“Cathedral”, by Raymond Carver, is a short story about complicated human relationships. It ends with the narrator struggling to describe a European cathedral to a blind man. The narrator is already uncomfortable and annoyed about having the blind man in his home. He tries words to explain the cathedral’s size and he nervously uses gestures for its shape. Eventually, the blind man places his hand on the narrator’s, and the narrator traces the basic contours of a cathedral on hard paper.
That intimate scene has always stayed with me: Whenever I meet people, travel to new places, or try something different, I have learned to welcome the anxiety. Sometimes I am the blind person and sometimes I am the sighted, but narrow-minded, one. Either way, something good usually comes out of the experience.
Expats are uniquely qualified to understand this fact. We have, by definition, left our comfort zones. Perhaps we endured strange situations and difficult people, but, hopefully we have found that living abroad has been enlightening.
This month, two programs will recreate the sharing of experiences by mixing cultures here in Brno. Erasmus, an exchange program for university students, and the Edison Program, which is for younger students, have brought young people from around the world to learn about the Czech Republic and, importantly, to help the Czech Republic learn a bit about the rest of the world – to, as it were, hold hands and describe the cathedral (read: country, culture, people).
Erasmus attracted more than 700 students from countries like Poland, Spain, the United States, Germany, and France to study and experience Czech culture. Overall, more than 8,000 students out of the total Masaryk University enrollment of 38,000 are foreigners; more than 1,800 are in non-Czech-language classes. These are young, soon-to-be college educated, leaders of the future who will take back to their countries knowledge of the Czech Republic and lifelong memories of time spent in Brno. That is powerful, though difficult-to-quantify, wisdom.
The Edison Project brings foreign students to Czech schools to give Powerpoint presentations about their countries. Edison is part of AIESEC, the largest student-run organization in the world. AIESEC has mixed more than a million young people from more than 126 countries and territories in the hopes of reaching mutual understandings and reducing prejudices and stereotypes.
Edison works specifically to foster a more tolerant Czech society. More than 120,000 grade-school students in 175 Czech cities and towns have been introduced to more than 800 international students since 2009.
Cyrilometodějské gymnázium on Kraví hora, where I teach English, has been part of the program for three years and it has been visited by a diversity of students who have left personal impressions on me, including representatives of Indonesia (18,000 islands), Georgia (amazing mountains), Brazil (capoeira), and Argentina (Iguazu Falls).
The real interesting visitors are from places with different religions, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Cyrilometodějské gymnázium is a Catholic school. Nuns teach classes. It is safe to say that few students had any experience with Muslims prior to these presentations. The imparted information was mostly generic – capital city, local food, native sports, famous citizens, etc. — yet, when one of the presenters fasted in observance of a Muslim holiday, the real-life quality of his hunger within a pre-lunch classroom of antsy teenagers was more powerful than simple black-and-white words in a book.
In this day and age when Serbians and Afghanis are fleeing devastating wars, perhaps meeting a refugee – desperate and with barely any possessions – would soften the widespread visceral response that has been evident throughout Europe.
This year, Cyrilometodějské gymnázium welcomed a girl from Iran. This should have been a difficult situation for me: As an American, I have been taught my whole life that Iran is the Great Satan. (Or, maybe Iran started the name-calling and the US is the Great Satan. Probably, nobody knows for sure.) My earliest political memory is of the hostage crisis in 1979-81 and its effect on the Carter-Reagan presidential election. More recently, I recall the way Iranian youth used Twitter to mobilize the so-called Green Revolution in response to the 2009 Iranian presidential election. And, of course, now there is the American-led coalition to end the decades-long economic embargo on Iran in return for transparency in its nuclear program.
These, basically, are all the things that I know about Iran. I haven’t been there. I have never met anyone from there. So, shouldn’t I be nervous when I meet a young “Great Satan” Iranian?
Of course not. She visited Brno to introduce her country to Czech students, got a feel for the country and city, and everyone is the better for it.
When we expats return to our homelands, we will be able to describe the Czech Republic, Brno, and its people because we have lived here, heard the language, and eaten the food. So, too, will the Erasmus and Edison students. Perhaps, the Iranian girl will describe the American expat teacher as friendly and interested.
And, hopefully, all of us will be able to use ample details when we draw the pictures.