I am hosting a crowd for a funeral in my large mansion somewhere in the deep South. I am bustling about getting everything ready, including an elaborate meal. I have chosen a white eyelet dress to wear but during the preparations I wear a white blouse and brightly colored skirt. The guests have not yet arrived but it is clear that they will of different cultures and races. It is also clear that my butler, George, does not approve of this cultural diversity. I am afraid that his resentment might sabotage the whole event. I am the boss, after all. I try to be firm with George. And then I change into the white eyelet dress. End of dream.
I’ve been doing a lot of crosscultural hosting recently, and I can understand how Butler George represents a part of me, as does the hostess. Butler George is the one who preserves traditions (e.g. Thanksgiving), who assures that everything runs well and that proper form is followed. Butler George was resenting the Chinese grandfather who was popping pistachios into my granddaughter’s mouth just before we sat down to eat. And Butler George was indignant that, in the middle of family time and Thanksgiving preparations, messages were coming from Congo hinting that more money was needed for certain things. Meanwhile, the Hostess (in her prep-time multicultural outfit) was noticing how husband and son-in-law would sporadically ask what they could do to help get meals on but then revert to their computers with the assigned tasks half finished.
No wonder the probing hands of my daughter were finding painful knots of resentment in my back when she was working on me last night. Both the idealistic hostess and the stick-in-the-mud butler were having problems with resentment.
And come to think of it, who was the funeral for in that dream? Probably myself. This is about my own mortality, what I am doing in this phase of my life and how I want to be remembered. It’s all about bridging cultures on a very personal level. I do hope my funeral will be a multicultural event.
Somehow, where people of other cultures are concerned, I am able to relate on a human level in a way that is difficult for many other people. Some don’t even try. Some do try but on an idealistic or institutional level–they try because they think they should, but they never quite succeed in treating the others as equals. The relationships end up being superficial, on the level of official visits, polite conversations, or exaggerated cultural admiration with differences swept under the rug or muttered about behind scenes and among ourselves.
Above all we (and I include myself in this tendency) do not want to let ourselves be hurt. Nor do we want our anger to show. So we do not take the relationships personally. That is, they do not become genuine friendships.
What I am able–or, rather, willing to do, since it is difficult and I am not always able–is to take the relationships personally. I have a few friends who show this same capacity. We seem to put our hearts on the line. We show and receive love across cultures, which is extremely gratifying. But, inevitably, we are also hurt.
It is the hurt I am feeling today, and it is taking the form of resentment, like a low-grade fever, because I haven’t fully acknowledged it. I am hurt by the pushiness of Congolese friends when I have already done so much. I am hurt by the energetic devotion to children of my Chinese co-grandparents because when they lavish what I consider too much attention on my daughter’s child, I back off and leave her to them. I don’t want to smother her further and so I miss my time with her.
I can recognize these as cultural differences, but they require me to muster compassion and forgiveness nevertheless. That is, they feel like real offenses, not just cultural ones.
I enter into crosscultural relationships wholeheartedly because I feel like I can afford to. I am very wealthy in every way–privilege, love, security, family, faith, community, self-fulfillment, freedom, and (in a global context) material goods. I am wanting for nothing. In fact, I am the opposite of needy. I am even getting beyond the need to be helpful. Therefore I believe I can trust my own instincts and motives. My instincts have taken me most recently to Congo, and, in the past, many other places. Circumstance has strewn multicultural opportunities in front of me in other ways, including my daughter’s marriage. As for my motive, it is love, pure and simple (as pure and simple as that white dress). Love is the ultimate force in the world. God is love, I am convinced of that in every fiber of my being. Why should I align myself with anything less than love?
But it is still hard. I forget sometimes how much compassion and forgiveness I need to muster for myself, the Butler George in me: my stiff-backed, culture-bound self. At the same time, I know that all differences between people, even of the same culture, require the same elasticity of spirit.
On this day after Thanksgiving, please pass the compassion and forgiveness and help yourself, everybody.