As a Bulgarian living in the United States, I was often aware that people found me interesting. Friends of friends I was introduced to would stick around just a little longer to find out how someone like me ended up there, ask about the language, which stirred curiosity with its non-Latin alphabet, or inquire about my country’s Communist past.
In London Bulgaria is less of a mystery. Although I still inspire some interest as an immigrant from the highly corrupt poor cousin someone reluctantly invited to the EU party, more often than not I find myself on the inquisitive end of curiosity.
Surrounded by young and industrious people from all over the world, my heart hungers for human stories different from mine. I am often the one asking, “so, what was that like?” and “is it true that…?” and “what did you think about that book written about your country?”
Sometimes people get excited, put down their drink and gesticulate away a story that educates me more than a textbook could, builds a bond between us and leaves us both better off. Those are some of my favorite conversations.
Other times, though, it feels like my question builds a wall upon which my conversation partner climbs, stands tall and proud and says, you won’t understand. The implication is that merely asking a question reveals a gap – of respect, of knowledge, of understanding – a gap so vast it’s no use trying to fill it. There is a hint of condescension and of stinginess, like saying, this knowledge is mine alone and you don’t deserve it.
Maybe it is partly a protective wall. Maybe some bricks are fear caused by having been misunderstood too many times, or bias nurtured through interactions with uncouth and disrespectful people.
In a similarly protective way, I have heard people preface their questions with, “this might be very ignorant of me” or “I really should know this.” I am quick to assure that that’s not necessary. Asking a well-meaning question deserves a well-meaning answer. Genuine curiosity should be rewarded, not discouraged.
We should be respectful of others’ heritage, no doubt, and careful to not reduce or simplify it, or willingly misrepresent it. There are too many people who aren’t and who do. But we should never stop asking questions of the people we are curious about for fear of being thought nosy or ignorant.
We should reward the ones around us for their curiosity and desire to understand us and the world better. We shouldn’t punish them for not knowing what happens behind closed doors where we come from. We should keep in mind that some aspects of our cultures we mastered through no achievement of our own but simply because other humans – parents, teachers, artists – invested their time in answering our questions before we even knew to ask them.
A culture is like a chest full of treasures and we should strive to open that chest often and share its contents generously with anyone who will have them because that’s the easiest way to help build understanding in the world.
I dearly hope that I was never condescending when an American asked me if we spoke Russian at home, apologetically explaining that the countries east of the Iron Curtain were bundled together in history class. What matters in these conversations is not how much knowledge you had to being with, but how much knowledge you gained. And what matters in these conversations is not how much knowledge you were holding on to, but how much knowledge you shared.