PART ONE: The Truth In The Body

How do we spend time with people that are not like us?

by Christie Wong

This is part 1 of a 3 part article of the author’s anecdotal lessons on: How do we spend time with people that are not like us? It is meant to be read in order to decipher the macro lessons, but can be read by story as well, to allow for learnings to sink in as they wish for the reader.

"Communion is at the heart of the mystery of our humanity. It means accepting the presence of another inside oneself, as well as accepting the reciprocal call to enter into another. Communion, which implies the security and insecurity of trust, is a constant struggle against all the powers of fear and selfishness in us, as well as the seemingly resilient human need to control another person. To a certain extent, we lose control in our own lives when we are open to others. Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also a dangerous thing.

Beautiful because it is a new form of liberation; it brings a new joy because we are no longer alone. We are close even if we are far away. Dangerous because letting down our inner barriers means that we can be easily hurt. Communion makes us vulnerable.”- Jean Vanier in Becoming Human. There was a tin box of pineapple pieces that was stored in a sturdy dark wood cabinet about 2 meters from the front door and right behind the living room with one hanging bare bulb. This box was like gold for my host sister Abigaelle and I. We would eat a few pieces a day together; going into the cabinet to get a juicy treat.  Abigaelle’s mom (my host mother) would buy a pineapple every week from the market and slice it up into this box for me and Abigaelle, who were the only two people who enjoyed and appreciated the way it sours up the corners of our lips and tips of our tongues. No one else in the house would touch it. It was this pineapple and many other moments making silly faces at each other that defines my relationship with her. Places and things that witnessed the sweetness of connection between two people is something that is so much more amplified when we place ourselves in a new context.

Communication is bigger than language

Navigating around new people this privilege ‘travel’ can allow, is as much an attitude as it is a mindset. How do we learn to be with people who are not like us and lean into our shared humanness?

We are forced to confront ourselves with others. The keyword is with. One of the most unique things about humanity is our ability to find connection, to find hope, to find common ground. I believe that we crave it like we hunger for sustenance. Knowing this has changed everything about travel for me, but has also shown me that communication is bigger than language. Connection is what creates beauty in our eyes and the search for beauty opens souls to be bigger than they are. That is a legacy in the making. These moments of eating pineapple together.

For a bit of context, Abigaelle and I did not have the typical relationship you would expect of sisters. A Chinese-Canadian immigrant from Hong Kong in a small Rwandan village next to the Congo where Abigaelle was born. She spoke Kinyarwandan, some sign language, Swahili and a bit of English and French. I spoke broken French, beginner Kinyarwandan and was fluent in English and Cantonese. She was 5 and I was 21.

But, we were both very fluent in silly face making, playing, eating pineapples, exploring the world and acting sassy. We enjoyed eating porridge from across each other while she would laugh out loud when I fumbled with spreading avocado on toast (it's hard!).

Humanity is about seeing each other and finding ourselves home.

Connection starts with play and exploring together, which is why travel is often the premise of this heightened sense of being free to do so. For some it is easy to switch to this magical mindset, for others it can be frightening to unravel things we do not know or understand. How do we learn to be with people that are different from us? And why is this important for our souls, for our friends and for the world? With the world changing as we speak and the freedom of travel being put in a bit of a stand-still, it is more important than ever to expand our circles and points of view and all too easy to only seek out what we know is agreeable or to our immediate liking.

When we are able to freely travel again (probably with new considerations and restrictions), how will we change how we encounter one another? How can we start now?

In Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human, “And here, for me, is another profound truth: understanding, as well as truth, comes not only from the intellect but also from the body. When we begin to listen to our bodies, we begin to listen to reality through our own experiences; we begin to trust our intuition, our hearts. The truth is also in the “earth” of our own bodies. So it is a question of moving from theories we have learned to listen to the reality that is in and around us. Truth flows from the earth. This is not to deny the truth that flows from teachers, from books, from tradition, from our ancestors, and from religious faith. But the two must come together. Truth from the sky must be confirmed and strengthened by truth from the earth. We must learn to listen and then to communicate.”

Connection starts with play and exploring together, which is why travel is often the premise of this heightened sense of being free to do so.

Here are anecdotes from my own travels about the way we can connect the world with more intention and be with people who are not like us:

1. Listening to Our Bodies

One of my most cherished connections during my time living in Rwanda was my friendship with Christian. I was working as an assistant teacher at a brand new community centre and primary school in a village in Gisenyi. As the weeks have gone by, I’ve gotten to know my two fifty-child classes quite well; their dynamics, the names, the teacher’s teaching styles, and how each had chosen to interact with me. From being greeted enthusiastically by all the children every single time we meet or they see me to my lunchtime breaks, walking home are spent with a group of my students walking with me, sometimes fighting for my hand to hold (even as we sweat profusely), there was never a dull moment. There are many moments that can never be put into words.

This five or six year old boy, in primary one class, would always walk home with me and Abigaelle along with his younger brother Yvince. But one day in the afternoon that I didn’t go home for lunch,  I noticed Christian outside at the front of the school gates (the main building/community centre part that is separate from the school) playing by himself and seemingly waiting for someone to take him home. I knew he knew the way but he had stayed long after school to wait. I saw him and he waved at me with the sweetest smile and I gestured with some broken English and Kinyarwanda if he needed someone to bring him home. He nodded and I immediately told my other colleagues I would be back after I walked him home. We would walk in a comfortable silence that felt like home. Usually, there were no words ever needed, just to walk and be together. I got to meet his grandma, father, and uncle and I was able to bring him home safely when he cut his toe on a rock one time. I will truly miss the easy way we can interact and the unfiltered acceptance we have for one another; something that is not usually easy to come by.

Understanding our intuition and instincts start with listening to our own hearts and minds and our bodies. It means being consistent with how we act with ourselves and others. Our bodies tell us a lot about ourselves, our world, and those around us, listening to it brings clarity, insight, and also the body memories of love and trauma. It is our tool to go beyond ourselves.

In Kinyarwanda, we are connected fundamentally with each other and have a saying: Kubaho n'ukubana, which means: to live is to be with others. We would often answer in response: Turiumbwe;  “We are together”.

2. Knowing Your Own Culture

Being born in Hong Kong but raised in Canada, the idea of my identity often became a struggle. There would be shame and hiding; sometimes guilt for not knowing enough or not being  Chinese enough or fully Canadian either. Being a citizen to both meant I was given a lot of privileges due to the colonialist underpinnings in both contexts. Systems trickle down in the livelihoods. We must remember. We must be both Archaeologists and Architects of our communities and ecosystems.

Four months before my grandma passed away, I remember sitting with her in our family home in one of the densest areas in Hong Kong, Kowloon. She had been a landlord of the space since her 40s, raised 5 children in it, and now has piles of everyone’s stuff in the place. Only her oldest son and her were living there now. Every morning, we would eat and sit next to each other, sometimes with the TV on, other times, she would tell me some stories at her own pace. On the good days, we would go for dim sum or one time, I took her to the hair salon. She was very frail but with a robust spirit.

She would tell me about her journey as a young girl in China, losing her mother and going to Macau herself to gain employment. How she made her way to Hong Kong with some others when the war started, how she knew how I felt about my step mother because she also had one. She met my grandfather in Hong Kong in her teens and they started a tailoring business together and rented out her space to families who needed it.  My grandfather was also a well known gentleman of the town, people trusted him and he was a stronghold for many because of his integrity and character. She had so many stories and encounters, travels, and interesting people, I could only glimpse from in between her shallow breaths.  She was self-made all the way to the end and her resilience runs through my blood. We have the same eyes too, one double eyelid and one single eyelid.

I believe that the true heart of pursuing knowledge is also the pursuit of unlearning all the notions you thought you once knew and truly opening your heart so that your ears can hear.

It was in my questions and explorations in Canada with my parents and with my grandma in HK, that I found out what my heritage is like and why I was the way I am. The personal is powerful and is political. Values are taught in systems and then in homes, but oftentimes revolution is not romantic or newsworthy, it is gutted into war, turmoil, unrest, and injustices. My family’s body fought with their earned grit and labour for a life of possibility, imagination, and using our hands. It is one of the things I am most proud of in myself and my family: getting our hands dirty for those we love.

I strive for a life where I can question and admire my ancestors in the very same breath. Because I am here and the future is next. My family survived through creativity, care, bold adventure, and grit. 

Learning to respect my own family and roots have taught me to have the same open-mindedness that my grandparents did to bring our family out of the cultural revolution in China. It allowed me to feel whole in what made me different and to allow myself to listen more fully to other’s stories.

3. Walking in Vulnerability

I was 21 and he was 25. His smile was one that filled his face and I knew it well because I spent many hours drawing his portrait from a photo I took of him by the beach in Lake Kivu, Rwanda. Our friendship started with many walks and lots of talks. He loved the English language and I enjoyed his company. My host family mostly spoke French and trying to talk about more complex subjects was often difficult, but that didn’t diminish the love we had for spending time together and grappling with hard topics of the heart.

Most days he would say, “Let’s go for a walk.”  and we would trample over rocky and ashy unpaved roads. We were not so different as we were both curious to learn more about each other’s lives. We both cared about justice deeply and often talked about how to end racism in our communities and the world. We cared about the children we worked with at the community centre. Oftentimes, we would carry one of the handicapped girls home after school and make sure that her family was home to receive her. He asked me about being Chinese and the stereotypes he observed in the community and I asked him about his upbringing and his dreams.

 He would always bring around some cigarettes. I asked him once what he thought about when he smoked. He said, “Many dark things in the world, smoking is when I think about these things.” We would walk in silence till the sunset and sometimes even talk on my host family’s porch until dinner. We could sense each other’s curiosity about each other’s very different worlds and we always found common ground when speaking about the pains and struggles in our lives. 

Finding commonality was like drinking water, essential in our conversations, and the thread that knit our friendship. He told me about his mother’s death and his upbringing of being uncertain of a home and food and his ardent dreams to see racism eradicated and peace to come to the world. He told me of his dream to dream bigger and to go beyond this village. I shared about my childhood struggles and emotional scars which surfaced many interpersonal insecurities within myself. He ended up being there for me when I needed to cry with frustration about not feeling like I belonged when what someone said about me tore me apart inside. He told me to consider him a big brother as we were walking home to race the sunset. We would walk a lot and my feet became dusty from the volcanic ash.

How unlikely we are to have met each other without the privilege I was afforded by my university in Toronto. At the same time, I am grateful for the opportunity to be stripped of what I know in my own sheltered life.  I didn’t need academia to be vulnerable to another human and to listen to their narratives. 

I believe that the true heart of pursuing knowledge is also the pursuit of unlearning all the notions you thought you once knew and truly opening your heart so that your ears can hear.