Monday, January 7, 2008

Swimming and the Congo

The postings on this site ares my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

A Fellow Swimmer's Brave Daughter

"Sarah, hey, Sarah," my swimming-friend Rita called as I reached the end of the lane, where she and another woman were stretching. "Where were you for six months again?"

"India," I said, treading water, not wanting to stop moving.

"This is Carolyn. Her daughter's in the Congo."

"Wow! What's she doing there?"

"She's with the the International Rescue Committee."

"Rescuing who?"

"It's a humanitarian aid organization. She was in Darfur and the Sudan prior to the Congo. She's been working with them since graduating college seven years ago."

I felt ashamed. I assumed she was a missionary...but more on that in a bit. "Wow, what a hero your daughter is."

"It's hard."

Rita said, "I know you've gotta go to work and I didn't want to interrupt your swimming; just wanted you to meet each other."

"Thanks. Good to meet you," I said, swimming off sheepishly.

In the lockerroom, she heard me exhale in the shower and exclaimed from another shower-stall, "Wasn't it [the swimming] wonderful?"


We were drying off and she happened to have picked a locker near mine.

"I was thinking of how worried my mom was about me, and I was working in an *office* building. As her mother, you must be so scared. I'm sorry I was snotty about your daughter in the pool. Are you Jewish?"

"No. I'm a pastor."

"Well, I'm sorry. It's just that I haven't been around other Jews in six months and I thought your daughter might be a missionary, and since being in India, where I learned that there really are religions beyond Christianity, Judaism and Islam, I don't favor the idea of people being missionaries and converting people from their faiths."

"I know what you mean. I don't believe it's good either. The aid is conditional, that is, they have to accept Christianity to get it, and also, it's the whole package; they try to westernize them on top of getting them to convert."

I meant no disrespect to missionaries, except that I had a completely different orientation to religion, which amounted to zero promotion of mine to people who were not Jewish; as a Jew, it was against my tradition to proselytize, and so it was foreign to me.

Driving to work afterwards, I really did see an older Toyota Corolla, sporting the following bumper-stickers: "Follow your heart;" "We are one;" "It's not our differences that divide us. It's our refusal to accept and celebrate our differences."


Dorothy said...

"It is impossible for me to reconcile myself to the idea of conversion after the style that goes on in India and elsewhere today. It is an error which is perhaps the greatest impediment to the world’s progress toward peace … Why should a Christian want to convert a Hindu to Christianity? Why should he not be satisfied if the Hindu is a good or godly man?"
Gandhiji, Harijan (30 January 1937)

Sarah Siegel said...

I suppose this puts in perspective my disappointment that most of the Indians I met had no intellectual curiosity about my culture or religion; why should they believe that I wanted a genuine exchange, rather than to be imperialistic/dominating about my background?

In an especially lucid moment during our time in India, Pat said to me, "Sarah, why would they want to hear anything about your culture? It's broadcast at them all over TV; they have no choice, but to be aware of it and they're probably sick of it."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is not at all related, but somehow all this talk about religion and culture got me to thinking that if Bloomberg joins the presidential race, it would be the first time a Jew, a woman and a bi-racial man, whom everyone seems to identify as purely African-American, were not only all in a presidential race, but each one of them was actually a truly viable candidate as opposed to Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson.

Love you,

Sarah Siegel said...

And that reminds me of a very bad Andy Rooney commentary I heard on "60 Minutes" last Sunday -- I don't appreciate his commentaries and nearly never listen to them, but -- he was talking about how inappropriate the names of the candidates were this time, and while he included "Huckabee," he actually sounded angry when he said, "Obama" and "Giuliani" if I remember correctly. What happened to *presidential*-sounding names, e.g., Washington and Jefferson, he asked. I know that viewers were supposed to take his comments as least, I hope that's what he was going for, but it wasn't enough that he suggested that his own name, "Andy," was not very respectable.

Also, I was thinking more so during my swim this morning that it could seem a bit disingenuous of me, and might very well be, to disfavor religious missionaries, considering that I went over to India to help the IBM leaders there succeed in our globally-integrated enterprise, which inevitably meant layering our corporate culture, which -- today -- is based on a western frame of reference onto the culture of their upbringing.

Dr. Julia Sloan, a colleague and new friend from Teachers College, talks of not being apologetic in asking corporate citizens around the world to embrace corporate cultures because she says she's from Alaska and likes the snowball analogy, which is that we're not asking colleagues to lose their culture, but rather, to add to it, like a snowball. It's a delicate, diplomatic challenge, certainly.