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Cultural Storytelling

The connections made from sharing stories can help to bridge cultural differences.  Sharing our stories brings us closer to one another.  As songwriter, Harry Chapin, once wrote, “It’s funny when you get this close, it’s kind of hard to hate.”

Folks who know me well recognize that I am intrigued by Asian cultures.  There are several reasons for this, yet a primary one is that their perspectives are so different from my own.  By studying them, I am allowed to see my life in a different way.

This has caused some relationship problems, especially with acquaintances that have a bias against specific Asian cultures.  I vividly recall one time when I was taken to task by a gentleman who had military experience in Vietnam.  His father had served in Korea.  To him, wanting to learn more about these cultures was…well, un-American.

One day, he invited me to lunch.  This was something of an amazing experience in itself.  Although we spoke in passing, we had never had lunch together.

It turns out that he had read a newspaper article about a family tragedy in Laos.  Outside of a small village was a still active minefield, a remnant of decades earlier.  Clearing it was determined to be too dangerous with the technology that the village had available, so they roped it off.  No one ever went near it.

Until this one day.

While no attention was being paid, two young children belonging to one family went exploring in the field.  The explosion that alerted the village killed the boy immediately.  His sister was not as fortunate.  She was conscious, severely wounded, and shrieking in pain.

Her parents ran to the field and tried to get to her, but the other villagers held them back.  It was far too dangerous to allow them to go in.

So, for almost four hours, everyone listened to the child’s weakening cries until she finally succumbed to her injuries. 

I had read that story, too, with tears welling in my eyes.  I remember thinking that if I ever needed a definition of the term “Hell on Earth,” I had just found it.  I could not imagine being one of those parents.  The emotional blow was too staggering.

Anyhow, after my lunch companion learned that I was aware of the article, he began to tell me something of his background.  I’m not sure why he saw me as the source who should hear this, but I was honored that he did.  In addition to his stories about unimaginable scenes he’d witnessed during his foreign tour of duty, he also recounted what his father had passed on to him.  These tales both defined and reinforced his feeling of cultural superiority.

But, he had not been prepared for the minefield story.  This wasn’t a case of “they deserved what they got.”  This was a parent and former soldier reacting in horror to what he had read.  While he was reading, there was no “us vs. them.”  This shouldn’t have happened. 

He kept saying over and over, “Why didn’t somebody do something about that minefield?  The technology is out there.”

I couldn’t answer.  I don’t know enough about what is involved.

That was all.  I can’t report that we became fast friends.  We didn’t.  And he never spoke to me about either the article or our lunch together again.

But, I did learn that some years later, he had joined an Australian group called The MiVAC Trust…Mines, Victims and Clearance.  (If you are interested in learning more, their website can be found at http://www.mivac.org/.)  The story of the tragedy changed his life and his perception of a people.

It’s not easy understanding the intricacies of other cultures.  Their traditions often elude us.  Yet, there are basic human responses that resonate.  There are emotions we all recognize, and the stories give us an entry into those emotions.  For a moment, we can be “One.”

As we prepare for a New Year, I ask that you take a little time and connect with a personal story from a representative of a culture that you don’t know.  Is there a kinship there?

Thank you for reading.