Tag Archives: xenophobia

The Other America: Cultural Literacy & Tolerance

In a pre pandemic world I once walked into a Chase bank preparing for a trip to New Zealand. The Lake Merritt area of Oakland is six miles from San Francisco in a highly educated, successful area. I walked up to the teller with my account information and asked for the exchange rate for New Zealand dollars. The teller said sure, and then asked me if I could I tell him what kind of money I wanted? I said “New Zealand dollars”. He said yes, I understand, but then continued to speak to me very slowly, “What kind of money did I want to purchase”? I said, “dollars, New Zealand dollars”.

It felt like I was in a secret comedy skit. The teller said, “Let me get my manager.” The bank manager came back and said she understood I wanted to buy New Zealand dollars. At last I could breathe. She looked me straight in the eye and asked me, “Can you tell me what kind of money they use in New Zealand”?  I looked at her and said, “New Zealand Dollars”.

It was mind boggling for me. How could the manager of one of the largest international banks in a major metropolitan city not know the currencies of other countries? How could a bank not know other places in the world use dollars (Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar not to be confused with the New Zealand dollar, Singapore dollar, Bahamian Dollar, Cayman Dollar, Cook Islands Dollar, Hong Kong dollar, Liberian dollar, Jamaican dollar) in addition to the US dollar?

EXPOSURE TO OTHER CULTURES AND RACISM

The average American has only traveled to 3 countries and two of those often include Canada and Mexico. More shocking, a third of Americans have not only never left the country, they’ve never traveled more than 50 miles from where they were born. What, I wonder, is the correlation between the latter and the political right wing stance, fear of the other?  I then have to ask, what is the correlation between the forgotten states, those that visitors rarely enter: Missouri, Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, and the prevalent racism towards anyone not like them?

A GOLDFISH BOWL IS NOT THE WORLD                        

Many Americans do not realize they have lived their life in a Goldfish bowl. Europeans living in countries in close proximity to one another realize they are in an aquarium. It is common for other countries to speak more than one language. To hear a Trump supporter yell to someone speaking Spanish “Speak American here” is an example of how isolation feeds fear. Clearly oblivious that Spanish is the language of Central America, South America, and nearly half of North America and is spoken by nearly 500 million people in the world. (Only 360 million people speak English as their first language). Spanish evolved out of the Iberian Peninsula in Southwestern Europe and spread through colonization into the the America’s when the Spanish Empire was one of the largest in history. When you travel you live in the Ocean.

WHEN YOU TRAVEL YOU LIVE IN AN OCEAN

As a disclaimer, I am not rich, but adventurous. That trait has goaded me to visit 44 countries and live on three continents. Beginning with a tour of duty in Europe that allowed for travel, I learned many ways to travel on the cheap. The more I traveled, the more I saw how we are all more alike than different. It is an attitude of “us and them” that keeps us in continuous fear and war.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE OCEAN HAS BEEN REDUCED TO A SCREENSAVER?

So what happens in a pandemic when we are all forced to live in a bubble and the Ocean has been reduced to a screensaver? How can we avoid emotional contraction when we are showered with propaganda and disinformation by those intent on destroying us through derision?  By adding a few creative challenges to their curriculums, teachers can change America in one generation. I am not a teacher but a traveler, but I will share what I’ve taken away from experience and from my own amazing teachers.

YOU CAN NOT UNDERSTAND A PEOPLE IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THEIR CULTURE

When I was living in Germany, France was just a few hours drive away and I visited often. I did not speak French. I loved everything and everyone French, but they were very closed to me. I learnt that the French do not believe you can understand them unless you understand their culture. They are their culture. I learned from this and have taken it to every country I have visited.

Who are their best selling authors? Who are their most famous films or film directors? Who are their famous composers, musicians, poets, and artists? (Not just the dead ones, but those living right now). What is the culture famous for (and not just in the tourist areas)? How many languages do they speak in their country?

Teachers or homeschoolers can do this with one country a week. We must make people of different nationalities more than a place on a map. After the culture of a place has been explored, watching travel videos, watching a movie made in that country and reading a book by one of its famous authors can be included. It does not have to be boring. I was reading Jules Verne in first grade and had no idea he was French.

“MANNERS WILL TAKE YOU FURTHER IN LIFE THAN A MASTERS DEGREE”

Another thing I learnt from the French that needs to be relearned in the US, are the importance of manners. Americans used to say the French are rude. They aren’t. Actually, Americans are. You do not treat anyone like a servant in France. You must always be respectful. You must always say Good Morning, Good Afternoon, or Good Evening to anyone you do business with. This is always followed by, “how are you today”. If you do not follow the basic rules of etiquette Hell will freeze over before anyone will serve you.  It gave me one of my famous mantras, “manners will take you further in life than a Masters Degree”.

CREATE A FICTIONAL UNIVERSE

My fourth grade geography teacher made the class read JRR Tolkien’s, The Hobbit one semester. It was fun and a bit challenging. Afterwards, we were divided in groups and each group had to create its own fictional universe. We had to understand its climate, economics, spiritual-belief system, what language they spoke, what they ate, how they raised and educated its children, their political system, every aspect of our own society. We had to make maps of our world and provide drawings or examples of everything down to what they wore and how it was made and of what material. Presentations were made and each universe was incredibly different from one another because each of us brought our own life experiences to the project. When we were done, the next semester was spent understanding the different continents of the world. The experience inventing our own universe allowed us to take in cultures in this way. That teacher had expanded our worlds in a way that made someone else’s just as interesting.

In college I was required to take three credits in cultural studies and was surprised that the course included movies based on historical events in many native languages. Each film informed us as to how those events influenced the political and cultural direction a country embodied.  Again, culture informs.

HOW DIFFERENT WOULD OUR SOCIETY BE IF BLACK HISTORY MONTH WASN’T TAUGHT ONLY ONE MONTH OUT OF THE YEAR?

How different would our society be if Black History Month was not taught one month a year but included in American history? Why should the inventor of closed-circuit television security, the IBM Computer and Pacemaker, gas mask, sanitary napkin, caller ID, touch tone phones, fiber optic cable and peanut butter be relegated to one month when every day of our lives is gifted by a black inventor?

CULTURAL LITERACY DOES NOT MAKE US LOSE OURSELVES; IT SHOWS US THE KIND OF PEOPLE WE WANT TO BE.

People who fear anyone who is different in belief or custom is still living in a goldfish bowl. America to other nations is known for inventing BBQ, jazz, movies, and Silicon Valley, that’s it. We are seen as being fat, uneducated, and war mongering. We are currently viewed as a nation of bullies that does not care for its children, elders, or its sick.  Cultural literacy does not make us lose ourselves, it shows us the kind of people we want to be.

Copyright free image courtesy of Pixabay and Msporch


Uriél Danā on Film ShootUriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years and is a Contributing Editor on the arts and other subjects for two online arts magazines.

She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.

A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems will be featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA.

 

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.

Insulated Societies And Fear: Awakening Cultural Intelligence Through The Arts

The Covid-19 quarantine has catapulted humanity into a new phase of global awareness through internet-based interaction. Professional and community based online communication has become a literal life stream.

Sadly, prior to the pandemic, we had already started to see a push towards cultural isolationism as a knee jerk rejection of globalism by the fearful.

Insular societies are often formed by living in an isolated location or in a group of people that resist exposure to new ideas. It can be a side effect of poverty with restricted travel or movement. Fear will often derail travel or reflect a lack of interest to exposure to other nationalities, languages or cultures.

Excluding the East and West coasts of the United States, 60% of Americans do not have a passport. Since the early part of the 20th century Americans have rarely traveled beyond 50 miles from where they were born! Our only exposure to other cultures can be limited to television, movies or social media, none of which reflect reality.

Unfortunately this can create a fear of new experiences, fear of travel, or worse, gross stereotypes of people. A perfect example is how Muslims are portrayed as terrorists or as dangerous individuals. Imagine if the entire world thought all Americans were Jehovah Witnesses?

Geographical size can also be a major contributor to an insular culture. California is the size of 5–7 European countries and is actually smaller than Texas or Alaska. Americans with only two weeks vacation a year barely have enough time to explore their own state, much less travel to another country.

In comparison, while living in Germany, I could drive to Holland or Belgium in 5 hours, Austria in 7 hours, France in 10, and Italy in 13. In those few hours I was exposed to multiple cultures, languages, food, and people. In Switzerland I was astounded to hear preschoolers speaking multiple languages from their exposure to people from other countries.

Now imagine each US state as a different country. It’s easy if you try and imagine someone from Boston talking to someone from Alabama, Texas or California. It would sound like we were all from different planets. There is a reason for that too.

As a melting pot of people who immigrated here from around the world, we came here despite the First Nations and Mexican Nation people that already were established here culturally and physically. Isolationists choose to forget that we are a country of immigrants. Their racism and xenophobia are a response to not being able to recognize the original cultural heritage in another person. This is what we now identify as “cultural intelligence”.

Professor David Livermore is an expert in cultural behavior. He is a world-renowned writer and lecturer on Cultural Intelligence. He helps train police departments to determine whether someone from a different cultural background is exhibiting behavior that is a threat or a culturally derived emotional response to a crisis.

To understand someone’s character or behavior, it helps to understand if they are from an Affective or Neutral Cultural background. Affective cultures are highly expressive in their communications and feelings. They talk loudly when excited, are very animated, enthusiastic, spontaneous. They are also more emotional and use their intuition in their decision making process and will often exaggerate to make a point.

Affective cultures include African American, Italian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and the Spanish. In Affective cultures, interruptions are okay but it is silence that is considered awkward.

Neutral cultures emphasize controlling their emotions or a non-emotional response to situations. They are more likely to disguise what they are thinking or feeling which can lead to unexpected outbursts. They can speak in a monotone, show little emotions, and expect others to stick to the point on specific, predetermined topics. To interrupt someone is taboo and punishment often includes being given “the silent treatment”.

Neutral cultures include Chinese, Ethiopian, German, Japanese, and Native American.

Culture is not only about national culture. There are also industry cultures and corporate cultures.

In his Teaching Company course, Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Where ever You Are, Professor Livermore analyzes cultures beyond Affective and Neutral behaviors.

Cultures (based on academic research across 60 countries) are also identified by;

  • Individualist versus Collectivist attitudes
  • Low versus High Power Distance
  • Cooperative versus Competitive
  • How they view time (Punctuality versus Relationships)
  • Direct versus Indirect Communication
  • Being versus Doing
  • Particularist versus Universalist
  • Tight versus Loose

Livermore also identifies 10 global clusters of large cultural groupings which share core patterns of thinking and behaving.

The arts can be one of the least fearful ways to open ourselves up to other cultures. If travel and finances are restricting our global curiosity about other cultures, we can learn much by watching videos or travel blogs on YouTube from expatriates who live in those places.

Begin with one or two countries. Perhaps the countries your family originated from or a country you have always wanted to visit. If you really want to stretch your personal boundaries, do this with a culture you have no interest in.

Research your country of interest’s most famous painters, singers, play-writes, and film directors. Who were their bestselling authors? Find out and then read English versions of those books. Who are their famous chefs and what foods do they eat and why? What is your chosen country most famous for? What were their gifts to the world? 

Exposure to other cultures has benefited humanity much more than isolation. It may not be immediately obvious but history has provided many examples of this.

Prior to the Renaissance, only priests and monks could read. Much of Europe lived in filth and isolation until the Christian Crusades. History shows us these solders were not Christians at all, but paid mercenaries to go into Spain and kill off the Moors who had settled there by the Christian church.

When the soldiers arrived in Cordoba they found a place like no other. The Moors had plumbing, in-house baths, and communal fountains. They cultivated fruit trees and had more libraries than in all of France combined!

“Their society had become too sophisticated to be fanatical. Christians and Moslems, with Jews as their intermediaries and interpreters, lived side by side and fought, not each other, but other mixed communities.” (Cleugh, 1953, p.71).

While the rest of Europe lived in fear and superstition, Arabs had traveled the globe and brought books and knowledge from every location.

Thanks to the Moors, we were gifted with our knowledge of medicine, botany, geometry, astronomy, mathematics (including the concept of zero), eye -glasses, and the use of brass type for printing, just to name a few.

The Moors also gave us the concept of dressing for the seasons, using glass and silverware to eat, and eating meals in more than one course.

These were the gifts of Arab Muslims to the West. Their culture was so far ahead of the rest of the world that Christian and Jewish scholars had to come from all around Europe to translate their books. It took them 300 years! This is what came to be known as the Renaissance or “great rebirth”.

When we travel we learn more about ourselves than the world. To get past fear and isolationism, we must focus on what makes us the same rather than what is different. We all want a safe place to live, enough food to eat, and for our families to be safe. We all laugh and we all cry.

We all love. When we hear or read any disparaging statement against another culture it is important to ask ourselves two questions. What is it they fear and Who will benefit from creating an Us versus Them situation?


Uriél Danā at the Getty MuseumUriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years and is a Contemporary Figurative Art Curator.
She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.

A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems were  featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA. To see more artwork and read more of her articles, please visit https://www.urieldana.com.

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.