Je ne suis pas Charlie, mais je pleure pour lui

The vicious attacks in Paris are no doubt in many of our minds.

The United States military is drawing down from Afghanistan this very moment. The military already withdrew from Iraq although small numbers are returning in response to ISIL. The United States combat against terrorism, at least on the front page, is dying.

So this attack feels fresh, feels like a strike back when we subconsciously thought the worst was over.

Nothing condones an attack like this at anyone. And nothing justifies the premature violent deaths of these people in Paris. None of those people deserved that.

We all see this as an onslaught to freedom of speech.

Charlie Hedbo depicts an underlying sentiment most people of minority races have experienced: a growing xenophobia in Europe, especially against Muslim immigrant populations. Heck, *I* as an ethnic Asian experienced it. I lost count of the number of times I see people physically relax once I start talking and they realize I am an American, not their assumed perception of “another of those Asian immigrants.” I experienced people’s hostility thawing at that latter discovery. They don’t even hide it.

Europe, especially France, see growing numbers of Muslims in their borders. Look at the reluctance and resistance to admitting Turkey into the EU. Turkey is far more populous, and Muslim, dramatically changing the demographics and shift of majorities in Europe. France’s coping mechanisms, in my opinion, are faulty. The French are famous for their  “if you want to live in France, you are French and act French” integration attitude. But banning the hijab (head coverings for women) is going too far. Sarkozy went as far as to propose legislation banning the burqa. While the bans in schools against the hijab has been at least broadened to include “large” religious items from all religions (large crosses and the Jewish yarmulks), Sarkozy’s proposal specifically targeted Muslims.

Islam is loosing a popularity contest in the modern Western world. There is no question that Islamic radicalism has been a serious threat to the world. But the tendency to lump almost a quarter of the world’s population with the terrorist elements is unfair and simply discriminatory. What a sad turn in history. The Ottoman Empire once exemplified learning, tolerance, and advancement far beyond anything seen in the European Renaissance, with probably the exception of Da Vinci’s genius. The Crusades were arguably Christian attacks on the Muslim world, for the sake of access to symbolic land.

It breaks my heart to see the Muslim community face the vitriol thrown blindly at their direction. All my travels, hands down, I found the Muslim communities to be some of the warmest hosts. Me, a lone female without my male relative to drive me around. I was welcomed into so many humble homes, fed so much delicious food, patted and hen-pecked as if I were on of their own.

Europe is standing tenuously on a tightrope. Peace and tolerance. Or racism and xenophobia. The very secularism France pride themselves in allows for both equality and discrimination.

The attacks are devastating, cruel, and so wrong. As many of us who understand the violation that comes from being attacked- US, UK, Spain, India, Indonesia, Canada- anger is a natural and appropriate reaction. However, the danger of directing that anger towards the closest Muslim in sight threatens a fragile balance of tolerance.  Our countries thrive because we believe in process, justice, and fairness. Letting the anger engulf us and descend to racial and religious hatred sets us backwards, and makes us become the very people that attacked us- vicious, narrow-minded, and driven by hatred.

So I cry for Charlie. The perpetrators must be caught and brought to justice.  Families have lost their loved ones needlessly and they are owed closure. But I am not Charlie. I don’t subscribe to his sense of humor. We need to face the facts. Charlie Hedbo published obscene offensive provocative deliberate cartoons. And the volume of those cartoons of late had been targeted viciously at Islam. This fact does in no way justify the attack. The violence is simply not defensible. Now do I even suggest the victims “earned” it; they are the victims. But this fact needs to be taken into account as we, the public, react and lash back. As the saying goes: with freedom of speech, comes great responsibility. And in this time, I need to rise above, do my part, to endeavor to live what I believe- honor, respect, and tolerance for our fellow mankind. That is what makes our society thrive.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it
~ Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in “Voltaire”

Tales of the Wanderlust Daughter: Nice

I started this series last year. It was born from sharing some stories with my mother to show how I encounter so much kindness and care, especially as a lone female traveller.

I have seemed to rid of my writer’s block and wanted to revisit the memory lane with these stories. Furthermore, having recently experienced some bad, I needed to reassure myself and many travellers out there, that I had experienced the goodness of humanity and those far outnumber the evil.

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I’ve been traveling all my life.. my first flight taken when I was a mere three months old. Of course I wasn’t aware of it, but I have a sneaking suspicion my mother remembers it to great detail.

My first truly independent trips were taken a the end of college, when I set of on my version of the “Grand Tour,” designed under the auspices of an independent study abroad itinerary. Looking back, I realize now how naive I was. I was confident, armed with recently learned languages, in what would be a modernized Western Europe compared to the emerging Asian countries I grew up exposed to.

My first destination was a language school in Nice, where I did a home stay. My school mates were diverse, mostly students studying hospitality and travel and taking the summer to immerse and become fluent in French. It wasn’t a large university program that American kids tend to participate in groups together. I was one of three Americans in the whole school of about 50.

The students I bonded the most were an eclectic group: two Germans, an Austrian, one Colombian, one Mexican. Yes, they had their own languages they could communicate with one another. As true to any language program, we never spoke French to one another. The boys wanted to practise their English, calling it killing two birds with a stone in their language proficiency.

Our program scheduled went over the 4th of July. The boys insisted we go out to the beach, break open a bottle of wine to celebrate on my behalf. How can I turn them down?

We were sitting on the pebbly beach of Nice, enjoying the evening breeze when we heard commotion behind us. Standing up and scanning out of curiosity, the commotion approached us. A group of thugs in their mid-twenties were marching around with a pipes and sticks in their hands, demanding with tangible hostility at everyone “Les Américains? Où sont les Américains? You, from America??”

When they approached us, my friends formed an instinctive circle around me. I never could recall, in the darkness, whether the gang ever glanced at me. I am of Asian ethnicity, an advantage especially in that moment. One of the boys stepped up, quite literally, to answer the questions from the gang when they came us. The rest of the guys backed up, forcing me back behind them. But we all had accents in our French, and the ring leader of the gang kept challenging our guy, a Colombian.

After what felt like an eternity, the gang moved on, in search for victims. They weren’t mollified, just satisfied that we weren’t enough targets for them.

Looking back.. when I related that story in the pre- September 11th days, even shortly after, a lot of my American audience would get indignant and puff up and stated I should have yelled back in their face and been proud of my nationality. Arguing with those statements was futile. I learned that night what it meant to put my attitude and pride aside and to avoid trouble.

More importantly, I learned, even at our young ages from 18-22, my new found friends knew to look out for one another. We never knew what the gang was up to, but their menacing body language told us the threat was real enough to be taken seriously. I didn’t even have to say anything and I didn’t even have a chance to; the boys instinctively physically shielded me from the gang. That was the beginning of the program, less than 10 days in.. we were inseparable for the entire month.

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Other posts in this series:
Italy
South Dakota

Year in Review: 2012

I put one of these slide shows each New Year’s (see 2011, 2010).. but with this week’s Photo Challenge topic, I’ve decided to publish this year’s a few days early.

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As you can see, I had a fantastic year. Hope you all did to, and that 2013 would be a continuation of a wonderful adventure.

Remembrance Day at American Cemetery on Normandy Beach

I suppose if I were ever to make one, this is as close to a pilgrimage I’ve ever made, to the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Living in DC, I had the Arlington Cemetery literally at my doorstep. But, Normandy? It’s not an easy trip from most Americans to make, let alone time with a milestone date like Remembrance Day (Veteran’s for us).

The day before was a slew of miserable cold rain. But if living in the UK has taught me anything, it is that this morning will be started with a thick mist. How splendid a photo that would make! So I’ll make an early morning of it. Except I found myself facing a closed gate with a sign that read “0900 – 1700”. Blimey. At quarter to, they let us in. Guess that security camera is there for something.

There was a small ceremony held early in the day. Very small. Four men bore flags, and a gaggle of local dignitaries came in to present bouquets to the memorial. Inspection later showed each bouquet represented a local village as their thanks for the American soldiers.

I am overwhelmed by the sheer mass of graves. Cross after cross. Names etched but barely visible unless given closer inspection.  A few stars of David scattered for those acknowledged to be Jewish. Plots went up through J. I walked though, venturing onto the lawns by the tombstones. Most people stayed on the main pathways. To me, many of these graves barely see visitors as it is harder for their loved ones to visit. Walking between the graves, reading the names aloud as I go, that was my respect, my honoring all the men who never made it home.

The cemetery had a paved walkway to the beach, the very stretch these men lost their lives for. It actually took me a while to realize it, as I had been so focused on the graves and crosses, that the cemetery overlooked the channel. The clear day we ended up having, the water was so blue I almost didn’t see the dividing line of the horizon between the water and the sky. What a far cry from that fateful day it is today. The stroll we took to get to the beach must have been seeped with blood and fragments. The miserable stormy weather that caused General Eisenhower to agonize over whether to cancel invasion. According to witness accounts, bodies washed ashore for weeks.

The survivors, those who still live today, we see as grandfathers. They were so young then. They were- are- someone’s son, brother, and father. We honour them as heroes today. They were. The acts of courage and resolve it took to storm this beach in the face of such odds and with comrades being cut down left and right, many of us will not understand because we never had to be tested like this. Yet, how scared they must have been.

I have an extremely vivid imagination. I don’t need graphic movies like Saving Private Ryan to help me visualise how things may have gone down in history. I’m not a history or military strategy buff; I don’t read much about World War II and know little beyond what I was taught in high school American history class. Yet, I walked away shaking and sombre. It’s a wonder how the whole generation of men from the war returned home and were able to resume some semblance of a normal life. I have no doubt we lost unknown numbers to post-traumatic stress, an undiagnosed and unrecognized condition.

Hindsight allows us to label this the “good war,” with victory on our side and a just cause of ending the Holocaust. The reality is most people didn’t believe or were in denial of rumors of the Holocaust happening. I cannot imagine how any war happening would be considered by contemporaries as “good,” regardless of which “side” you are on. Walking around the cemetery like this, how can anyone not realize how much warfare costs us.

I am not a pacifist in the sense that I would think war is never right. But the empathy I have for our military family runs deeper than ever. Lest we ever forget what the men and women serving are sacrificing. Lest we ever  underestimate how much their families go through.

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