Prejudice, bias, and practically any word ending in “ism” can sneak into our lives, hide in the darkness of our subconscious, and influence our beliefs and actions. At least, they have entered into my life. Yesterday, during a pleasant day in the park, I had a moment that shone the light on my own prejudice against Pakistanis, Pakistani Men, Pakistani Muslim Men to be specific.
I was strolling through the Vihara Maha Devi Park in downtown Colombo. It was a beautiful sunny, not too hot, day. The park’s sidewalks are lined with trees and the lawn filled with massive trees providing lots of shade. I saw many couples holding hands, laughing, or snuggling together under a tree (…oops, I don’t think I was supposed to see that last one). Do you see the picture of a perfectly peaceful day? Yes? Good; you have the right scene in mind.
But, I was tired; I had cramps; and my main objective was to find a tree where I could take a nap underneath its shade. I spotted some nap-potential trees on the side of the park. As I was crossing the main sidewalk to get to these trees, two men approached me. One asked me whether he could take a photo with me. Having been in a couple of Asian countries now and realizing that this was not unusual, and assuming these are Sri Lankan or Indian men, I smiled and said “of course”. We took one photograph with the guy causally having his arm around my shoulder in a similar way you would see any group of Americans take a photograph together.
After the photograph, he shook my hand and asked for my name. I asked for his name. He said his name and added that he and his friend are from Pakistan and they are Muslim. I smiled but underneath the smile, I felt my guard go off.
- Don’t Pakistanis hate Americans?
- Don’t they want to kill us?
- Don’t they cheer in the streets when Americans are killed?
- Don’t Pakistani Men treat women poorly?
- Aren’t Pakistani Muslim Men terrorists?
- Did I just take a photograph with a terrorist?
- Is my photograph going to be used in some radical Muslim propaganda?
All of these thoughts jumped in my mind in less than a second.
As I was processing these thoughts and trying to be polite, he asked if he could take one more photograph with me. He quickly posed with me but this time, he pulled his face very close to mine so that the side of his cheek was almost touching mine. I did not see this second photograph but I bet my eyes gave a very cautious, guarded, and uncertain look.
This time, in addition to the all the other thoughts, I was alarmed that he got so close into my personal space. This was not typical. I quickly said my good-byes, wished them well, and went on my way in search of my napping spot.
I found my tree. The grass under it was soft and not too long. I sat down, took my laptop out of my bag, and then used my bag as a blanket to sit on. I was just about to close my eyes when I saw the two Pakistani Muslim Men walking toward me. Yes, this is how I defined them to myself – Pakistani Muslim Men – as they were cutting across the lawn and heading toward me.
Ugh…I did not want to socialize. I did not have the energy to be gracious and kind; I wanted to sleep. Although I never had an inner alarm go off as to my safety (this particular park is maintained by the Sri Lankan military and is very open and safe), I was annoyed and not completely sure of the situation. Do I sit in a closed-eye meditation so they walk by? But, do I want to have my eyes closed as two Pakistani Muslim Men walk by me? I kept my eyes open. They came and sat down next to me.
As they were sitting down, at a respectable, personal-space-appropriate distance, I saw how my attitude had changed towards these two men after I realized they were Pakistani Muslim Men. When I thought these men were from Sri Lanka or India, I was very open and happy to take a photograph with them. When I learned they were from Pakistan, I became very guarded and wanted to get away as quickly as possible. I judged them based on my limited knowledge of Pakistan, which is based on how they are presented in American media. All the questions that flew through my head in the second of learning they were Pakistani Muslim Men scrolled through my mind again. This time, I questioned the questions.
I realized the prejudice in these questions and I did not want to be driven by prejudice, bias, or fear. If as an individual I could not stop the prejudice, how could I expect others, countries and systems to do so? Stated more boldly, if I could let go of my prejudice and build a connection of peace, couldn’t others, countries and systems also do so. I had a chance at building peace! Why would I want to miss this chance?
To shift from and reset this prejudice, I did the only thing I could think of: A Loving Kindness Meditation.
As the two men continued talking, I said this meditation to myself. When I was done, I looked at them with fresh eyes, gave a genuine smile, and was eager to learn more about them and their culture. And, this my friends, is when the conversation got interesting and filled with kindness.
Even with their broken English, we had a very engaging conversation. There were gaps in communication but overall we were able to understand each other. Through this, I no longer saw them as Pakistani Muslim Possible Terrorist Men but as potential friends — the one who took his photograph with me (“Photo Brother”) and the one who took our photos (“Photographer Friend”).
- They are both seeking asylum protection and working with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and trying to find countries to accept them. They left their home due to the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.
- My Photo Brother has 5 siblings. His older brother was living in Germany. He has a cousin living in Belgium. They asked about my family. I shared that I had sisters and that we were all very close. They asked if I was married. I lied and said yes. (A lot of travel guides for solo women travelers encourage this lie for our individual safety. Still thinking of the too-close-to-my-face photo, I felt comfortable with this lie.)
- I shared that I am from Ohio and pointed on a pretend map in the air where New York is, where California is, and where Ohio is. I shared that I have been traveling and have recently visited India, Thailand, Singapore, and Sri Lanka.
- My Photographer Friend shared how they heard that an Afghanistan man was shot in the head in front of his family by an American police officer. I did not know how to respond. I wished I could say that could never happen in America; but, I knew I could not – and this made me sad for my country. I muddled through some questions.
- I told them that most Americans and American police officers are kind and good people who would not want to harm them. I told them to be safe, no fast movements around police officers, do not put hands in your pockets, and something that I hope came out as “being kind is the best way to receive kindness”. But I probably jumbled all of this a bit because as I was talking, my mind was also caught up in the hamster wheel of thought: anti-Muslim rhetoric spoken by some in the U.S., anti-Christian and anti-Western rhetoric spoken by some radical Muslim extremists, and the Orlando shooting. Round and round these thoughts whirled around my mind. My message of kindness is what I would say to all sides of these issues.
- Instead of ignoring my initial prejudices, I shared with them that in our American news, we are shown that Pakistani people do not like Americans and rejoice when we are killed. I added that I imagine that your news may share show that Americans do not like you and want harm for you. I told them that I did not feel that way about them and that I wished them only well, peace and happiness. They smiled and shared the same with me.
- My Photographer Friend explained that many Muslims do not like “your prime minister, I mean, your President Obama”. I explained that some of President Obama’s opponents back in the U.S do not like him because they say he is too supportive of Muslims and they think he is secretly a Muslim. They were truly confused by this.
- They explained that as single Muslim men they are having a difficult time getting refugee status. My Photo Brother showed me his letter from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, which verified his asylum seeking efforts and encouraged all those who come across this man to be kind. He explained that he had a sponsor in New York, a close friend of his mother, but was not given the approval to go yet.
- They both said it was hard being in Sri Lankan. It was expensive and they were having a difficult time finding help. They were receiving some money from the UN but they were eager to find a place to call home where they could work.
- My Photo Brother wants work in the medical field. He is not a doctor but wanted to be trained in providing support to doctors and patients and serve as liaison between the two. My Photographer Friend said that he was tractor driver. At first, I thought this meant he was a farmer but then he added that to get his license in U.S. would cost $2,500 and he mimicked driving a big steering wheel. I think he meant tractor trailer truck driver.
- They both liked the beach in Colombo. They asked whether I liked the beach here, to which I said “yes, I love the beach!”
Our conversation probably lasted about 30 minutes. We sat in silence for a few minutes.
While I was able to reset the prejudice as to their nationality and religion, I still had some lingering gender concerns. For instance, in this silence, I was aware that I was wearing a skirt and felt uncomfortable knowing that some Muslim women cover up around men. They did not seem to mind. Actually, they did not seem to notice or pay attention to my legs whatsoever.
Then, as I got up to leave and say my good-byes, my Photo Brother called me sister and said “Sister, don’t go. This is where you wanted to rest, let us go.” I explained that it was okay and for them to enjoy the spot because I wanted to go shopping before meeting my friend later in the afternoon. And, you know what? I no longer felt tired; I was energized by our conversation.
Before leaving, I looked them both in the eye, bowed my head slightly with a namaste, and smiled as I told each of them that I wish them a very peaceful and prosperous life. I wished them good luck in their asylum efforts and new life, and that I hoped they have a good and happy life. I felt a genuine concern for their safety and well-being. As single Pakistani Muslim Men, they have a lot of prejudices to overcome. And then, I asked to take some photographs with them! Here I am with my new friends, two men who are from Pakistan and who are Muslim.