Eesti Elu
Is turbulence inevitable in cross-cultural interactions?
Arvamus 06 Nov 2009 Mai MaddissonEesti Elu
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Eons ago man lived in small tribes, led by bards who had survived the test of time: Man’s primitive form of transport, his two legs, not sufficient to facilitate significant interaction with adjoining tribes.

He did not need to understand why another did things differently, or that his environment was subtly different. He was not confounded by an infinite number of variables. When differing tribes did meet we all know what happened.

As man became more mobile, confrontations began to occur. In Biblical times, the tale of where the Tigris and Euphrates meet is well documented. A traveller in modern Europe cannot but notice, that as one approaches its centre the city walls become thicker and higher. Turbulence seems to explode whereever many cultures meet, at the proverbial meeting of the waters. Perhaps all that has changed is that we can no longer build walls which are high or impermeable enough (for electronic invasion of course).

Generally when we allude to different cultures we allude to the gross differences effected by national, religious or genetic factors. At times we include economic, educational, and sociological factors. The mind boggles when one tries to extrapolate to the number of permutations and combinations which can evolve from the trans-generational blending in a pluricultural society such as ours. How many microcosms each with their own identity try, at times with extreme difficulty, to co-exist in a metropolis?

Gone are the days when the bard, who understands his culture and his environs well, is able to guide his tribe, and counsel its members in their confusion. Gone are the days when one can actually say I will go and talk to this bard and regain objectivity. Many of us are descendants of numerous tribes, and probably could not even begin to locate any of the bards: The chances of finding a bard who has travelled a journey exactly or even remotely like that of our little microcosm, quite negligible. What chance do any of us have of being truly understood? What chances do any of us have of quite innocently and inadvertently not distressing another, or then understanding how we effected this distress?

Whenever one walks along societies’ interfaces, a curious phenomenon appears. One finds oneself with an identity vastly different to those around one. One wishes to retain one’s identity, yet one wants to blend with the new environment/s, often in its countless facets. One wishes to meet the expectations of one’s new environment/s, while meeting the expectations of one’s old and often still current environment. The more different the cultures in contrast, the greater the emotional tug of war. One’s soul is thrown into vast chaos, with at times incompatible pathways tugging at each other. There is no easy solution to this conundrum. One has to survive in this new environment, and one’s soul also needs to survive. How does one achieve emotional peace in an emotional quagmire? How does one even begin to clearly define what is important to one’s soul?

To begin to negotiate such an unenviable journey, one has first to find a means of learning what the paradigms of the new environment are. Who does one ask? How much more complicated this becomes when one is faced with an idiomatic difference, let alone a linguistic difference. Then of course in a pluricultural society one has to find a way of separating the various paradigms which exist in that society and establish the relevance of each to one’s survival. At times the differences between any of them - and indeed one’s native culture - seem minimal. But what if a given difference is critical to moving forwards and one cannot recognise it? What if there are countless ones of these, which create a critically critical conundrum?

Perhaps the answer, as in all new learning exercises, is slowly does it! It is not an innate characteristic of mankind to face any challenge slowly. It is an even less innate characteristic that those around one will wait while one learns to get it right, and test that one has done so. Nor is it an innate characteristic of mankind to try to hop into the shoes of the other to facilitate a shared resolution. Should the shoes of the other have trod on any ugly ground, the motivation to connect with the newcomer is rapidly further reduced. The will to wait while it associates dissociated material is a super-human expectation. No wonder people begin to crumble in their struggle to survive. Yes they become burnt out; could this be what that phenomenon called depression is about? Do we all need to learn that there is a time to rest and a time to grow?

The statistics tend to point to an increased incidence of a phenomenon called schizophrenia in the cities, and among migrants compared with the natives to that environment.

Could it be, that to live in a city, it is much easier to lose one’s bearings. Harder to find someone with a soul like one’s own to debrief with, to regain objectivity. Harder to find someone who is bi/multilingual sociologically, in order to find one’s bearings. To find even someone who can spare the time to undertake such a mammoth task is daunting. To change one’s guide mid-stream is but to introduce more confusion, as there may be a microcosmic disparity. How unimaginably hard it must be for the casualties of our society, who find their lives propelled from one support modality to another, from one persona within each modality to another; no continuity in their much deserved mentorship.

Could it be, that our forefathers had it right? That schizophrenia in fact, does describe a split, perhaps even a splintered personality: A personality where the bud formed in one environment, opened in another, and tried to bloom in yet another; Of course without any mentorship in how to make those transitions, the prevailing assumption belying such an unreality, that all cultures begin and continue their journeys in an identical way. Perhaps there is an assumption that someone waves that magic wand, obliterates all that has been behaviourally programmed to date, and seamlessly implants a new behavioural programme, which runs like clockwork. If that does not happen than there must be some thing wrong with the clock.

Could we perhaps consider a corollary here? Perhaps we might consider what might happen to each of us, should we be, by a twist of fate, be transported to the native lands of our refugees. Could it be that then it is us who become the schizophrenics: Lost souls trying to survive, in a stressed state in a culture, which bewilders us. Perhaps schizophrenia is not a ‘disease’ as such but the tragic plight of a bewildered person, who lacked the mentorship to move on, to survive in the world into which they were cast to live. And of course, even in one house there can be several microcosms - if a mentor is unavailable, how can a suitable replacement be effected?

How many of us have at times, reflected on someone we have met, and labelled them as having a personality disorder? Is it possible that they might have done the same with us? Could it be, that what really happened is that we based that decision on the paradigms of the microcosm which is familiar to us, responded in the manner of that microcosm and then when the inevitable turbulence erupted announced that our perception was definitely right? And of course the other person probably did the same!

Perhaps it is appropriate to conclude with the journey of a refugee. A battered person, its mind already preoccupied with survival. The refugee has already had to make one rapid unwished for transition from that of life in its native land in a time of peace, to life in that same land at a time of massive threat. The refugee has already had to possibly come to terms with life, with the brutal demise many of its loved ones, without the opportunity of addressing these losses by its familiar end of life rites, nor the time to consider how it may address the situation at some future time. Perhaps by now it has reached a stage where there is an urgent need for a time to rest, to accept that the time to grow may be some time away: A time when its soul begins to heal.

Perhaps there is a need to facilitate an extended connexion with people of its own kind, to optimally reconcile its past in the most familiar way. Perhaps there is a need for a gradual transition into the concrete jungles of our metropoli: A transition whereby they slowly ease into our complex pluricultural society, with the tokens of their past souls with them nearby, to continue to reconcile the losses, and to comfort each other in their confusion. A transition where they can address the adaptation needed, in bite-sized pieces, which they can cope with, avoiding the constant bombardment of new, confounding information. A transition where they are not feeling pressured by the impatience of the natives for them to assimilate. A transition where they are free to console themselves with people from their past; the small treasured relics from their past as their talismans.

Perhaps the predicament of their children is another poignant consideration. These are children who have been born into brutality and distrust. Children who have been born into families where their mentors, because of their own survival issues and distress, are commonly not available to them. Children who at the most rapid learning time in their lives have been programmed for autonomous survival, and incredible inter-supportiveness of each other and their families. Children who have had to detach themselves from carefree play, and the light-hearted pitter-patter of conversation to which our children are accustomed to. Is it realistic to thrust them into that inevitably cruel jungle of very different childhood behaviour, where they become ostracised for their incredible strengths? Is it realistic to cast them into our vast metropoli, where their close soul-mates become inaccessible to them by way of distance and unavailable parents? Parents, who are themselves on their own desperate journey to material and emotional survival?

Could it be, that it would be more humane to relinquish the disease model, and consider an interface model? An interface which can be gently and slowly negotiated, to avert turbulence within and between people’s souls. Perhaps this way we might reduce the incidence of gross emotional distress and its legacies. Perhaps we might even lend the struggling members of our society a helping hand.
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