Unspoken Rules

DSC_5769The thing about travel is it takes you out of your normal context and thrusts you into a whirlwind of unknowns. The sites are in techno color and every sound is new to the ear. It’s exciting and yet there are times when the social construct becomes overwhelming and in the heat of the moment one finds a prejudice lurking in the dark corner. It rises out of the depth of the soul and lights fire to anything it touches.

This is a story of how when an unspoken rule is broken, it brings out the worst in all of us.

Recently we were up in Port Douglas, enjoying Four Mile Beach and decided to have lunch in town. We ended up on a little side lane with a number of food vendors to choose from. We walked up and down the street looking for something yummy and cheap to eat. The fella’s ended up with Meat Pies from the local bakery. And, Graciana and I ordered a Veggie Curry with Naan from a little Indian Cafe. The sidewalk was wide and all along the shops were tables, so we found one right outside the Indian cafe. An Indian couple served us while their two little daughters playfully danced around the tables. The couple wasn’t necessarily friendly, in fact they seemed a little bothered to even be there. None the less, the price was right and the food smelled amazing, so we paid and sat down outside their shop.
DSC_5972Craig and Banjo joined us with their pies and as we were waiting for our food we saw the infamous, Campbell the Bushman. We had met him two years ago at the Yackendanda Folk Festival (he’s a bit of an institution on the folk festival circuit.) He truly is a Bushman, carrying his tucker bag (backpack) and bed roll, roving the wild country and making his way from festival to festival to tell stories. He’s a large man with a bright smile but can be a bit intimidating if you don’t know who he is. I called him over, exclaiming “Uncle, so good to see you again, come sit with us.” He responded with a bright smile and joined us. We shared our food and drink with him and caught up on his travels across Australia. We learned that he was originally from South Australia and that he is part Irish, Part Maori and Part Aboriginal. As he and Craig were chatting I began to notice people around us. Mind you, Port Douglas isn’t for the average citizen but rather a tourist town for the wealthy. Everything is green and beautiful. The streets are clean and everyone has on their best garb. We even saw a young woman in a lovely dress and tiara. Not a dress up tiara, but a real one. There were fancy people and fancy cars all around us.
So, as we sat there I started to recognized the juxtaposition we were in, the four of us, looking a bit average with the homeless Campbell at our table. However, as I watched Campbell there was no shame in his gaze. He sat there with us chatting away like he belonged. It was refreshing and we took his lead. Sure, I noticed the energy from others who did not approve, could see it in their eyes and on their breath as they whispered our direction but it was as if we had a bubble of protection around us and we were free to enjoy the moment with our friend.
Then I noticed the Indian couple staring at us with an apprehensive stature. So, I went into the shop and with great enthusiasm, I let them know that Campbell was our friend, and that he was a famous story-teller! They were confused at first, but the more I spoke with excitement about Campbell, the more they smiled. Honestly, I don’t know if we even spoke the same language, or if they really understood what I was trying to tell them but it was lovely to see them smile.
I went back out to finish my meal, which by the way was fantastic. The Indian woman followed behind me with another table/chairs out for her customers. As soon as she went back inside, a blonde haired older woman sat at that table with her grandson. They had come up the street from the Bakery and were about to enjoy their meat pies, when the Indian woman come out and abruptly told the blonde lady that table was for her customers. The blonde lady was very bothered by the rebuke and shouted out, “So, are you asking me to move lady?” The Indian woman walked away and the bubble around us popped.
The Indian lady had made an effort to care for her customer and brought out an extra table and unfortunately the blonde lady crossed her unseen boundary. However, to the blonde lady it just sounded irrational because there were empty tables all around us. I turned to the blonde lady and kindly suggested that even if she just moved over one table it would appease the Indian lady and the conflict would be resolved. She answered, “I can’t even be bothered, what’s the point.” And with in a final effort to expel her rage she finished with, “this is what you get when things aren’t run by Australians!” I was flabbergasted and taken aback. I answered, “Yeah… No, that’s not right. That’s actually really rude.” and I wanted to add, you should be ashamed of yourself, but I chickened out.
I was up all night thinking about the interaction. How easy it is to sit in judgement! How does one go from smiles and lunch with a grandchild, to being asked to move and responding with a power thrust of hate?
It’s simple really, she broke an unwritten rule, crossed a cultural line and because she didn’t know about the rule ahead of time, spiraled into twisted thinking, becoming the victim and indignantly retaliated.
I know… because I’ve been dealing with it ever since we arrived in Australia. As an American, I don’t know all of the cultural norms here and so I find myself in situations where I break unwritten rules and feel rebuked much of the time. In some sense, it feels like I’m walking on egg shells, waiting for the next admonishment. And, when I fail, the anger that rises inside of me always catches me off guard.
For instance, we went to the movies a few days ago, I asked for a ticket and the young man at the register asked if I wanted front, middle or back seating. I was confused and asked him if they were assigned seats. He said yes and my heart deflated as the power to choose my own experience was stripped from me. I took my ticket and I walked reluctantly in to the theatre to find my seat. When I got there, I noticed that the screen was smaller than expected and the seat he assigned me was to far away. I looked around and saw an empty seat a few rows down so I moved. However everyone else was happy to follow the rule and I soon found myself being asked to move, as the seats belonged to another. Anger rose, my thinking inflated and I exclaimed to those close enough to hear what I though of the silly rule! I took another look around and assessed that there was plenty of empty seats but the question became, do I move back to my assigned seat or take the risk and try again? I went for the risk and looked for a more attractive empty seat, which ended up being open to me. However, once I sat down, the embarrassment from the previous move rose and more anger settled on me. Just under my breath, I mumbled, “stupid Australians, always following the rules.” Ugh! What a jerk am I! As soon as it came out of my mouth I knew I was in for a smack down! (aka. a lesson.)
So here is what I’m learning, in some of the most beautiful setting by the way, I’m learning, what I already knew, that we all have clay feet. Me, Campbell, the Indian couple, the blonde grandma, the clerk at the movie theater, the person who’s seat I took, we are all made of the same mud, we all struggle with a deep need for grace. Human nature is to self protect, to find favor and position by putting others down and feeling good about one’s self, feeling in control trumps whatever rules we find unworthy or in our way. I’m not convinced it’s something we can curb on our own by white knuckling our way through. Hoping that the next time around we do better. Here’s the thing though, I do believe we can be healed from it, just as the Psalmist writes “create in me a pure heart, Oh God. And, renew a right spirit within me.”
As we travel, this is my longing, that my mind be made new. God helping me: I want to take my everyday, ordinary life, whether nomadic or not— sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. I don’t want become so well-adjusted to my culture that I fit into it without even thinking. Instead, I’ll fix my attention on God. And as the ancient text says, I’ll be changed from the inside out! For that is where the change must happen, on the inside.