“would you still want to travel to that country if you could not take a camera with you.”
― Nayyirah Waheed
WHEN CULTURE TRUMPS PERSONALITY
I enjoy talking.
But sometimes, I don't want to represent anyone.
Sometimes I just want to be myself, free of the burden of representation.
When first meeting new people, one can expect the standard questions: Where are you from? Do you like...? Have you tried...?
Apart from the getting to know you historically questions (facts, [dis]likes, etc.), there the getting to know you personally questions (thoughts, beliefs, convictions). Personal questions tend to require fuller thought, more reflection, and perhaps, more diplomacy, especially if the questioner asks you to speak on behalf of a community of people.
Currently, the United States public image is on the rocks. Police brutality, racism, political upheaval does not make sense to many living in the U.S., much less people who are watching it from afar. On a trip to Canada in May, I met a few people who somewhat jokingly commented on the U.S. presidential election and the prospect of U.S. American's immigrating to their Northern neighbor. What perturbed me was not the awkward political icebreaker but rather the throwback question, "Why is there so much racism and hatred in America?"
I shared an example a few weeks back about a student asking me about Islamophobia and war in the United States. Traveller and Blogger Valentine Sergon offers her own approach to navigating these difficult questions in "On Being Black, American, Proud".
Have you faced "representation fatigue"? How do you handle it?
20 Things you shouldn't do around the world
“decolonization requires acknowledging. that your needs and desires should never come at the expense of another’s life energy. it is being honest that you have been spoiled by a machine that is not feeding you freedom but feeding you the milk of pain."
WAR AND PEACE
Below is an adapted a journal entry during my Fulbright grant to teach English in Malaysia. Fulbright was created for the "promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science." Click here for more information on Fulbright.
A typical Tuesday begins at 12:30 PM for me; however, I chose to come in early on Tuesday to make photostats for my students.
The morning teachers were already done for the day, so I was the only teacher in the office. Three boys from a Form 5* class entered the room. I smiled and offered my favorite chocolates available in Malaysia, Cloud 9 double chocolate chews. The students’
responded with a simple question, “Is it halal?”
What happened next caught me completely off-guard and is, perhaps, the most startling experience in Malaysia to date. As one student scoured the label for a halal symbol, another boy walked over to the door and locked it.
“Strange,” I thought.
“Teacher,” he says, “tell me what you think about my religion?” I opened my mouth to answer his question but he continued to speak, “Do you think all Muslims are terrorists? What do you think about Islamophobia? Why do Americans kill so many Muslims?”
He’s aware of the 9/11 attacks and that I’m from New York. I know what he wants to hear. I know what he’s really asking. He wants to know if I think he’s a bad person. He’s really asking if I can respect him –his faith, his culture.
I told him war is a horrible and complicated thing and that there are good people and there are bad people all over the world and in every religion. I explained that if I was afraid of Muslims, I wouldn’t have come to a predominantly Muslim nation, Malaysia.
Then, I asked what he thinks of Christians and the United States of America. His response?
Sorry, I don’t know English.”
He and his friends grabbed a handful of my chocolate sweets, unlocked the door and walked outside to the bus station.
That experience made me believe this is what I’m here for. Yes, I’m here to encourage students to use English; help them to come out of their boxes and not be as shy. More importantly, I’m here to facilitate cultural exchange and to promote mutual understanding.
*Form 5 is Junior/Senior year of high school. Students are between 17-18 years old.
Musings and muses.