In a pre-pandemic world I once walked into a Chase bank preparing for a trip to New Zealand. The Lake Merritt area of Oakland is six miles from San Francisco in a highly educated, successful area. I walked up to the teller with my account information and asked for the exchange rate for New Zealand dollars. The teller said sure, and then asked me if I could I tell him what kind of money I wanted? I said “New Zealand dollars”. He said yes, I understand, but then continued to speak to me very slowly, “What kind of money did I want to purchase”? I said, “dollars, New Zealand dollars”.
It felt like I was in a secret comedy skit. The teller said, “Let me get my manager.” The Bank manager came back and said she understood I wanted to buy New Zealand dollars. At last I could breathe. She looked me straight in the eye and asked me, “Can you tell me what kind of money they use in New Zealand”? I looked at her and said, “New Zealand Dollars”.
It was mind boggling for me. How could the manager of one of the largest international banks in a major metropolitan city not know the currencies of other countries? How could a bank not know other places in the world use dollars (Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar not to be confused with the New Zealand dollar, Singapore dollar, Bahamian Dollar, Cayman Dollar, Cook Islands Dollar, Hong Kong dollar, Liberian dollar, Jamaican dollar) in addition to the US dollar?
EXPOSURE TO OTHER CULTURES AND RACISM
The average American has only traveled to 3 countries and two of those often include Canada and Mexico. More shocking, a third of Americans have not only never left the country, they’ve never traveled more than 50 miles from where they were born. What, I wonder, is the correlation between the latter and the political right wing stance, fear of the other? I then have to ask, what is the correlation between the forgotten states, those that visitors rarely enter: Missouri, Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, and the prevalent racism towards anyone not like them?
A GOLDFISH BOWL IS NOT THE WORLD
Many Americans do not realize they have lived their life in a Goldfish bowl. Europeans living in countries in close proximity to one another realize they are in an aquarium. It is common for other countries to speak more than one language. To hear a Trump supporter yell to someone speaking Spanish “Speak American here” is an example of how isolation feeds fear. Clearly oblivious that Spanish is the language of Central America, South America, and nearly half of North America and is spoken by nearly 500 million people in the world. (Only 360 million people speak English as their first language). Spanish evolved out of the Iberian Peninsula in Southwestern Europe and spread through colonization into the the America’s when the Spanish Empire was one of the largest in history. When you travel you live in the Ocean.
WHEN YOU TRAVEL YOU LIVE IN AN OCEAN
As a disclaimer, I am not rich, but adventurous. That trait has goaded me to visit 44 countries and live on three continents. Beginning with a tour of duty in Europe that allowed for travel, I learned many ways to travel on the cheap. The more I traveled, the more I saw how we are all more alike than different. It is an attitude of “us and them” that keeps us in continuous fear and war.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE OCEAN HAS BEEN REDUCED TO A SCREENSAVER?
So what happens in a pandemic when we are all forced to live in a bubble and the Ocean has been reduced to a screensaver? How can we avoid emotional contraction when we are showered with propaganda and disinformation by those intent on destroying us through derision? By adding a few creative challenges to their curriculums, teachers can change America in one generation. I am not a teacher but a traveler, but I will share what I’ve taken away from experience and from my own amazing teachers.
YOU CAN NOT UNDERSTAND A PEOPLE IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THEIR CULTURE
When I was living in Germany, France was just a few hours drive away and I visited often. I did not speak French. I loved everything and everyone French, but they were very closed to me. I learned that the French do not believe you can understand them unless you understand their culture. They are their culture. I learnt from this and have taken it to every country I have visited.
Who are their best selling authors? Who are their most famous films or film directors? Who are their famous composers, musicians, poets, and artists? (Not just the dead ones, but those living right now). What is the culture famous for (and not just in the tourist areas)? How many languages do they speak in their country?
Teachers or homeschoolers can do this with one country a week. We must make people of different nationalities more than a place on a map. After the culture of a place has been explored, watching travel videos, watching a movie made in that country and reading a book by one of its famous authors can be included. It does not have to be boring. I was reading Jules Verne in first grade and had no idea he was French.
“MANNERS WILL TAKE YOU FURTHER IN LIFE THAN A MASTERS DEGREE”
Another thing I learnt from the French that needs to be relearned in the US, are the importance of manners. Americans used to say the French are rude. They aren’t. Actually, Americans are. You do not treat anyone like a servant in France. You must always be respectful. You must always say Good Morning, Good Afternoon, or Good Evening to anyone you do business with. This is always followed by, “how are you today”. If you do not follow the basic rules of etiquette Hell will freeze over before anyone will serve you. It gave me one of my famous mantras, “manners will take you further in life than a Masters Degree”.
CREATE A FICTIONAL UNIVERSE
My fourth grade geography teacher made the class read JRR Tolkien’s, The Hobbit one semester. It was fun and a bit challenging. Afterwards, we were divided in groups and each group had to create its own fictional universe. We had to understand its climate, economics, spiritual-belief system, what language they spoke, what they ate, how they raised and educated its children, their political system, every aspect of our own society. We had to make maps of our world and provide drawings or examples of everything down to what they wore and how it was made and of what material. Presentations were made and each universe was incredibly different from one another because each of us brought our own life experiences to the project. When we were done, the next semester was spent understanding the different continents of the world. The experience inventing our own universe allowed us to take in cultures in this way. That teacher had expanded our worlds in a way that made someone else’s just as interesting.
In college I was required to take three credits in cultural studies and was surprised that the course included movies based on historical events in many native languages. Each film informed us as to how those events influenced the political and cultural direction a country embodied. Again, culture informs.
HOW DIFFERENT WOULD OUR SOCIETY BE IF BLACK HISTORY MONTH WASN’T TAUGHT ONLY ONE MONTH OUT OF THE YEAR?
How different would our society be if Black History Month was not taught one month a year but included in American history? Why should the inventor of closed-circuit television security, the IBM Computer and Pacemaker, gas mask, sanitary napkin, caller ID, touch tone phones, fiber optic cable and peanut butter be relegated to one month when every day of our lives is gifted by a black inventor?
CULTURAL LITERACY DOES NOT MAKE US LOSE OURSELVES; IT SHOWS US THE KIND OF PEOPLE WE WANT TO BE.
People who fear anyone who is different in belief or custom is still living in a goldfish bowl. America to other nations is known for inventing BBQ, jazz, movies, and Silicon Valley, that’s it. We are seen as being fat, uneducated, and war mongering. We are currently viewed as a nation of bullies that does not care for its children, elders, or its sick. Cultural literacy does not make us lose ourselves, it shows us the kind of people we want to be.
Uriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years and is a Contributing Editor on the arts and other subjects for two online arts magazines.
She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.
A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems will be featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA.
A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.
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