Bumping Up Against Each Other

Christine Vernon
Couple Arguing

Claudia Hausdorf's reflection on her return to her native Germany got us thinking it would be great to be able to go through life making nice with people, never rocking the boat, never having conflict. Or would it? My daughter, ever the perennial peacemaker, said to me once not to be disturbed about a personal conflict when she was a preteen, “Life would be boring if people got along all the time” . Funny, she hadn't even been there at the Paramount Arts Theater in Aurora, Illinois, during the 1970's with me to hear the playwright Edward Albee say a similar thing when I was doing a story about him. She hadn't even been born yet. Albee was talking about the theater and drama, that interesting stories involved drama, and drama involved conflict. “Stories about people getting along are on TV” he said.

But do the stories have to go beyond push/pull intrigue to violence which makes many of us uncomfortable and unhappy? We like things to work out, don't we, most of us, most of the time? Is there a primal blood letting need in people? Stories about people NOT getting along are also on TV. The nightly news has those stories but they don't make the news until they become critical. Animosities simmer and people seem often to internalize the problems, sometimes until it is too late. Such was the courtroom case recently in Dresden, Germany when a defendant killed a 32 year old pregnant Egyptian Muslim woman, Marwa al­ Sherbini, and critically injured her husband. It is a tragic story and one person commenting on the news article made the point that the defendant is a Russian German. It is difficult to know what that is supposed to mean. Others say the defendant is mentally ill. Makes no difference now in the life of the deceased woman and her loved ones.

We on the outside can't make rhyme or reason out of the story. People on the inside don't even seem to know what it all means. But what we know for sure is that there are problems when different cultures bump up against each other. My own experience of being from a different faith from my husband's family was enough familiarity with cultures bumping up against each other as I ever want to have. It began when I was twenty-­four years old. We were young and in love and we were caught off guard that everyone wasn't as happy for us as we were for ourselves.

He was an only child. I was one of nine children from a family that surely seemed out of control by sheer numbers by people with such a controlled family life. His family was very private and centered on their own people while my family was more like Italians, welcoming complete strangers and having the philosophy the more the merrier. Now I think maybe we were both right. But it was hard20to adjust to the ways of other people.

Most Americans are mutts, of mixed heritage, of course, but I was predominately Irish and he was predominantly English. I sometimes reminded our children “If your father and I can get along, there can be peace in Northern Ireland” . I was more extroverted, more in touch with my feelings, and more inclined to be confrontational than he was....think of the conflict and scenes involving arguing in “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Nothing could make him run faster than when I would say “We have to talk.” He was a rock though, solid and steady, loving, generous and kind, (not perfect but neither was I) a good, very good in fact, man, even to this day, and the challenges were worth the price I paid. Ours was a little bumping up against each other relative to the stories and tragedies told here.

There was a brutal murder in the Midwestern United States in 2007 when Cha Vang a Hmong, 30, a hunter and the father of five children, was killed. It was said that it was in retaliation for a 2004 murder of six white hunters by a Hmong hunter in 2004. This happened in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. This murder revealed an area where tensions had been simmering for a long time, unbeknown to many people in not so far distant towns. No updates in recent news reporting on the state of things there now.

In the last few weeks there have been reports of rioting and violence in China's Xinjiang region between Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs. Violence in the streets of Chicago over the 4th of July resulted in eleven homicides, many attributed to gang warfare. More simmering tensions.

Dateline had a piece this summer about three people from Carmel Valley, California. Two neighboring families had different standards for keeping up their real estate. One was more formal and the others put found objects and things they considered “art” in their yard, things some people would think of more as junk. It was a cold war that went on for years, allegedly pets were poisoned, until it finally escalated one day when one of the neighbors blocked the driveway of the other neighbors with a boulder. When the blocked in neighbors went to protest they were shot dead. This conflict wasn't about race or religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It wasn't about money or the lack of it, one man was a lawyer and the other a Phd and a Korean Veteran. This conflict was about, or at least was fueled by their differences in aesthetics, and these people seemed not to like each other's values. They just could not minimize their differences and find some commonality. They seemed to thrive on torturing each other and themselves. Tragic.

Sometimes cultures bump up against each other and sometimes they seem to bump up against themselves. In Chicago, for years, there has been a South Side Irish Parade. It was a huge success for a long time but in recent years it could have been a fertile field for substance abuse workers. I saw it for myself. A few years ago, we gave a ride home to a drunken teen having trouble walking and his girlfriend, and there were hundreds more out there like them to be seen for the looking. The parade was a display of Nationalism, national pride, and a relative drunken binge enjoyed illegally by hundreds of under­aged kids at the same time. Sadly for those who love the spectacle of a parade, it has been discontinued as of this year. But negative stereo type of the Irish virus, the drinking aspect, was unhealthy for all involved and to continue it would be to continue encouraging an annual binge for the young people who used the day that way.

So, too, Chicago recently had the Gay Pride Parade. It has come to be an odd spectacle now, a day of in­-your­-face exhibitionism...not an equal opportunity parade or festival you would feel comfortable taking young children to see. It appears at the same time to be another drunkfest. No pride in that. No one seems to want to say anything about the reality of it because of the political correctness factor. It is what it is though. And, after all, when you think about it, this parade is actually the gender equivalent of Nationalism, too.

A friend of mine started out from home hoping to be able to navigate to the store after the parade was over. He started out and saw more than one participant drunk, one man so drunk he could no longer stand up.

What's to celebrate about this? Is drinking to excess the result of a difficult life because of gender orientation? For some that could be true and, if so, people need help and support with addiction that crosses all lines. It's not like the parade has the purpose or dignity of a Harvey Milk protest designed to protect civil rights. It has devolved into something, a kind of street theater, with an ambiguous purpose. Maybe this parade is on its way to extinction, too. Do we have to be a society which identifies people by their sexual preferences? It sure seems misguided.

The Chicago City Counsel has been talking about setting some city contracts aside for “Gays”. How are we going to establish this? And if we do that, can we set aside some contracts for celibates, or how about based on frequency. Ridiculousness. Someone groused to me “How about setting aside some contracts for the most qualified people?” Everyone in Chicago knows of some organization that put a woman or a minority, a phoney figurehead, at the head of their organization in order to get minority contracts. How the heck will it ever be determined how or if someone is “Gay”? It is similar to figuring out if someone is in a sexual relationship at all, don't you have to see people between the sheets to know the facts? Talk about going too far!

Back to parades for a minute.... People are so desperate to have fun and to have a good time. How come we don't know how to do it? True the solution is not suppression or oppression, but the two parades I mentioned don't seem to meet the need for a celebration. Some happenings, like the Woodstock Nation, weren't meant to happen every year.

Back to bumping up against each other...

There is a blog I read by a man living in Guatemala, an ex­pat, who calls himself Mark Francis. (Guateliving.com) Mark's writings give some good examples of cultural differences. See. July 3rd, “Maid #5” or “Three is too many” , or look at July 1 “Maid #4” , or June 23 “” Update on Maid #3” . One of my favorites is June 20. Mark wrote: “It's Education Friends” ...Here is an excerpt..... “I know this will come as a shock to many of you, but I regularly find myself in arguments with other expats in Guate. Recently these arguments have centered around how well­-meaning expats are going to ‘fix’ Guatemalans by giving them money, Bibles, condoms or whatever their particular ‘mission’ is. Things reached a crescendo with one expat when I called her a “Condom Missionary” ...I thought my characterization of her was rather gracious since she had already admitted to me that she would support providing locals with abortions and/or euthanasia, even if it was illegal and against the will of their spouse/family.

Anyway, the point I was trying to make was that education is the issue here, as those who are truly dedicated to helping people already understand. Education will change their attitudes about sanitation, health, finances, and yes, even treating their women better. If you think that because you are spreading secular education rather than the religious form you are somehow better, think again, because secularism is a religion unto itself. It is a belief system that you embrace as true and hope to persuade these people to accept, because you believe they will be better off as a result. In engaging in this activity you are implicitly saying that your system is better than theirs. It involves the same judgments as those who are engaging to save souls.”

What Mark writes about cultures bumping up against each other gives some good insights, things we probably already know and need to be reminded. He gives us a good perspective on how we think we might know better and as we know, whether outsiders intentions are religious or secular, many have done damage, as well as good, around the world.

We have to remember we are part of the problem as well as the solution. While visiting Sante Fe years ago, I held a door open for a woman who was approaching the store I was leaving. She was carrying packages and an infant. I turned to her and said “What can I do to help you?” as I reached back to grab the closing door and hold it open for her as she approached the shop I was simultaneously leaving. She said in a strong New York accent “You can get out of the way!” All of the sudden I thought of the people who came to the New World and who brought with them all of their exotic diseases to the Native population on this continent. She was one of them, as all visitors were. She was someone who left her place of origin for a better life somewhere else, but in the process she brought those very problems “diseases” she was seeking to escape with her to “contaminate” the new place. Hers stood out as more apparent than other people's festering sickness. I resented her and I felt sorry for her all at the same time. No place will be optimal for someone who never learns how to change.

When people go to a place that they love, and they bring the old ways with them, ways that contributed to creating a less desirable old place, they contaminate the new better life they are seeking. Haven't we all seen this. OK, so this is a world problem in some ways not on a scale of, say, the global water crisis “The Governance of Water”. Still, each matters, each deserves our serious consideration and our best solution.

Maybe to some extent, we need to teach children the old saying saying “When in Rome, do as the Roman's do” , and perpetuate the notion. After all, the Romans were there before we got to Rome and they created a world we want to visit. Maybe seniority should rule to some extent. Maybe we all need to make a conscious requirement of ourselves to appreciate our host place or country and defer to, adapt to, and respect their established customs instead of acting like indifferent squatters conquering and taking over and just feeding off of a host's amenities wherever we go in the world. Eventually, everything will change as new members in communities assimilate. But assimilation takes time and should be accompanied by some respect for the people who have gone before us, the people who established the places we decide we want to live. People just can't seem to make nice all the time.. We are going to have to call in the experts on conflict resolution and get to work on ourselves to be experts on conflict resolution. I liked a comment I heard not too long ago, that one day racism and intolerance and rudeness will be considered very bad manners, like picking your nose in public. Until then, social scientists have their hands full figuring this out for us.

It can't happen too soon. Meanwhile, we are going to have to get back to teaching people about the value of peaceful coexistence....tolerance and the Gospel of Diversity, the rich tapestry of life.

Christine Vernon

Christine Vernon is the founder and editor of Women's International News.