Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Embracing Life in the Cultural Margins

It is a well-known saying among Anthropologists, that the “journey to the other” (i.e., spending time living in another culture, coming to understand that people, culture, worldview) ends with you returning to yourself, changed, and knowing yourself in a new way.

Another way you might put this, is that the journey among others can, if we are open to learning and changing, be a journey from our original state of ethnocentrism (seeing the world from our peoples’ point of view, and assuming that the way we see things is simply the way things are) to ethnorelativism (or ethnosensitivity), realizing that there are different ways of seeing the world, different ways, you might say, of being human, different cultural practices, etc. – and that my culture and worldview and people are simply one among many.
In one respect, a key dimension of this journey is a growth in cultural self-awareness, becoming self-reflective and aware of the fact that I do in fact have a culture and a worldview, and that they filter and shape what I see and how I see the world. As Milton Bennett points out in his Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (see his article, “Growing in Intercultural Competence”), and as Stephen Covey points out on an individual level in his 7 Habits, self-awareness is key for understanding and relating to others – without knowing ourselves, we cannot truly know others, for we treat them as if they were us.

Another dimension of this journey, as pointed out by Bennett in the DMIS, is that it is a journey toward life on the cultural margins. The longer we live among the different others, the more we change; and when we return to our own people, culture, place, we now to a certain extent have an “outsider’s” perspective – our difference causes us to see our own people from a different perspective.

In my experience, 27 years of living to a large degree among Arab Muslims, has caused me to have a sense of living in the “cracks,” on the margins, between cultures. Though I can “fit in” with Arab Muslims, can adapt to their cultural settings, both they and I know that I am not an Arab Muslim. I have not assimilated; I have not lost my own cultural identity (and note that Bennett’s model is about adaptation, an expansion of one’s cultural repertoire, not about assimilation, exchanging one culture for another). But when I return to the U.S., in general, or to Minnesota, in particular (my original people), I have a sense that I am no longer “at home” there, either – the way I see Islam and Muslims, the Palestinian situation, U.S. foreign policy, Christianity and being Christian, the relationship of faith and culture (including politics), and much more, have changed.
And so I find myself becoming something of a “third culture adult” (“third culture kid” is a way of referring to children who are raised in a cultural setting different than that of their parents, so that they are dealing with multiple cultures and cultural identities; there is a growing body of literature about the experience of TCKs), comfortable to some degree almost anywhere, but not totally “at home” anywhere. And I find myself being something of an “ambassador-at-large,” explaining Americans and Christians to my Arab Muslim friends, and explaining Arabs and Muslims to my American and Christian friends, trying to bridge the gaps of understanding, culture and worldview that keep people apart, and that seem in these days to be widening.

Bennett, in his final stage of an ethnorelative experience of cultural difference, “Integration,” talks about two possible experiences of that stage of being bi- or multi-cultural. One can have a negative sense of life on the cultural margins, which he calls “encapsulated” marginality, where “the separation from culture is experienced as alienation,” and a positive sense, which he calls “constructive” marginality, in which “movements in and out of cultures are a necessary and positive part of one’s identity.” In “encapsulated” marginality, I feel a sense of crisis of identity, not knowing where I belong, where I fit, where my “home” is; in “constructive” marginality, I grow to have a sense of myself as a person who (as I said above) can be comfortable to some degree, almost anywhere, even if I’m not totally at home.

I have experienced some of both. There are times when I long for the “good old days,” when I knew where I was from, and was easily at home there. But then, that’s not me any more, and I have come to appreciate the ability to see things from the perspective of different people, to empathize, to not be afraid of the unknown, but to have a sense that the unknown can become known, if I’m willing to step out and cross boundaries. And I’ve become convinced that our world needs people who are willing to take down rather than put up walls, who are able to find common ground rather than push others away; and I enjoy visiting different places and talking with different people, finding human life and values that I can embrace and appreciate and be enriched by.

And so, though I do not have the privilege of being a TCK (but I have had a small part in raising four of them), I now consider myself a TCA, and look forward to the opportunities that lie ahead, of travel and crossing boundaries and growing in understanding different others, and helping people come to know and understand and respect each other.