Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Acute awareness

I thought I would blog more upon my repatriation to the U.S.A. However, I realized today that the persistent view that I didn’t have anything to say was more about my awareness. Looking back on blog posts from 2005 to 2015 (wow, 10 years of blogging!), it is obvious that I blogged more during periods of acute awareness which usually came during periods of transition to and from the U.S.A. to Europe, back again, and then the longer period of enculturation in Qatar. However, was the issue the stimulus (i.e. change) or was it awareness? I now think that it was awareness, something that has been stirred for me through some interesting experiences over the last week.

Over the last 2 months of being back in the U.S.A. I’ve noticed a couple of cultural differences that are not profound but nevertheless important. Americans are much more respectful and comfortable with lines (no crowding, cutting, or impatience), they tend not to engage informally with strangers, and their interactions are often quite transactional (get the task accomplished rather than establish a relationship). While I appreciate the respect for lines (especially when it comes to auto driving safety), I’ve been uncomfortable with the lack of engagement. My first attempt to cross the line was introducing myself to staff at the fitness center I joined this last week. The very first introduction resulted in a series of discussions with a fascinating guy, Chris, who is transferring from a local community college to the University of Southern California later this week. When he found that I had worked in higher education, he started pumping me with questions that took me back to the wonderful conversations I used to have in the fitness room in Doha. He asked about choice of major, where he should live, and how to make the most of his education. This is a young man who I assume is of relatively modest means but who now sees himself at a critical juncture of opportunity.

The encounter with Chris contrasted with an a cappella group performance this last Sunday in Wilmette. The group was from Yale and they were good enough musically but it was who they were and the way they presented themselves that caught my attention. First of all, all the 12 singers were White, something that just is not part of my worldview these days. Then when they each introduced themselves by indicating their hometowns, majors and aspirations, they proceeded to minimize the importance of their majors and often referenced very trivial aspirations compared to the weight of the institution they attend. I’m confident that the light introductions were intended to keep things humorous and entertaining but the impact for me was very different. What I saw was young White Americans taking their great privileged for granted and perhaps not even taking themselves as seriously as they might.

How do these fragments fit together? First of all, it feels good to return to a more reflective place where I am actively aware of what’s going on around me. Being acutely aware in a different cultural context is in many ways more natural and spontaneous but I can choose to be more aware in any environment where I am willing to cultivate perspective. Secondly, I am eager to reinforce the impression that I know many U.S.A. educators have – that American students are often complacent about their privilege and therefore miss great opportunity. This complacency of privilege occurs across cultural and national borders as well. I do not assert this concern as a criticism of contemporary students but as a challenge that educators need to address. The bombardment of information in today’s world is overwhelming. Whether it’s the hyperbole of news media turning everything into an event (i.e. the need to now name every storm front that moves across the U.S.A.) or the profusion of personalized messages and perspectives coming into our cell/mobile devices, how to sort through what is important and matters is a huge task and requires considerable discipline. While I know there is a place for light conversation and relaxation, it seems to me that acute awareness rather than complacency is what we should seek. This acute awareness would then hopefully (Insh’Allah) result in discerning and critical analysis, seeing ourselves and others more realistically and compassionately, and engaging in leadership and membership that has the potential to shape a justice and caring world.