I was on the number 19 bus as usual, going to work on a Thursday morning. Two children were sitting on the other side of the aisle, one behind the other. They must live in the same area, as they get off at different stops and obviously go to different schools. The girl sitting behind said to the boy in front: “What language do you speak?” The boy, who looked like his ethnic origin is from Asia or the Middle East answered. She said: “How do you say hi in your language?” He repeatedly told her and she repeatedly didn’t get it, but smiled all the time, trying to make a connection with him.
In this time of Brexit, Mexican-American walls and suspicion of anything that is not like ‘us’, this small proclamation of innocence is something that has stayed with me for weeks. How is it we have created societies that are so saturated with fear and distrust of ‘the other’ that we cannot stop for a moment and realise that everyone we meet – regardless of skin colour, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender and first language – is a human being with needs, desires, and the ability to feel pain, just like ourselves? Do we really want to live in a world where our only priority is to look after our own little tribe at the expense of everybody else? What is it that makes us so scared of meeting what is different with openness and interest? Is it that we have such a narrow sense of who we are as person and as a people that anything that isn’t like ‘us’ becomes a threat? Or has it to do with something more general and yet deeper-lying: what we think is the meaning of life, what goals and ideals we have been brought up to believe in?
The area of Edinburgh where I live is kind of ‘nice’. But walk 5 minutes East and you’re in a very posh area with huge houses and gardens and walk10-15 minutes West and you’re in the middle of council estates. Walk a little further West you get lots of boarded up windows and lots of rubbish on the streets and in front gardens. Just South of here is Fettes College, the public (private) school that Tony Blair went to and one of the major public (private) schools in Scotland (and by some considered the ‘Eton of the North’). Its main spire can be seen from far and wide and it is a very majestic and grand building. There are children who go to Fettes and children who grow up in the council estates just North of here who are all brought up speaking English, so they all speak the same language. Except they don’t. They may be able to understand each other linguistically, but socially, culturally and economically the divide between them is huge and their understanding of the world they live in is bound to differ just as widely. It is very, very likely that they are actually not able to say ‘hi’ to each other or to meet each others’ worlds with openness and understanding.
It can be very difficult to become aware of the ideas and ideals one has acquired from parents/caregivers, education and from the part of the society one is generally surrounded by. It becomes an unspoken, unthought framework for your life, a view of the world that unless we do something to actively broaden our experience or education remains unchallenged and unchanged. Maybe that is why it is so difficult to embrace something that is even slightly different – it means we have to question a framework we have come to regard as being an unquestionable truth. But if we want this world to become a better place or the society we live in to show more generosity, understanding and fairness to all, the only place we can start is to challenge and change our own framework. To meet everyone with openness and interest regardless of background and to broaden our understanding of the society we live in in general.
The six-year old on the bus certainly showed me the way: how can I greet you in your language? How can I take the first step in meeting your world and understanding where you come from? If we all dared to do this more often maybe there wouldn’t be a need to talk about exits or walls – whether in America or Calais – at all.
*** This post was first published on 12/09/2016 on another blog which has now been replaced with this one. ***
© Saraphir Qaa-Rishi