouldn’t be judged or hated for the candor. This fact keeps me guessing.
The tall, lanky, late forty-ish Texan in the 38-30-sized Levis in front of me may be going on a business trip, leaving a wife he adores, meals he is used to, and is so afraid of flying that the word search occupying his every move is the only thing that can keep his mind off the inevitable crash. On the other hand, he may be trying to get his mind off the minutes until he reaches his mistress. Now, he’s French, not Texan, even though his Levi’s are still the same size.
The question I ask myself is: can I ever get a straight story? A first impression is what?—only an impression, right? Will my own lens through which I view the world so obstruct my view that it keeps me from seeing or accepting the truth of people’s stories? Does my own perspective that I sometimes mistake for knowledge bind me to subscribing to commonly believed stereotypes even though I put myself above them? I mean look at what I’ve written so far? French men aren’t the only ones that have affairs. Texans, I am sure, do fine in that department as well. Jewish sons don’t always respect their mothers, and Middle-Eastern—are they really from the Middle East?—women wearing head scarves may be anything but confident. The smile that passed between the two may be a sorrowful understanding of their plight: “Bloom where you are planted,” right? It may be a thousand other things. It may be nothing at all but a polite, yet silent greeting that I just read into and stereotyped.
So … I am off to a wedding in NYC. Solo. The only Mormon girl with my story that no one will know the real meaning of. Or. Know. Period. Does she live a Big Love lifestyle? How can she have so much fun and not drink? Why isn’t she weird—she seems so normal? Just another storybook, closed no matter how open. We never know, do we? So … back to my original question: how do I teach culture—void of stereotypes—to my children when I am trying, but do not truly understand it myself?