Every day is multicultural day at the Wallace House

The first time I watched Hotel Rwanda, on DVD, I sat on the couch for about an hour afterwards, sobbing, inconsolable. The second time I watched it, this past Thursday evening, I watched with (somehow) both greater investment and greater detachment. Usually, when I watch a film like this I have no trouble letting empathetic tears well in my eyes. But that's hard to do without feeling like a big fat faker when Thomas Kamilindi is sitting two feet away from you. As I've written in previous posts, Thomas is a Rwandan journalist who sought refuge at the Hotel Mille Collines. The on-screen Hollywood recreations of scenes of slaughter and genocide were things he experienced with his own eyes. The horror, the terror - all of it is no longer celluloid depictions but Thomas' actual life. It is simply unimaginable to me.

After the screening, we gathered somewhat awkardly around Thomas, who was seeing the film for the third time. "But every time," he said in his thick accent, "it is the same thing." What on earth do you say to someone who has lived through this? Apologizing - for what? and on behalf of whom? Americans? all humanity? - just isn't enough. Still, it was all I could manage. Later, I asked him how it was that he emerged from this without hatred for the United States. Perhaps I was looking to assuage my own guilt with such a query. He answered, "There is no point to be angry...What good would it do? It is late now. I can understand why we are not important to the Americans. Why should we be? It is late." And again, softly, "It is late."


We've been here only three weeks and already I'm feeling so much more aware. So much more conscious of the fiber of the world outside of St. Louis. Knowing Thomas has been a huge part of that as has learning about Turkey from Semiha, Argentina from Luis and South Korea from Min-Ah.

I've also learned a great deal about what journalists in the US take for granted from Vanessa Bauza, a Puerto Rico native who has been living in Cuba for the past four years reporting for the Miami Herald. It is, as one might imagine, an entirely different world there and doing what seems a straightforward job here is rendered infinitely more complex under the auspices of the Cuban government.

In a column she wrote just before coming to Ann Arbor, Vanessa discusses some of the things that have made her job difficult - political sensitivities, government intervention, the absence of freedom of information. It's not at all dissimilar in many ways to the conditions under which Thomas had to work in Rwanda and it makes you realize that the simple act of being able to pick up a phone and call a source - without worrying about who's listening or what consequences it will bring for you and your family - is something we can't just take for granted.

Now, let me get down off my soap box and continue with my tales of intercultural wonder. On Friday, I attended a fantastic session of a workshop sponsored by the U's Ginsberg Center for Community Service & Learning. The overall theme of the workshop was Learning from the Community and my afternoon session was about Listening & Communicating Across Cultural Lines.

The session was facilitated by Rudolfo Altamirano, Director of the International Center, University of Michigan, whose entertaining and endearing style drew us all into a highly interactive discussion about cultural cues. He talked a lot about styles of communication, including non-verbal communication, and it was a pretty applicable talk that got me wondering how our Argentinian, Turkish, Sout Korean, Australian and Rwandan fellows might interpret some of our gestures and habits. Good stuff. I'd like to see him come to the Wallace House to discuss such fascinating differences with the Fellows. (Hint, hint, for those in a position to "murmur" him....)