Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Call to the Intercultural Life

My friend and I riding an elephant in northern Laos. She was born in France, an Arab daughter of parents who fled North Africa. That she was born on French soil means she’s a citizen of the European Union and can legally live anywhere in Europe.

Fluent in French and English, at various points in her life she’s lived in Paris, London, Washington D.C. Currently she resides in rural Indiana where we became friends. She teaches French, film studies, women studies and Arab women writers.

On any day she’ll whip up a dish from India, France or North Africa and invite me over for the feast. She’s the best traveler I know because she’s highly skilled at the art of packing light. My friendship with her has afforded me the luxury of visiting Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and four islands in French Polynesia.

If I weren’t busy trying to get a writing project off the ground she’d have me traipsing through the rolling grasslands of Kenya next January with twenty-two students. Her appetite for adventure and travel is so infectious; we spent an entire day biking around the periphery of Bora Bora with its hills and quick declines.

A few days before we came back to the United States after a 21-day trip to Southeast Asia, we palled around the old town district of Hanoi, which is crammed with people on motorcycles and street vendors.

Here we are riding an elephant through a low level river in Northern Laos. People stare at her because she’s so gorgeous and she looks like she could be from any place on Earth. While we were getting a pedicure in Siem Reap, Cambodia the pedicurist became full of giggles, complimenting her on the beautiful texture of her skin. With true cultural hooks in the United States, Africa and Europe, my friend, who doesn’t want to be named, personifies the word intercultural.

Three years ago I was house sitting for a poet friend of mine in Bloomington, Indiana. I had been back teaching a full load at my current employer, DePauw University and was struggling, like any creative writer, to get my work published.

For years I had been sending out this essay about my time as a black journalist living in Utah in the early to mid-1990s. No one seemed interested. An whose judgment I trust told me, “I gotta tell you. It’s just a list of gripes.” The implication was no one would publish it.

I was flipping through a creative writing magazine when I saw an advertisement for an “intercultural essay contest.” As a last ditch effort, I dropped it in the mail along with the $5 reading fee and forgot about it. The word intercultural stuck in my mind for months. I searched on Google and found only a few references. defines intercultural as “pertaining to or taking place between two or more cultures.” Multicultural has the same definition except it refers to several cultures. Unfortunately multiculturalism has come to be shorthand for political correctness – not that that’s bad, but in being politicized it has been reduced and therefore dismissed.

The word intercultural seems fresher and less loaded. Our president is truly intercultural with a white American mother; an African father and he lived in Indonesia for a while. People are intercultural. Programs and government strive for multiculturalism. Intercultural is a salad with many flavors blended in, each ingredient retaining its unique flavor. Multicultural is more of a stew where everything blends together and the flavors are lost.

Next Monday is the United Nations’ Tenth Annual World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. One of the intentions is “To raise awareness worldwide about the importance of intercultural dialogue, diversity and inclusion.” Incidentally my essay went on to become a prizewinner in the intercultural category.

I’ve flown twice to San Francisco to read an excerpt of my essay “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow,” about my experiences as the first black reporter working for The Salt Lake Tribune in the early 1990s.

Earlier this month the essay was anthologized in The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays edited Tara L. Masih, who culled them together after years of judging the National League of American Pen Women in San Francisco. Published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing of Deadwood, Oregon, the collection allows twenty writers from various backgrounds tell their stories as intercultural people.

I’m excited to be a part of the collection. I think of intercultural people as the “between worlds.” My life has occurred between many cultures. Black & white. Straight & gay. Christian & pagan. The North and South. East Coast and West Coast. I love the idea of living in the in-between, and that’s what this blog will focus on to some degree.

The danger of intercultural living is one is easily misunderstood and dismissed. A few days ago I was wearing this t-shirt in the small town in Indiana where I live. Two people stopped me to comment on it. One was while I was at the post office. Later that day I was having lunch with my back was facing the window.

A man started tapping on the glass and pointing to my shirt. I smiled, mouthed “thank you.” He then came into the restaurant.

“Man, that’s a great shirt. Where’d you get it?” “Thanks. I got it from a restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York City back in 1993. I think that restaurant is closed now.”

The intercultural conversation can start anywhere. Even in a small town in Indiana.