Essay produced by Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered, 2002.
Strolling in a Parisian market crammed with white asparagus and lilies, or sitting in a café, I feel not only ecstasy but fury.
There is a tendency to either reject or idealize another culture. Making categorical statements, such as “I adore France,” or “I detest the French,” is comforting, and easier than seeing the complex, true nature of the other culture. Extremes soothe us, offering the elixir of undiluted emotion, the clarification of drama, and the comfort of certainty.
Here’s how my prejudice gets aroused as I live out my ordinary days in a district near the Eiffel Tower.
My seven year-old son and I step onto the sidewalk of our street, an elegant lane including a chocolate shop, a dog salon, and several cafes. On our way, an older woman scowls at Forrest as we pass because he is talking loudly about a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. On the way home, Forrest runs his finger along the side of a bright red Peugeot. A man in a curbside café yells at him and shakes his finger.
I steam. My black and white self clicks on. By the time I reach up to the latch of our apartment, I feel like yelling down the street, “In my country, we allow children to exist!”
Today as I sit in a café in my old sweater, I watch as pairs of what seem to be French movie stars—women in sleek, black trousers and flamboyant scarves—sip their café crèmes.
Of course the first thing I feel is dowdy, but annoyance quickly takes over. I mutter as I munch a croissant. How long does it take these women, each morning, to apply their make-up and assemble their chic outfits? I can think of a million activities that would be more worth a person’s time.
When you first land in another culture, stereotypes appear everywhere. You can go with the knee-jerk response and sit back in the balm of prejudice, or you can force your mind to remain open to contradictions in the other culture. After a while you notice that the French do adore children, and that a woman dressed from head to toe in leather can care deeply about human rights. The French just do things differently than we Americans do.
The answer: living in confusion—a task harder than living by prejudice. It is hard to keep both hands open—one for one’s own sacred truths and the second open for the other’s. One’s balance is constantly tipping. The French way is better, but no, the American is. I love goat cheese—I love chocolate chip cookies. To simply reject or embrace is easier.
And good, clean hate is always a temptation. Hate is visceral and feels right—and this is why it’s dangerous.
My superficial encounters on the street have been just that—superficial—but superficiality is a breeding ground for prejudice, hate and violence.
If inter-cultural patience is our goal, every person should try to feast on the world’s banquet of many different truths rather than on the same old snack.
Living abroad is a lesson in self-discipline: a lesson in observing, in sifting through one’s anger, and refining one’s own standards for the treatment of others. Choosing, in the face of envy, confusion, and fury, complexity over simplicity, peace over war.
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