Writing a story about crossing cultures should be easy for me. Lately, it seems it’s all I do. I am currently in the second half of a year in which my only requirement is to stay out of the United States. I’ve traveled from Canada to Thailand, from Thailand to Israel and Jordan, to Holland, to a Native reservation on Vancouver Island.
And within each of these geographical locations, I’ve experienced a dozen other cultures. I became good friends with Burmese people in Thailand. I was welcomed into the home of an Arab Catholic family and into a monastery of French monks in Israel. Here on Vancouver Island, I’ve been hosted by a family that is half Coast Salish Native and half Samoan.
Again, this should be a very easy topic to write about. But when given the charge, I find myself drawing a blank.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve crossed so many cultures lately that I find it hard to zero in on a single story. I could tell you about sharing a Burmese cigar with a man living at a garbage dump in Mae Sot. I could talk about the Palestinian cab driver who invited me into his home for tea and bread. Or perhaps I could talk about swimming in the Sea of Galilee with some French monks who welcomed me into their community. There’s also Ollie, the German-born man living in Holland who literally invited us into his castle. And of course, there’s that time we buried a pig to roast for an Island luau at a Native reservation. The list goes on.
So I find myself thinking about what it is that unifies these stories, both in me and in the people I met. What is it that made these stories possible?
In missionary and NGO circles, we tend to talk a lot about “cultural sensitivity”, and honestly, I find the subject somewhat tedious. Of course, I don’t want to be insensitive and end up rubbing a Thai monk’s head with my bare feet (I’m sure there’s a series of incidents that could make such a travesty happen), but God knows I’ve known a person or two who was very culturally sensitive, and whose personality was best described with an expletive. What I don’t want is to become so entrenched in my own pre-conceived ideas of what another person may find offensive that I actually limit my opportunity to experience the life of that other person.
And I suppose that’s what it gets down to. A person. What made each of these experiences possible was openness to another individual. My first rule of travel is, “Say Yes.” Say “Yes” to the other, in whatever they may offer. In this, I open myself not merely to “experiencing another culture,” but to experiencing another person within that culture. In saying “Yes” to their offer, I am in turn offering myself. It may be for just an hour, or it may be for a lifetime, but I say “Yes” to the possibility of friendship.
We can become trapped in insecurity and close ourselves off to relationship because of our own fear. We forget that a person is not merely the sum total of their culture. We must step past our own fears of offending, and embrace the moment.
Perhaps each person is simply a culture of One, each culture rich with what makes it unique. Each with its own sense of art, of beauty, of tradition. Each with its own unique way of offering kindness and hospitality. It’s true that what may be welcomed by one may offend another, but kindness and humility go a long way in forgiving small ignorances. What makes the journey of crossing over into another’s culture possible is that simple word: “Yes”.
Kindness. Openness. Humility. Love. Such things are understood in any culture, from Arab cab drivers to homeless Canadians. We are, each one of us, a culture of our own, waiting for another to say “Yes” to us. And each of us, each culture of One, has something of great value to give: Ourself.
Frére Dominic and I are taking this trail down to the water. Would you like to come?
(Hand motions indicating an offer of tobacco)
Would you like to meet at Fraser’s house at 5 a.m. to bury the pig for the luau?
(deep breath) Absolutely!
PALESTINIAN CAB DRIVER
Would you like to come to my house for some tea?