That's me on the left, and my friend Tom Marks is in the middle, and we were guarding the keg last summer with some grumpy bald guy from New York. If I was better at PhotoShop, I would have airbrushed out some of my chest hair and one of my chins. But looks aren't important! The fact that we survived a wild and chaotic youth to emerge older, wiser, and in my case, heftier is a true blessing. This is an essay that Tom sent me recently, and I found it profoundly moving. Hope you will too.
A GLOBAL FEAST
By Tom Marks
The road to peace may begin at your nearest Chinese restaurant.
When was the first time that you ate “foreign” food? For me, I think I was about eight years old, when my Dad took me to a local Chinese restaurant and we had “chop suey.” I remember the tangy yellow mustard that would sting my nose, and how the flavors, aromas and décor were unlike anything I had seen before. I liked it – the newness and exoticness of it – and it made me want to go to Asia – which I did 20 years later, when I taught English in Japan for five years.
I have lived in a lot of countries and eaten many kinds of foods – not all delicious – but my motto was “try everything once.” However, not everyone who visited me felt this way. Sometimes, when friends and family came to visit me in Japan or Santa Fe, they’d complain that the food was too spicy or weird and head for the nearest McDonald’s. I always felt that it was a shame because they were missing out on a lot of good food, and I wondered what it was that made them afraid to try it.
I suppose part of the problem was that the food was foreign and unfamiliar. Is it human nature to fear the unknown, or at least be uncomfortable with it? Whether it was the closet in your childhood bedroom at night, or tomorrow’s test, or a new job, or what’s hidden beneath the Muslim veil, we often fear what we don’t know.
One defense mechanism against our fear is humor – especially that comic cliché, “the dumb foreigner.” Borat may be the latest example of this, but Andy Kaufman, Jose Jimenez, Ricky Ricardo, the singing Chinese waiters in “A Christmas Story,” and others have all played the role of foreign clowns. If there is a custom, an accent, a gesture that seems strange, if there is a language that we don’t understand, then we can relieve our fears and assert our superiority by making fun of it. It’s so easy to “imitate” the Chinese language, and laugh at its funny singsong rhythms, yet what we are ridiculing is one of the oldest and most linguistically complex languages on Earth. But laughing at it makes not understanding it OK somehow; since it sounds so silly. After all, what could they possibly be saying that is worth knowing? Right?
This striving for cultural superiority may become even more acute if political tensions are involved. If there is a military crisis, how quickly those silly foreigners in their Middle Eastern garb transform into “towel heads” or “sand n******”, as we claim our dominance over them. Certainly, we seem to say, by reducing them to silly cartoon caricatures, we deserve to win against such inferior creatures. And the more violent the war, the sharper the distinctions become – the Japanese were frequently depicted as monkeys by U.S. propaganda, the Russians as subhumans by the Nazis, and the Jews, well…
And certainly, it is easier to kill a group of people who are not people, but subhumans, monkeys, or sand n******, than it is to kill civilized beings like us. After all, who cares about their lives? They are not “one of us,” so their lives do not matter as much as ours.
And so we read about “collateral damage” in Iraq, or starvation in Ethiopia, or ethnic cleansing in Darfur, and we may shrug, or yawn, or frown – but we turn the page.
And people die.
So how can we change this?
I remember when I was getting ready to go to Japan in the late 80s. It was during the big U.S. vs Japan trade rivalry, when many in the U.S. were angry at Japan for unfair trade practices, and for showy purchases of prime U.S. real estate like Rockefeller Center and the Pebble Beach golf course. Members of Congress were smashing Japanese products in front of the Capitol building, and my parents’ friends would say “You tell Hirohito to go to hell!” The Japanese, one and all, were seen by many as inscrutable schemers, bent on destroying our way of life through their devious business practices.
And yet, when I lived among the Japanese in Japan, I was surprised at how normal they all seemed, how much they were just like us: working all day, then going home, tired from work, to spend some time with their families, perhaps having a beer in front of the TV with their kids jumping around the living room, and finally collapsing in bed only to get up too soon afterwards to start the day all over again. And just like us, they looked forward to the weekends, when they could perhaps play some golf or go on a Sunday drive. They were banging the hammer every week just so they could have a little extra money for their retirement and their kids, and asking little more than that.
Not so devious, huh?
These were not global dominating monsters – these were the same people I had grown up with. They were like me. Many of them even considered their politicians to be fools and hypocrites, just like I did. So when I talked to my parents on the phone, and they asked if the Japanese were planning any more sneak attacks, I’d think of the mild-mannered student named Ken in my class, and how we’d tell jokes to each other, or trade stories about our families and friends, and feel that special “Friday glow” as we looked forward to relaxing on the weekend, and I’d wonder what all the fuss was about. This student was not some “strange inscrutable Other,” this was my friend, Ken, and many of the other people I met in Japan were just like him. And I thought how hard it would be for me, if god forbid there were ever a war between our two countries, to whip up any hatred against Ken and against all the other friends I had made in Japan.
Here’s another example: currently I live in Michigan and teach English to students from the Middle East. Most of them come from Saudi Arabia. What do you think they are like? Ultra-religious bomb-throwing zealots who hate Israel? No. Fist-shaking terrorists? Hardly. Most of them are scraggy-haired teenagers who are struggling with their English classes and doing what most college students do: listening to music, staying up late, and drinking lots and lots of coffee. In fact, the more Saudi students I teach, the more varieties of Saudis I find, to the point where I can say that there are as many types of Saudis as there are Americans. For example, some Saudis come from Jiddah, a beach resort in western Saudi Arabia, and they are almost indistinguishable from the surfer dudes who hang out at the beaches in California. I’ve also taught several Saudi women who not only refuse to wear the veil, but look as American as, well, Paula Abdul. So, with all of these types to choose from, how can I ever say something like “All Saudis are like this…” or “All Saudis believe that…” The truth is, I can’t.
So, perhaps the first step is to realize that people in other countries are often more like us than we realize. Then, what’s the second step? How do we become closer to them and reduce that sense of “Otherness” in our eyes?
Perhaps we can do this by making more of an effort to learn about them and their culture. I was always struck, when I lived in Japan, by how much they knew about our culture and how comparatively little I knew about theirs – or their language. Learning about another culture doesn’t have to be hard or involve scholarship – it can be as easy as, say, eating at a Chinese restaurant, or perhaps learning how to say “hello” in Arabic (“salaam aleikum”). Or maybe reading a famous Peruvian writer or listening to Indian music. Chances are that your son or daughter has an international classmate at school – why not invite that classmate over for a play date? We did that – and made some great Korean friends as a result. You can never underestimate the power of gestures like these, or the feelings of pride and gratefulness that are created when someone else expresses an interest in one’s culture. For example, when you say “hello” to someone in their language, it shows them that you care – about their culture, their feelings, and about welcoming them to the community. Reading books about another culture not only shows that you value that culture by wanting to know more about it, it also shows that you think the other culture has something of value that you can benefit from, and it opens a window into that culture that may help you gain a deeper understanding of it. For example, whatever glimmer of understanding I have of deep Japanese culture came from the novels I read of Japanese life by Tanizaki and Kawabata. From them I learned the patterns that gave shape to Japanese life, and those books helped me understand what I saw around me in Japan more fully. Finally, inviting someone from another culture to your house can begin a whole network of friendships, changing your guests from outsiders, to community members, to friends – and eating dinner with them can, well, introduce you to some really good food!
Obviously, this is not limited to Chinese, or Muslims, or “foreigners” – it is good to reach out to ANY group that is different from your own, be it rich or poor, white or black, even Republicans and Democrats. Reaching out is the antidote to fear.
Finally, it is true that hate does exist in the world, and we have a responsibility to protect ourselves from it. We have to protect our friends and family at home (3000 died on September 11) and our soldiers abroad (3100+ dead in Iraq as of February 2007). But I think we also have a responsibility to protect the innocent lives in other countries that are affected by war (35,000+ civilians killed in Iraq in 2006) because they are not some foreign other, they are humans, they are us, they are our friends. We need to recognize that all lives are valuable because there are shared traits and beliefs in all of us. Perhaps by reaching out, by identifying what we share, by identifying what unites us as humans rather than what divides us as factions, we can, in a small way, reduce some of the needless suffering, the loneliness and isolation, the deaths of civilians and innocents and friends that too often define our world.
And if we do, the taste of this dish will be sublime.