I have quite a lot to think and write about just from the past week or so. I’ll take it one update at a time…Last weekend I spent 24 hours with a handful of other Ambassadorial Scholars in Pittsburgh to train for next year, when we’ll all be out in the world as students, ambassadors, and young representatives of the Rotary. The most interesting part of our meeting by far was mingling with other scholars headed to Ghana, South Africa, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia, Jordan, Brazil… One person will be in Bogotá, Colombia studying regional development! Another will be in Rabat, Morocco, but just for the summer. (The Rotary no longer awards Ambassadorial Scholarships for short-term study, though.)
The Rotary calls this a training, but I think it makes more sense to think of it as a kick-off meeting with some rules and tips thrown in for good measure. Topics covered include: pre- and post- year of study duties (presentations to Rotary clubs for example), how to address sensitive questions about our culture and politics, and dealing with sexual harassment. The last two both fall under the general theme of “culture clash,” though the example of sexual harassment is a more personal and possibly traumatizing example. The official presentation on sexual harassment had mostly to do with Rotary protocol, but the session led to a more interesting conversation on how to communicate that what someone might consider harmless behavior is actually, “in my culture,” deeply offensive. (Of course assault can’t be relativized in the same way)
One of the more interactive sessions focused on how to address controversial questions about our country of origin. During my interview in August 2009, for instance, I was asked how I would respond to this doozy: “Can you explain this whole health care debate?” The trick is not necessarily to drop a ton of knowledge on them, but rather to give the broad strokes in a balanced and non-defensive way.
In the first few hours of our training, the facilitator of this session passed out a list of questions and called on people to answer them. Oh, it was heart-pounding fun! Here are some examples of what we were asked to respond to, questions mostly drawn from a book called Citizen Diplomacy: Responding to Questions about America (review to come–oh and take a look at the publisher!)
-Why is American culture so violent?
-Why does your government have such a laissez-faire attitude towards the economy, which has such damaging consequences throughout the world?
I’ve been answering questions about the U.S., especially in France, since I was a kid. Some questions are informed, occasionally some are profoundly silly, some come from strangers and some from my own family. Some questions are veiled accusations, and not everyone is as interested in your answer as they are in making a point. It’s a challenge to answer some of these questions without rolling your eyes, or without taking offense at the assumptions that they hint at.
Still, thankfully people are curious enough to pose a question, even at the risk of appearing uninformed. This kid once asked my sister and I if we lived in the “bourg” of Chicago–which is like asking if we live on Main Street. Poor guy was pretty embarrassed when we laughed, judging him to be provincial, I guess. Hey, we were kids.
This weekend at the Rotary District 6450 Conference (more on that later) I’ve been hanging out with a current Ambassadorial Scholar from South Korea about his experience so far. I’ve been pestering him with questions along the lines of, “What’s the weirdest thing about Americans?” He’s pretty good at politely deflecting those questions, but he does sometimes talk about the strange comments he gets from people about his country. Things like, “Korea, huh? So, why are you so evil?”
Readers, what is the most challenging or silliest question you’ve had to field about your culture (whatever that means to you)? I’ll kick it off with a question I was asked, and though a lot about, when I was in Paris, in early 2006:
What is wrong with the American people that they allow their government to kill innocent civilians in Iraq? Do they just not care about people who aren’t American?