Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Knowing "the other"

During Sunday afternoon's torrential thunderstorms I sought shelter at several points in my journey from the Government Center T stop to a cafe in the North End. Crazy as it seems, it took me 90 minutes or so to cover that distance, as it was pouring most of that time and I had my laptop with me, which I couldn't allow to get wet.

At one point I was next to a young man with funky eyeglasses who is visiting Boston for a few days and attends college in Oregon. He is a Saudi, and we had a nice conversation for 15 minutes about the perceptions that each of our peoples has about the other. Having been in the US now for nearly two years, the young man -- whose name I never got -- said that he has had a couple of negative comments directed toward him, but the overwhelming majority of Americans have been friendly and he has a positive view of the US.

It was good to hear his thoughts, but what, I think, is important to note as well is that he didn't have those opinions before he got here. The picture in his head growing up in Saudi Arabia was based on what he'd heard from people and seen in the media, and it wasn't all positive. Knowledge, truth and real-world experience have made all the difference. Whether one grows up in the Muslim world or China or El Salvador or Peoria -- ignorance, lies and xenophobia breed hatred.

I read a story years ago about the Troubles in Northern Ireland where a reporter walked into a grammar school -- I can't remember if it was Catholic or Protestant -- and inside the building it said: "If you were born where they were born and you were taught what they were taught you would believe what they believe." Think about it. If, in the long years and decades of history, one of your forefathers or foremothers had taken a turn in one of their travels, you could be a Muslim living in, perhaps, the Middle East. What would you think of America then?

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