Learning to accept, appreciate one another
I am a people person. Being born in Ireland, and still having an accent, I constantly get a smile when I talk, even if the recipient of my conversation has no idea what I have actually said.
My background is different from the majority of my circle of friends and acquaintances. The culture of the country that formed me is different from the one that has accepted me so readily. What if the country that formed me was the exact opposite culturally? What if I had been born black, brown or yellow, and in a non-English speaking country, and am a responsible follower of an unpopular religion? Would I have been accepted so easily?
I was born and lived in Northern Ireland for over 30 years. My home country accounts for approximately 17% of Ireland, and sits at the top northeast corner of that precious island. It has its own government and members who represent Northern Ireland in the British Parliament.
My birthplace is separated from the rest of Ireland by a wall-less border drawing a thin line between the two countries. It is not quite the Berlin Wall, but has historically been equally contentious. After the European Common Market was formed, the border was no longer an issue, but now with Brexit?
Religious difference was a significant issue in Northern Ireland. Being Northern Irish, if I am a Protestant, I am expected to consider myself British and definitely not Irish. For the Northern Irish Catholic population, the reverse is true. English folk generally found this rather boring and irrelevant and so did not differentiate between the inhabitants either north or south of the border, Catholic or Protestant, simply considering them all as "Irish," and by some, sadly, of a different social "class."
So being a Northern Protestant, I "must" be British and hate the Irish. I also was supposed to be offended by English people who "demeaned" me by considering me "Irish." I never did fit this profile that describes an impossible cultural cliché.
I had an interesting experience when I was 17, working as an apprentice with a work crew in Northern Ireland. I worked with them for several months and could not understand why they were being hostile and abusive toward me. I later found out the reason from one of the group who got to know me better. Because I had not been joining in with their normal "hate" rhetoric, they concluded that I was Catholic and treated me accordingly.
Southern Irish citizens are completely confused and cautious about these "mad" northern Irish Protestants living and participating in the Irish troubles. During our seven years in Dublin, we were accepted with open arms and it was one of the best experiences of our lives. However, even living in Dublin, which is a very liberal and welcoming city, my two boys, as members of the Boys Brigade, experienced sectarianism. When their brigade marched through the streets to some event, some of the younger onlookers spat on them. In Ireland, the BB was considered a very Protestant, and English, organization.
These experiences were isolated and rare, but none the less traumatic. Through these experiences I have reflected that while I have always been the same person, I was treated differently depending on how I was perceived or labeled. This experience taught me to be cautious about judging other people until I had had the time and opportunity to get to know them better. Not to accept the bias and discrimination so frequently applied, based on culture, ethnicity, color or religious cliché.
My life has been enriched by things I have learned from people with entirely different life experiences, who trusted me enough to share their perspective of life. Having come from different countries, with different beliefs, looks and behaviors, they saw the world from a completely different place. By being open to all of these differences, some subtle and some not, there is the opportunity for significant growth in perception and awareness.
Now I live in America, in Oregon, and have done so for 30-plus years. It has been a wonderful experience being immersed in a significantly different culture. As Sir Winston Churchill expressed it, "Two countries separated by a common language."
The world is full of pleasant surprises if we allow ourselves the opportunity to look, listen and learn with an open mind.
Roy Houston is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.
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