Friday, December 23, 2016

The most foreign culture to me is the one my family comes from...

When I go to Lititz, I always conduct myself as if visiting another culture, because that’s essentially what I’m doing. I watch closely how the people around me act, and try to identify and abide by their customs of guest conduct.

Coming from southeastern Michigan, where I have the privilege and pleasure of being able to take diversity for granted, a place such as Lititz feels more culturally foreign to me than going to dinner at an Iranian Bahá’í friend’s home, or to a temple where I’m one of only two people who’s not an Asian immigrant, or being an ethnic minority in my friend group.

Of course, people in Lititz would never realize this by looking at me. Visually I can pass for 100% German; so, the comments I heard implied everyone assumed I’m Christian, that I identify with European-American values, and that there was no reason to say “Happy holidays” to me instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Rather than come into Lititz, a 260-year-old small town that was founded by the Moravian Christian Church and surrounded by Amish and Mennonite farms, with an attitude of condescension for their old-fashioned, mono-culture ways, and resent their apparent lack of interest in diversity and inclusion, and devalue their Germanic Christian traditions and the overall conservative feel of the place, I strove to show the people there the same respect I would show if visiting another country—particularly at our lodgings.

My parents and I stayed in a historic building that was owned in the 1700s by a relative of one of my ancestors, which has long since changed hands and is currently run as a bed and breakfast by a Mennonite couple.

I admit, I felt some discomfort at first due to the sheer unfamiliarity and not knowing how I should act as a guest of such a formal and modest people. I wondered what first impression I made, dressed like I just stepped off an artist commune, and how they’d feel about a Buddhist chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in their home.

When I realized what I was doing, I decided there was no value in assigning negative judgment to how I felt. Instead of trying to talk myself out of how I felt, I simply conducted myself as a courteous guest and left a light imprint of my stay—meaning, I left my room the way I found it and didn’t make it a point to proclaim my differences and make myself an object of attention (especially since I knew nothing about Mennonite conversational etiquette).

One of the aspects of the moral code of ahimsa is that our intentions and actions are motivated by respect and love, rather than by fear of rebuke or punishment. With that mindset informing my actions, I relaxed knowing that I wouldn’t do something blatantly or ignorantly discourteous in violation of my hosts’ sensibilities, nor did I demonstrate any disrespect of their Christianity by chanting in their home.

Instead of interviewing our hosts about their customs and beliefs, I simply observed what they felt inclined to share in the limited interactions I had with them. I bore in mind that not everyone is like me and my friends in wanting to discuss comparative religion and culture almost every time we get together, and I didn’t want to put my hosts on the spot by drawing this sharp Buddhist / Christian distinction between us. I wanted to get acquainted with them as Kathy and Jay, and hear what Kathy and Jay are like and what they want to talk about in their home, rather than expect them to be expert ambassadors for the Mennonite people just because they’re the first Mennonites I’ve ever met.

Yes, first impressions are very important, so we should all strive to give the best first impressions we can to people who’ve never met someone of our religion or culture. That being said, it’s never fair to base our first impressions and any resulting assumptions about an entire religion or culture just from our first interaction with anyone from that group, especially if our prior understanding of that group is zero.

Regardless of how different the people of Lititz are from me and anyone else I usually associate with, I love the place because it’s the closest thing I have to an ancestral hometown. In my third post, I’ll describe why, while I celebrate them, I can’t bring myself to take my roots in this place for granted.

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Image: “Lititz in purple” by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

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