As time passes our experiences shape our lives and character. Many are content to follow the current of life and are swept downstream never challenging themselves or trying to change the tide. They become complacent and live in a world where uncertainty and that which is unfamiliar is quite frightening and thus avoided. Then there are those who refuse and fight against this stream and thus forge their own futures leading to an overwhelming realization that they do not know everything, and things they once held as truths are overturned and discarded. This enlightenment does not come by sitting idly by and letting things pass as they may, but by gaining the courage to explore, keeping an open mind to new thoughts and ways of life. Sometimes it is quite painful to leave the familiar and safe, but once the threshold has been crossed they come to realize that there is no going back and therefore must forge ahead and continue upon the path they have chosen.
For many, the door to escape the familiar never comes and thus they remain in their own safe little worlds regarding all things foreign as strange or just plain wrong. Take the metaphor of a famous philosopher as an example. There are people sitting watching images on a wall inside a dark cave. One day, someone decides to get up and venture outside the cave. What he sees are birds singing, wind blowing through the trees, and the sun shining. He then run back in the cave and tells the others of this wonderful discovery only to be ridiculed by the others as a fool and dreamer. In this example, the one venturing outside is regarded as a philosopher and the others are the masses. I believe this adventurer can also be someone who has traveled and lived in other cultures and has a difficult time explaining their experiences to those that stayed behind. This is my dilemma.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio there was never a point in my life when I thought that I didn’t know everything and was quite wise. When I was young, I thought that all the adults knew everything about the world and all I had to do was ask one. As I grew and went to college I found many of the answers given in the past were quite incorrect, yet they who gave the previous answers were not trying to deceive. It was simply that they didn’t have the knowledge or experiences and were stuck in the dark like people in the cave. This habit of thinking we understand the world only gets stronger with age as our beliefs harden and we have no one to challenge us or show us that their might be other alternatives or possibilities to be examined.
The door to escape my own little world in Columbus, Ohio came when I had the fortune to study in Spain, Mexico and France. These countries opened up an entirely knew world of thoughts, ideas, and ways of behavior to me. For the first time in my life I was treated to a bit of light shining upon the way to become more knowledgeable not only about myself, but the world around me. I realized that I did not know everything and what I once had held as true was no longer valid. I believe that this realization made me wiser and that the true intelligent man is he who understands that he knows very little of the world and thus continually thirsts for more knowledge.
When I returned, I was treated to my first case of reverse culture shock. I realized that I didn’t have to wear a ball cap to be considered a man or that certain methods of behavior were the only way to gain acceptance by others. I had shed my former shell and changed. I was ready to accept foreign ways of thinking as normal and feel that I had become a better person. I listened to people ask me about tacos in Spain when there are no tacos inSpain. People asked if the Spaniards are like Mexicans when the difference is like that of Americans to the English only more so. People seemed more aggressive and really did not know much about other countries. Trying to explain life in Spain was like that of the philosopher describing the outside world to the people who had stayed within the cave. People told me that certain aspects of Spanish, Mexican and French life were backward, un-American and just plain wrong. It’s only gotten worse as the path to discovery has let me to many different countries and experiences.
I currently live in Tokyo, Japan. In Tokyo many different languages are spoken and although the population is rather homogeneous, other cultures and ideas are accepted. There are times when we will go out and four different languages are spoken in the course of an evening. People will try to guess where others are from, speak to them in their native language and ask about their home country. I have learned more in one evening here, than I had in an entire month during my schooldays in America. To be in a culture so unique and foreign is a profound experience and one that everyone should try firsthand.
I have come back to Columbus, Ohio for a two week stay. I am again experiencing culture shock and my first night here ran into trouble. I went to a popular Columbus nightclub and at the entrance was a lovely young Asian woman. She appeared to be Chinese, Vietnamese or possibly Cambodian. Without thinking I said “Nihou,” to her which means “Hello” in Chinese just as the Japanese might say “Hello” or “Bonjour” to me upon first encounter. Her reply to me was rather shocking and I was left stammering trying to understand why I had made me so angry. She had just called me an “ignorant M***** F*****.” I was then escorted from the bar while still trying to understand what I had done and how I could possibly have insulted her to such an extreme degree.
The only possible conclusion is that she is hurting inside and on the extreme defensive. Perhaps it was that she is ashamed of her background due to not feeling at home here. Or perhaps she thought I was degrading her based on her heritage. I questioned my Chinese friend about it over the internet and she offered the possibility that the young lady had grown up in the USA and had misunderstood. I still did not understand how saying “hello” in another language could possibly solicit such a response. Then, I began thinking about how touchy people are in this country due to misunderstandings, ignorance of ethnic cultures and the need to fit in. I used to think that Columbus was a very hospitable place to live for foreigners, but I know understand that there is a snake in the grass.
Earlier in the evening I was having a discussion in Spanish with a few of my Latino friends. They informed me that they are often mistreated for being from another country and made to feel like they don’t belong. They often get pulled over for no offense whatsoever and at times given poor service. While we were at the bar we kindly asked for another round of beers and told numerous times that we were to go to the bar if we wanted another but then they informed us that they would get it anyway but that it was quite the hassle. In Japan, if the server cannot accommodate the guest they will offer numerous apologies and do what they can to correct the situation. It’s strange that what I once thought was acceptable behavior, such as that of the waiter, is no longer the case.
I realize that different countries have different ways of behavior and thinking but it’s strange to come back home and feel so out of place. I am not an advocate of whining and I truly believe that one should adapt to the host country, but not at the expense of completely abandoning their native cultures. I think English should be spoken here yet we Ohioans should make an honest attempt to learn a bit of the language and culture from our new residents for the sake of making them feel welcome. Everyone must face challenges in their lives but that of a foreigner in a strange land is
especially difficult. I truly believe that Ohioans are hospitable people and willing to accept foreigners in this land. I also think that we need to make more of an effort to learn from our new countrymen and women if we wish to become an even greater nation. It is clear to me now that there are people of different backgrounds that do not feel at home here and have put up extreme defenses lest they feel threatened.
I know Columbus is a good place and the people here are more kind than many other places in the country. At the bar downtown however, I opened a wound that has not healed in this country due to lack of understanding. Nobody should get so angry over the word “hello” regardless of the language in which it is spoken. To have that word taken as a putdown shows that there is something wrong here and needs to be corrected. I ask that my fellow Ohioans reach out to those that do not feel welcome here and to show them that they really are a valued asset to our great state. I have spent a lot of time telling people in other countries that Ohio is a great place but now I see that there is much more work that needs to be done. I also understand that it takes time for people to change their attitudes and to accept new ideas from foreign peoples. I still believe that we are on the right path but sometimes it takes the observations of someone looking in from the outside to give a little nudge in the right direction.