On the train to Winnipeg

In my first entry on this blog I tried to describe the beautiful train journey from Saskatchewan through Western Manitoba. The hours we spend on the train during this leg of the journey are particularly rich with conversation. In the thick of actively unpacking our experiences one of my fellow travellers makes the earnest claim that there is nothing wrong with asking people questions about themselves. Curiosity is a good thing, right? Isn’t it, after all, what makes us human? I feel compelled to challenge this premise. It occurs to me later that this is at least partly because I recognize that I once believed it myself, but have come to see things differently. Others challenge it too, but I find myself particularly fervent, on the edge of proselytizing.

What also occurs to me later is that I am living out our café scene, “Answerizing,” in From the Heart. Over the course of our group’s short time together I have seen a surprisingly large number of the scenes and songs from the script virtually reproduced in real life. I can only speculate that this confirms we were touching the pulse of some really critical issues in the show.

The conversation on the train prompts me to ask myself, when is it not appropriate to ask questions? I am certainly starting to recognize that asking a new acquaintance with different skin colour “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” may be intended as a gesture of interest, but is often a subtle, even unconscious way of my saying “What kind of not-white person are you?” There is a place for asking about this, but certainly not as a starting point. Beyond this top-of-the-list adjustment to relating to new acquaintances, I am learning about other, more nuanced reasons to rein in one’s questioning. For instance, I am considering whether my impulse to ask people right off the bat about personal and cultural stories and histories is actually founded in a need to redirect the conversation to me, as if I am looking to find something in that person’s life experience that gives me a chance to show that I know something about them because I have a story that is connected to their lives. So how do we think about approaching these encounters in a different way? There is a Yiddish word mensch that means man, but implies a good man. For me, when you are talking with a mensch you feel without a doubt that he considers you to be the most valued and important person he could be talking to right at that moment. A mensch doesn’t pepper you with questions like a reporter for the benefit of his learning and his ability to identify how you fit into his world. He is present with you in the spirit of building and honouring your mutual relationship at a pace that suits you. Perhaps you feel at ease sharing something about yourself, but that’s because he makes you feel seen. If a mensch does ask questions about your personal or cultural stories, it will be because you have established a relationship of mutual interest. Could this offer some clues for how settlers can think about our relationships with Indigenous people?

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