“Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge, and other humane ways.”
~HH The Dalai Lama
Earlier this week, as a result of my interest in learning more about people of other cultures, I was invited to join an English conversation group for immigrants, and what I found there was potentially life changing.
The meeting that I attended was composed of new Canadians from such diverse countries as Nigeria, China, Korea, Russia, Cameroon, Iraq and Syria, ranging in age from, say eighteen years to middle age – and one older white woman: me.
I had no idea, as I walked into the meeting room that day, whether or not these folks had even a few words of English; however, to my surprise, I quickly discovered that nearly all of them had a firm knowledge of English grammar and spelling, learned in their home countries. For the most part, they had little difficulty putting English sentences together correctly.
The only thing these people lacked was the ability to speak our language fluently. They had difficulties with pronunciation when they read, but their comprehension was excellent. In general, what they need to learn is a more extensive vocabulary, particularly the everyday English we use so casually that we don’t even think about it.
For instance, at a session where they were learning the vocabulary of eating in restaurants, they didn’t know what “busses” were. Once they were told that these were the people who cleared and cleaned the tables after the patrons were finished their meals, and not local transportation as the word meant to them, they were fine.
Or take the two meanings of the word “produce” that depend on how the word is pronounced, either as the noun “produce” (taken to mean fresh fruits and vegetables) or the verb “to produce” (to make, grow or supply something). These are the kinds of things, I discovered, that trip up newcomers to the language.
Of course. I simply hadn’t thought about it before.
When I spoke with a few of them individually, I discovered that they had the same major goal that I had at their age, particularly the yearning to provide a better life for their children than the one they had left behind. They were uniformly grateful to be in this country, and seemed determined to be good citizens.
As I followed along with the group and watched their determination to speak correctly (in spite of some natural shyness about speaking a new language incorrectly in front of other people) and their desire to fit into the new culture as best they could, I began to consider the courage it might take to leave your home, your neighbourhood, your country, and your engrained culture, in order to emigrate to an entirely different world – one where the culture, language and religion are likely completely unfamiliar, and not even the climate is anything like what you’re used to!
I stayed behind after the meeting to speak to the facilitators, and it was something of a wake-up call for me, to put it mildly.
What this conversation revealed were the real issues faced by newcomers to this conservative city of old money, an unspoken but pervasive class system, and a somewhat hidebound general older population that is resistant to change; where a number of citizens are not particularly pleased – and take few pains to hide it – to have to deal with you if your skin colour or clothing doesn’t fit the norm, and particularly if you have difficulty expressing yourself to their satisfaction.
In addition to our lack of understanding of other cultural norms, there’s also the fear that pervades North American society in the wake of 9-11. That fear is effectively turning many of us us into zenophobes, at least with respect to Middle Eastern countries.
And we all know where fear leads us: directly into dislike and even hatred of the object of our fear, so that each individual gets tarred with the same brush as the fanatic fringe.
As a result, many immigrants are either ignored completely, or treated with various degrees of disrespect and rudeness by the people who are forced to interact with them. At least in this city, the ideal of living in our “free country,” and the reality that some of these newcomers (particularly those from the Middle East) are facing, are two very different things.
And for once, it appears that our federal government isn’t to blame. The institutions provided by the Canadian government, I was told, are more than adequate to assist new Canadians to find their place here.
What it actually comes down to is where the rubber really meets the road: the common, everyday interactions between people that occur during any normal day – at school, in the grocery store or movie theatre or drugstore – anywhere folks run into other folks. There can be enmity – or there can be respect and politeness if we choose to step out of our complacency and ignorance – in these brief encounters.
Zenophobia; the zeal to fight and conquer; distrust of strangers: none of this is new on the world stage. I suspect it’s been going on just about as long as humankind has been around. But somehow, some way, there has to be a way to end this ongoing friction and warfare. At some point, we must – all of us around the world – grow up!
What all our fancy talk about world peace and loving your neighbour actually means to me is this: according the person who looks and sounds “different” the same respect and politeness that we would any other stranger. It means not judging a person, from fear or bias, until I’ve walked in their shoes for a bit. It means being open to the possibility that this person is someone worth knowing.
After all, how would I would feel if I had come to a strange country and in addition to all the major changes I was struggling to become accustomed to, I was rudely rebuffed by the locals, made to feel small and ugly and not quite smart by people who really knew nothing about me at all.
Immigrants are no better and no worse than we are. They are us, for heaven’s sake; apart from the aboriginal peoples, there is not one person living in Canada today whose ancestors were not themselves immigrants!
I’m no expert on international relations, and I can’t do anything about the big issues anyway. But what I think we need in my town is a practical way of educating Canadian locals in the public domain about the other cultures within our community, the “whys” of what we perceive to be so different.
This kind of “cultural information” might help teachers to better understand their non-conforming immigrant pupils, for example, or provide social workers with a realistic means of evaluating differences that might otherwise seem unusual or suspicious if you’re not aware of the cultural norms of the country that person comes from.
It seems to me that this small action could go a long way to creating a bridge between the reality of immigrants coming to our country to live, and what appears to them to be our reluctance to have anything to do with them if we can avoid it.
And perhaps this small example of ground-level cultural education might even be a tiny step toward the goal of “making peace”?
Peace, as the Dalai Lama has said, is not the absence of conflicts; there will always be a degree of conflict wherever there are differences of opinion or belief. But addressing them in an atmosphere of loaded guns isn’t the answer.
If the differences that people inevitably come up against can be worked through without anger, with respect for the other person’s view based on an understanding of where that person is coming from (figuratively and literally!), then it seems to me that there might be a chance for this whole “one world” thing to actually work.
In Nelson Mandela’s words, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
And who knows, there’s always the possibility that we might actually come to enjoy – even embrace – the richness of the many different cultures we house within this country!
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
~Mohandas K. Gandhi