Monday, June 12, 2006

that's not how we do it.

Can a children’s animated film like “Pocahontas” really contribute to such a hefty concept as world peace? More specifically, can it actually help lessen racial discrimination as a major step to achieve this goal?

It all started when we were made to watch the flick as a Social Science class requirement. In the movie, Pocahontas was an Indian princess caught in the crossfire between her people and the Englishmen, which arose from overzealous suspicion of differences. The copper-skinned natives didn’t trust the white invaders and vice versa, the ethnic tension mounting in a tight-locked race for supremacy. One particular stanza from the theme song “Colors of the Wind” effectively echoed such strained sentiments:

You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew

Memories inevitably rushed back like meteors. I remembered a female classmate in grade school who was offensively dubbed an “aborigine” because of her ebony-dark complexion. I am also reminded of a teacher from China who was the object of taunts in the classroom as she failed to correctly pronounce words in the vernacular. Hindu passersby were frequently shunned by people in the street, and a former Korean schoolmate was regularly laughed at because he had unconventional ideals and wore his clothes differently. It’s always the same case each time. Members of the mockery bandwagon thought, “That’s not how it is. That’s not how we do it.” Or that perhaps, the only people who are truly “people” are those who “look and think” like us – isn’t this ethnocentricity in a nutshell?

The altruist in me opted to look at things differently. “That’s not how we do it”, indeed; but “if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.” Three years ago, I walked the footsteps of many strangers and learned back many things in return, when I was chosen as a national delegate to a Root-Seeking Camp in China participated in by Southeast Asian youngsters. Sure, we all had one thing in common – our Sino ancestry – but save for this we were as disparate as a bunch of farm animals. There I was, one of four Filipino faces amid a sea of Thais, Burmese, Laotians, Cambodians, Malaysians and Indonesians. While we were brought up and exposed to diverse cultures, there were no biases and prejudices against one another because we set aside our differences and learned to get to know each other first; we merely listened.

People call it the easiest and hardest task at the same time. You need not do anything except give the speaker your full concentration (No wonder we were taught that the listener is the most important element of communication.) But the words of my professor add something more: “Listen, but listen with an open mind.” To free oneself from any preconceived notions that might be the source of false interpretations, she said, is the true liberty of listening, and only then can you achieve genuine understanding. Understanding in turn, gives rise to empathy as we assess the other person’s situation, placing ourselves in their shoes should the tables turn and others tell us, “That’s not how we do it.”

Once I stumbled across a beautiful line that said, “The greatest gift you can give to a human person is to see him as he really is – a human being.” It had such a profound impact on me since I know that we really can’t reconcile all our differences at once, but at least we’re similar in that we belong to the one same human race, born to live and die under the one same sky.

It’s this very idea of human equality that I will try to uphold as I study on to become a doctor in the near future – a profession I consider as an epitome of non-discrimination since a doctor’s job is to heal everyone, regardless of race, skin color or social status and not just the ones who look and think like himself. Somehow it occurred to me that doctors are capable of healing more than just the physical aspect; they can also reach out to help remedy the social cancer that is racial discrimination by sending out ripples of awareness to every person in this world: No matter who you are or where you come from, you are entitled to the gift of life and good health.

But I guess you don’t exactly need an M.D. to do your part. What’s more significant is that you live out the message of Michael Jackson’s hit single “Man in the Mirror”, where he urged all of us to start our humanitarian quest with the “man in the mirror” and make a change with ourselves first. For how else can we get the peace wheel to start rolling if we personally don’t give it the initial push? How else can we assuage the brunt of bigotry except by selflessly planting the first seeds of tolerance?

Certainly, we can only move on towards establishing harmony among races and nations if we stop giving too much weight on “That’s not how we do it” and take the phrase with a grain of salt instead. We can only realize our dream of a “brotherhood of man” (as the immortal John Lennon put it) if we brush off the fixed impression that every Muslim is a terrorist, or that every Palestinian is a potential suicide bomber, or that every Chinese is a die-hard communist freak. The difference lies in four simple words.

Listen. Understand. Empathize. Heal.

Start with your own “man in the mirror”, and just like Pocahontas, walk the footsteps of many more strangers. You’ll definitely learn loads of things “you never knew, you never knew.”