“…Climb into” another’s “skin”

In a 1994 interview with Fareed Zakaria, Lee Kuan Yew makes this observation regarding a World Bank Report on “East Asian economic success”: “I think the World Bank had a very difficult job. It had to write up these very, very complex series of situation. But there are cultural factors which have been lightly touched over…It makes the hopeful assumption that….people all over the world are the same. They are not.”

In “Letter to My Daughter”, Maya Angelou, the poet and activist who, by some estimates, has been awarded over fifty honorary degrees, writes of being invited for dinner by Samia (a popular actress from Senegal who Maya had met years ago in Paris). “I entered a beautifully furnished living room to the sound of people laughing and glasses clinking with ice. The guests were integrated. As many Europeans as Africans were enjoying a full-blown party.”

Maya goes on. “I wandered from group to group….I passed an open door where people stood along the wall, careful not to step on the beautiful Oriental rug in the center of the room.” On seeing this, Maya recalled knowing a woman in Egypt “who would not allow her servants to walk on the rugs”, and “Samia plummeted in my estimation. Obviously she had informed her guests that she would not look favorably on them if they stepped on her rug.”

Filled with indignation, Maya tells us that she walked across the room “stepping on the rug for or five times” while the “guests who were bunched up on the sidelines smiled at me weakly.”

Sometime later, “two maids came and rolled up the rug I had walked on and took it away. They returned immediately with another as equally beautiful. They spread it”, and “Then they put glasses on the carpet and huge serving spoons, and folded napkins and silverware, wine and pitchers of water. Finally a bowl of steaming rice and chicken was placed on the carpet.” Samia and her husband called everyone for the meal announcing that it was in honour of “our sister from America.”

Maya sat down with the other guests. “My face and neck burned….Clever and so proper Maya Angelou, I had walked up and down over the tablecloth.”

Maya’s life-lesson for her daughters — indeed for all of us: “In an unfamilar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions, or lessons.”

One of the many nuggets from Harper Lee’s father-children conversations that make up the heart of “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

“You see, you never really understand a person until you have considered things from his point of view….Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Peace 😊

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