Saturday, September 21, 2013

World Citizenship

January 1977:   The New Year which we had spent visiting my relatives in Germany had just rolled over. This was the year of Dan's Fulbright Teaching Exchange in England. We were driving through a cold dark fog in Belgium, headed to the ferry from Calais to Dover and back  to where we were staying in Hastings, East Sussex (Hastings in the Battle of Hastings,back in 1066, which was fought in a place nearby appropriately called Battle.)

The feeling of being in an alien place crept over me again. I shivered and sighed. The discomfort of not feeling at home had never really left me since we arrived in England in September. Before we left, I had poo-pooed culture shock as something that happened to other people. England was basically the same culture as ours .... or was it?

Everything was so different than what I was used to. It was cold and dark, a damp seaside climate after living in the Sonoran desert. They drove on the wrong side of the street and the cars were backwards. They used roundabouts instead of traffic lights. I shopped in the High Street, going to the butcher, the baker, and the greengrocer, after being used to supermarkets. All the brands were different. The TV stations were different, the books available to read were different, and we were "The Americans," a constant source of amusement to the locals and unwitting representatives of American culture, whatever that was at the time.

So here I was, a stranger in a strange land, out of sorts with the environment and with myself. We eventually got to the ferry and after an uneventful crossing re-entered England. I looked around. The orange of the sodium-vapor lights was a sudden comfort. We were back on the side of the street that I had reluctantly become used to. Pub signs called out cheerfully and the roundabouts pointing to now familiar places seemed to welcome us. With a huge sigh of relief, I realized I had come a place other than the USA!

That experience unsettled me for months and years afterward. I slowly realized that I could never again just sink into unthinking American citizenship the way I once had. My identity had changed and I had instead become a citizen of more than one country...a citizen of the world.

A visit to a Maasai Village, Tanzania
Over the years that has played out in my life in a number of ways. I became very curious about other cultures and open to experiencing as many as I could, as often as possible...the more different the culture from ours, the better. I have now traveled to 42 different countries and 5 continents and the wanderlust has not left me. Each place I visit has something new to opens me in new ways. With each additional culture or place I visit, my understanding of human nature  runs a bit deeper. I have come to expect the unexpected and not be floored by it as I was in England. In fact I have become able to embrace the unknown and enjoy it, even savor it.

Monks in Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet
I often think about my mother's family who emigrated from Germany to the USA in the 1920's. They eventually became US citizens, but retained their Germanic ways until they passed away, never fully embracing the US as home. In fact  my Aunt Martha missed the old country so much that  she actually moved back there for a period of time. Instead of this pervasive attachment to a particular place thought of as "home," I have come to realize that the sense of being at home resides within me. As I have come to feel at home in my own body and soul, I have learned that I can move comfortably in strange new places and that I could live just about anywhere and adapt to whatever conditions exist.

Iquitos, Amazon Basin, Peru

World citizenship has also come to mean caring deeply about far flung people and places. I now read carefully news reports of places like Rwanda, the Amazon River basin, and Tibet - places we have been -  with genuine curiosity and deep feeling for the people who live there. World politics have come alive for me. I care about these places and the people who live there. And, when there is famine or natural disaster, I can mentally place myself in the midst of the suffering  and offer heartfelt blessings for the well-being of the people. Compassion has expanded to take in our entire planet. I have learned that every smile, every act of kindness does indeed affect the whole world.

 Marrakesh, Morocco
Knowing that I am a citizen of the world also means that there is no person or group who is truly alien or "other." Looking into the eyes of a veiled woman in a market in Morocco, I saw that she and I were just the same. Dancing in a circle with Maasai women in Tanzania, I felt the same loving bond that I feel with my friends at home. The waves of humanity that surround us in every culture are family. I have learned that people everywhere share the same consciousness. In that sense we truly are one, no matter what culture represents our origin. I have learned that I can open my heart to anyone and extend kindness to them and dwell in our shared humanity.

Near Cappadocia, Turkey
 About a year ago I happened to see online a letter from Helen Chavez, the wife of Cesar Chavez. She had started a petition to the major newspapers to stop referring to human beings as illegal. She said that activities are illegal, people are not. Amen to that. As human beings we all want pretty much the same thing: a place to live, enough to eat, and to live and love as we see fit. Some folks must go to great lengths to achieve that, including crossing borders in search of work. They are neither illegal nor aliens, they are people like us who love their families and want to be able to support them. Instead of jailing them or deporting them, could we not help address the conditions that create the need for them to enter the USA? What if you or I were in their position? How can we help? They are part of our human family. Where is our compassion?

Folklorico Dancers in Banámichi
Which brings me back to Mexico and Banámichi. I love the people here. I love  that they are hardworking, family oriented souls. I  love the surprises and the things I learn from this culture, and I feel totally at home here.Yes, life is a bit different that in the USA. Cowboys ride horses in the streets. The water goes off periodically. The natives celebrate different holidays, care about different politics, are eternally polite, and deal with difficult things less directly than we Americans do. Life may progress more inefficiently, but I am not there to tell the Mexicans how to do things my way, rather to learn what I can from their way.

                                    "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring
                                    will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time".
                                    ...T.S. Eliot