6/28 – en route from Dulles to Dubai after a 1.5 hour delay due to storms
This morning during our cross cultural communication orientation and discussions, I had a chance to reflect on my personal competencies and shortcomings. In some ways, I have come a long way from the naïve farm girl from PA who never even thought much about life outside my personal sphere. Perhaps I was lucky that my first introduction to real diversity was at Governor’s School where I was young, impressionable, and enamored with those who were different without some of the preconceived notions, political correctness, or personal reserve that may come with age. Of course, as illuminating as that experience was to rural me, I was young and embodied all the heedlessness and egocentrism that youth seems to spawn. While it seemed a bit odd at the end of summer to return to a town where everyone looked alike and shared (for the most part) religious, political, and cultural beliefs, I quickly transitioned back to life as I had always known it. I even went on to a college that cannot boast about her diversity (I love you anyway, Alma).
Teaching was my next real chance to practice cross cultural communication, and in the early years, I was learning as much about other cultures as my students were about literary elements. I still remember a few moments that exposed me to experiences that I hadn’t even contemplated were happening. At the end of one year, a shy and polite 9th grader who I had adored all year, revealed to me that for many years of his life he had been detained under house arrest due to his father’s political activity. For years, he and his family shared a small house with several other families and they were not even allowed to step outside the crowded walls. This remarkable and well-adjusted young man had never once alluded to his past, and I remember being struck by how much I didn’t know about who my students were or where they are coming from. I showed up to work each day with my own agenda; I was there to correct subject/verb agreement and facilitate discussions about the allegory of Animal Farm. And while I knew intellectually that my job required more of me than my content knowledge and public speaking ability, it took years for me to emotionally accept my responsibility as a model of how people interact in mature, empathic, and appropriate ways. Of course, this reluctant acceptance of this role meant that I had to apologize every time that I didn’t respond to students in mature, empathetic, and appropriate ways. I have obviously issued many apologies over the years, and the more I learn and grow, the more apologies I realize I should have made when I consider how I could have handled situations differently.
I know that in India I am going to face situations and interactions that confuse me and leave me desperately fumbling for an appropriate and empathetic response. I hope that I am able to adapt quickly and behave suitably, but I also know that there will be moments where I behave boorishly (unintentionally of course) and that I will need to apologize and learn from my missteps. From everything that I have heard and read about the warm and hospitable Indian culture, I feel assured that they will welcome me despite my limited cultural acuity.
Later as we were driving to the airport, I was reflecting on what Caitlin (our resident director) shared about the ways that she sometimes felt uncomfortable with how out of place she was in this new culture. I wanted to reject that idea with assurances to myself that I was too confident and flexible (and millions of other complimentary adjectives) to be bothered by my status as a cultural oddity. Of course, these self-delusions faded when I remembered that even recently I had a near meltdown during one afternoon at a backyard barbeque where I felt socially isolated and “other.” It was a bit sobering to realize that for more than a month I will be almost completely outside my comfort zone. Intellectually, I know that this is vital for my growth, but once again, I am emotionally reluctant to accept my new role – this time as a stranger hoping that everyone extends me the cultural empathy that I have slowly been learning to show to others.