Category Archives: Reports from the Road

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: REYKJAVIK AND THE PERILS OF MONOCULTURE

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the United States on January 19, and is headed towards the Eastern Mediterranean to help with refugee assistance. He’s taking a few stops along the way…)

You notice it as soon as you get off the plane at Keflavik Airport, about 50 kilometers from Reykjavík. It’d be hard to miss, actually.

Practically all the signage – welcoming you to Iceland, directing you to baggage claim, encouraging you to purchase some luxury item or other from the duty-free shop – is in English.

It’s quite a nice gesture, really, designed quite purposefully to make Anglophones not just from the US and British Isles but from all over the world feel welcomed, and allow folks to avoid having to wrestle with the bearishly difficult Icelandic language.

And it’s been a very successful choice. Even in the dead of winter, tourism has become a huge part of Iceland’s economy.

But there’s a price to pay, and a careful balance to maintain.

The Roadhouse is an American-themed restaurant, located across a street with the wonderful name of Snorrabraut from one of the hostels where I stayed. The featured burgers are a bit over-the-top even by American standards – one is served on a doughnut, and another comes graced with a couple of dollops of mac’n’cheese – but the people were friendly and the fries really were excellent. I had some great conversations with the personnel, including a couple of native Icelandic waitstaff and their Japanese-Indonesian-Hispanic (!) manager. They agreed that making aspects of Iceland seem more familiar and accessible to tourists, while certainly good for business, also threatened to override some of the characteristics of Icelandic culture that make it such an interesting destination in the first place, as well as a tightly-knit society.

The notion of “globalization” implies different things to different people, and they respond to it (or rebel against it) in different ways. The “alt-right” neo-nationalists, like Trump chief of staff Steve Bannon, see it as a threat not just to national sovereignty but also ethnic and racial identity. They would rather see everyone pull back into tightly controlled and insular “ethno-states,” with minimal interaction and even less blending. They present their vision as the only alternative to sacrificing one’s uniqueness on the altar of commerce, and then use that false dichotomy as a cover for promoting their racist and supremacist ideology.

But that is far from the only alternative. If there is to be a global “monoculture,” it must be one that serves as background, not bulldozer – one that allows local cultures to stand out, flourish, and survive. There should be no conflict between the preservation of one’s own traditional heritage and participation in global exchanges.

A friend I met invited me to see her neighborhood in the southeastern suburbs of Reykjavik. We walked along snowy sidewalks to the local branch library, which was hosting a traveling exhibition of Japanese dolls, sponsored by the Japan Foundation. Some of the more formal dolls were exquisite studies in porcelain and cloth, remarkably detailed. I marveled, not just at the artistry, but at all that had brought me and this exhibit together, in a small-town library at the top of our confused but deeply interconnected world.

TORONTO AND THE PROMISE OF POLYCULTURALISM

Reports from the Road #2: TORONTO AND THE PROMISE OF POLYCULTURALISM

There were so many choices for dinner, just along that particular two-block stretch in Midtown Toronto, I hardly knew where to turn. Moroccan, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Chinese… I picked one more or less at random, a Chinese restaurant, and settled in with a Tsingtao and some delicious mushroom egg-drop soup. I knew I’d found a good spot when a gaggle of Chinese students came in for dinner. As I wrestled with some unfamiliar vegetable (gai lan, I found out later – Chinese broccoli), they kept up a steady stream of laughter and conversation, delighting in each other’s company. The staff was also clearly pleased to have them there, as they brought out dish after dish for a family-style repast.

It occurred to me that these folks had probably not come to Canada to gain an appreciation of poutine and hockey – that is, not to be assimilated or digested into some generic one-size-fits-all kind of Canadian identity. They also hadn’t come to take over and enforce their own cultural norms. Rather, they came to benefit from and contribute to a vibrant and varied society. I thought of the young Punjabi women I had talked to in Niagara Falls, who were studying nursing and early childhood education, and preparing to take their skills back home. I thought of the elderly Colombian gentleman I had met in a pub, a chef who had come to Montreal to work on his French before heading for culinary school in France – but who found love instead, and stayed put.

Toronto has a long-standing reputation as one of the most diverse and multicultural cities on the planet, and from what I’ve seen it’s well deserved. Conflicts here seem to be more class-based, as hard-driving developers (from many different nationalities!) put pressure on neighborhoods to allow more and more high-priced luxury condo development.  Ethnic communities, where they have developed, get nudged further out towards the suburbs.   

But they not only coexist, they interact, and cross-fertilize.

As I understand it, there’s a difference between “multiculturalism” – where different cultural communities exist in close proximity, but within distinct borders, and claim certain physical and ideological spaces as their own – and what some call “polyculturalism,” where there is more openness towards hybridization, and a recognition that the overall community is in fact greater than the sum of its parts. So we can see things here like “Pad Thai burritos” – and even a Japanese variant of poutine, French fries and cheese curds covered with Japanese curry gravy with seaweed and scallions.

One of the things that I am interested in exploring and learning more about during this trip is how such polycultural societies are created – and more importantly, maintained. It seems to me that learning to exist in multiple worlds, so to speak – to be a part of one’s communities of heritage but also part of something larger – could be an important skill for avoiding the kinds of intercultural conflicts that threaten to tear our country (and our planet) apart literally at the seams.

Report from Rainbow Bridge

 Reports from the Road, #1: Report from Rainbow Bridge

20 January 2017

It was cold, damp, and lonely on the Rainbow Bridge.

I was sitting quietly, alone, there on the bridge, quite literally on the border between the US and Canada, hundreds of feet above the Niagara River.  (Yes, you might say I was putting my butt on the line.) Hundreds of miles to my south-southeast, a scowling orange man was about to rest his hand on a Bible, and make a solemn promise that no one (least of all me) expected him to be able or willing to keep.

On either end of the Rainbow Bridge sits a city called Niagara Falls, one in New York, one in Ontario.  Both are studies in contrast, the ritzy hotels and attractions of the tourist districts surrounded by drab but adequate working-class neighborhoods. I noticed that from my viewpoint on the bridge, the two cities shared one common feature: the brightly lit word “CASINO.” (Curiously enough, the name of the man with his hand on that Bible in Washington DC had nothing to do with the casinos on either side, at least not yet.)

usa-sideI sat on the American side of the border to begin with. Only a couple of pairs of tourists walked by – young people, maybe even honeymooners.  They smiled at me sympathetically – perhaps they understood why I was there – but they did not stop long to talk.

I looked up at the two flagpoles in front of me.

flags

The Canadian flag on my left waved and fluttered properly in the mild breeze – but its neighbor, strangely enough, remained unmoved, flaccid, listless. It seemed depressed. Perhaps, in some sense, it knew what was happening in that city so far away.

As noon approached, I moved.canada-side

It was a simple enough act – a mere schooching of only a few inches – but I felt it.

It was my acknowledgment to myself that I was leaving something, something that would never exist again in quite the same way.

I sat in sober contemplation of this fact for a while – and then I heard the helicopter overhead. As I watched it fly by, it suddenly occurred to me that my position – and the small pack that I was carrying on my lap – might arouse suspicions. Perhaps one of those couples had made a comment – “There’s some guy sitting on the bridge, and he has a package in his lap. He seemed depressed about something.”

So it was time to leave – but I also realized in that moment that I had one more thing to do, one more gesture to make… an obvious one…

So I made a wall. A mime wall, following the border. I worked my way back and forth along it, across the sidewalk, for a couple of minutes, tears welling in my eyes.

Then I noticed the policemen coming from the American side.

.

cops

(Do you see them? Look closely.)

They weren’t running, exactly, but they were walking towards me with clear intent and purpose, and more than a little urgency. I decided to allay their fears. I walked away a few steps, turned, and waved a big “Don’t worry, I’m harmless” farewell wave. They waved back, regrouped, and returned (relieved, I imagine) to their side.

 

So I was seen. My little gesture got a response. Maybe they even understood.

That’s about all I could have asked for, I suppose.