Monday, May 30, 2011

Ice cream for all, but not tolerance

I've written before about how I always find kindred spirits everywhere I go. People who are like-minded, tolerant, open, and willing to put themselves in someone else's shoes. People who can think beyond their own individual situation and see something beyond themselves. People who have begun to see themselves in relation to this big, wide world -- our global community -- and understand the need for diversity and acceptance. This past weekend in Kazbegi was a wonderful experience of gathering different cultures together and finding commonality and like-mindedness there.

But for every few kindred spirits that I find throughout the world, I run up against one or two people who are not. That is, who are not like-minded, not open, not tolerant, not accepting of diversity. Last evening, one such person found me and our group.

James, Katherine, and I had traveled back to Tbilisi with Mattias (our Belgian friend). Kieran (our Irish friend) arrived in the capital a few hours behind us, and we all met in the evening to prolong the great weekend with new and old friends.

After dinner, our global group decided that dessert was in order. We walked to the best ice-cream shop in the city. As we stood on the sidewalk amid the throng of Georgians out to enjoy the lovely, warm evening, an older man, obviously NOT Georgian stepped up to me and said, "You're speaking English! I'll talk to anyone I can find who is speaking English!"

His accent told me that he was North-American. He was probably 65 or so -- white hair sticking out from under his bright red baseball hat emblazoned with "CANADA" and a maple leaf. He was wearing a blue "FDNY" t-shirt, blue shorts, white socks pulled up to mid-calf, and sneakers. I smiled and said, "Hello," then pointing from his hat to his t-shirt, I added, "Are you Canadian or American?" He ignored my question (or just didn't hear me over his own thoughts) and went on talking about how he has been stopping and talking to anyone he can find who speaks English.

He asked us where we were all from. I started saying that some of us were American and was going to add that others were Belgian and Irish, but at "American," he interrupted me and asked where in the United States I was from. I told him I was from the Philadelphia area. His ensuing story about driving down to Philadelphia and D.C. from Toronto told us that he was Canadian.

We exchanged some pleasantries about the places in the U.S. that he had been, and then he wanted to know if we were in Georgia for rugby. The way he asked was more like an affirmative statement -- as if there would be no other reason for anyone being there. Aaaahh, no. He seemed a bit surprised that we didn't know that the U.S. and Canadian rugby teams were in Georgia for a two-week tournament -- his son plays for the Canadian team, and that was the only reason he was in Georgia.

He didn't have too much good to say about the country, and wanted to know, if not for rugby, why were we all in this backward country. When we told him that some of us were working here, one was doing research for his ph.D. dissertation, and the other was just traveling, he was only mildly interested.

He changed the topic of conversation to something that I can't remember -- I do remember watching James take over the replies with this man who kept inching closer and closer as if he were sharing confidential secrets that the Georgians passing by shouldn't hear. I was beginning to wish that he would say goodbye and let me finish my melting ice cream.

That was when he again changed the conversation. This time he stepped within a foot of my face (why is it always me?) and made a nebulous remark in low, hushed tones about how proud he was of what the U.S. had done. I looked at him blankly. Granted, I have been out of the country for over six months, but I do watch the news and read at least the headlines and sometimes full articles on the New York Times web site. I don't remember if I asked what he meant, or if he read my puzzled expression, but it came out that he meant the U.S. killing Osama Bin Laden.

Great. That was not a conversation... or rather, disagreement that I wanted to have with this man. I stood there silently, wondering what in the world I could say that would neither start an argument nor betray my pacifist beliefs. He went on and on about how good it is that the man is dead. I just looked at the ground while he rambled on, still at a loss for how to close this conversation politely and without offending his convictions. I tightened my lips and looked to the side in disagreement. I finally came up with something to say back to him, although I don't remember what it was -- I don't think I even acknowledged his statements about Bin Laden -- I think that I just told him that it was nice to meet him and wished his son's team luck in the tournament.

Later on, I thought about this man. On one hand, I believe that everyone is entitled to his own opinion. I have no right to tell anyone how they should think or what they should think. But on the other hand, I don't know what to do with intolerance, bigotry, egotistical nationalism, or hatred. If I really believe that every person should be able to express their feelings and thoughts, then someone who's beliefs completely go against mine has as much right to share them as I do my pacifistic and inclusive ones. The catch is that the minute I make any kind of statement that shows my tolerant attitude, I will be caught in an onslaught of angry, accusing, maligned arguments hurled at me, but meant for the offending party who is not present -- in this case, Bin Laden and the Taliban. There will be no mutual conversation. There can't be when one person is close-minded.

Whatever I said must have been diplomatic enough. The man smiled and went away happily eating his ice cream.

I don't understand people who believe that violence can solve anything.


  1. When he said: “Would you rather spend a week in NYC or here?” I knew the conversation was going to go downhill fast! His response to me saying “here!” confirmed my suspicion. I had been giving my cue to leave.

  2. Yes! I was hoping that my gut feeling about him was not correct, but the more he said, the more I knew where the conversation was going to lead!

    I look forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks! :)