The Imperative of Interculturalism

by Robert Kelz, Associate Director of International and Global Studies and Associate Professor of German, The University of Memphis

When the Department Chair of World Languages and Literatures approached me about becoming Associate Director of International and Global Studies six years ago, I knew little about this area of study. Nonetheless, he and the IGS director insisted that it dovetailed with my academic interests, so I took their advice. I am glad they were persuasive because I can hardly imagine my career without the students and colleagues I have met through our program.

Diversity in flux

My background in International Studies begins with my upbringing in Jackson Heights, Queens, reportedly the most diverse zip code in the USA. The daughter of Italian immigrants, my mom had known this neighborhood as a bilingual bastion of Sicilian heritage (although, for fear of mafia stigma, my grandparents never taught her Italian). During my own childhood, the Catholic church where my mom had taken her first communion advertised services in English, Tagalog, Spanish, and Chinese. Many of my friends in the local t-ball league were orthodox Jews, and today Jackson Heights is known for its Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi populations. The only constant amid these incessantly shifting constellations of race, religion, and language is diversity itself.

Then, when I was eleven years old, my family abruptly moved to Dorset, VT, and I found myself living in a village with fewer inhabitants than our block of flats in New York. Yet, I stayed immersed in cultural diversity by avidly reading world literature. In high school, I finally had the chance to learn a foreign language and chose German to read my favorite authors in their native tongue (a schoolboy crush on Nena, the singer of “99 Luftballons,” may also have been a motivator).

When my parents limited my university options to “east of the Mississippi River,” I chose Tulane because New Orleans was the farthest I could go. I studied my junior year in Hamburg, Germany, and have never looked back. If spending a full year somewhere counts as living there, I have since resided in Germany, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Nicaragua. I took many missteps along the way, such as moving to Barcelona to learn Spanish and then discovering that this city’s first language is Catalan; studying Spanish to escape cold weather in Germany and, in consequence, spending northern hemisphere summers researching in Argentina, where of course it then is winter; and even receiving an unwanted smooch by a middle-aged salesperson in Hamburg, because I had confused the word for pillow, Kissen, with to kiss, küssen.  But there are valuable lessons in the ironic affections of grizzled German men, encapsulated by the philologist Ottmar Ette’s neologism ZusammenLebenswissen—knowledge for living together.

ZusammenLebenswissen—knowledge for living together

I have written books in English and Spanish, and am currently scrutinizing archival sources in Yiddish and Portuguese to draft a manuscript in German, but undoubtedly, the most instructive instance of ZusammenLebenswissen in my life occurred during a Patagonian road trip. After months of pouring over German newspapers in the damp basement of the Argentine national library, I bought a tent, rented a car, and drove south. One evening weeks later, I pitched my tent near a ranch in the pampas and took a stroll to stretch my legs and stargaze. I had walked about a mile when I saw flashing blue lights approaching. In a blur, I was handcuffed and detained at gunpoint in the police car, accused of cattle rustling. My pleas of innocence only enraged the officers, and visions of Patagonian jail cells filled my brain. Struggling to change the dynamics of the confrontation, I desperately blurted out that as a US-American the Patagonian night sky was a wondrous sight. Surely, they scoffed, we also had stars in the USA. “Yes,” I responded, “but we have different stars. We have no Southern Cross, no Dagger. “You have no Southern Cross?!” “Well, we have the Big Dipper.” “What the @#$%&! is the Big Dipper!?” they countered, their belligerence now tinged with curiosity. Suddenly, miraculously, we began comparing celestial bodies in the southern and northern hemispheres. This somehow led to a discussion about why soccer was not the passion of US-American sports fans and, before I could quite literally thank my lucky stars, they removed my handcuffs and invited me to set up my tent outside the local police station. We spent the rest of the night at the precinct drinking yerba mate, deep in conversation about lo divino y lo humano. The next morning, one of my accusers even hitched a ride with me to a nearby town. We still chat occasionally on Whatsapp. It was a lesson, albeit a terrifying one, on the possibility to find common ground even with the most daunting interlocutors.

Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl—the feeling of belonging together

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic manifests another big German word: Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl. All nations are in this emergency together. Perhaps never has the potency of global connectivity been so clear. The virus underscores the imperative of internationalism because, collaboratively, we can find ways to bear and surmount this blight. A friend in Abruzzo has taught me to practice yoga in quarantine, a cop in Berlin admonished me back in February to buy toilet paper and, hopefully, virologists across the world will develop treatments to protect us from the disease. Although most of us in International and Global Studies will not contribute directly to this medical endeavor, our interdisciplinary approach to exploring disparate cultures remains vital. If we can learn to think globally, communicate beyond borders, and embrace our differences as opportunities, we will break paths to intercultural understanding and better position ourselves both to thwart future crises and maximize our inexorably interconnected lives. A student recently told me that diversity is the greatest, most resilient gift. Her perspective pinpoints a place to start.




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