I spent a fascinating day yesterday in China. Or as close to being in China as I am likely to come in the foreseeable future. I am speaking of Flushing, Queens, New York City's newest and perhaps largest China Town. My tourist day began with a sumptuous dim sum feast shared with friends, followed by a sightseeing ramble with Trinh acting as our insider guide. During the course of the day we were privy to participate in a slice of daily life in a completely foreign culture --an experience at least as tasty as the dim sum.
From an early age, my greatest interest has been to explore the myriad ways that different people have developed to live and celebrate their lives. Little did my father realize that when he dropped us off at Temple Sunday School every week, that I would see my younger brother to his classroom, and then split the building and go to church. Every Sunday I would choose a different denomination to attend. It wasn't that I was particularly interested in becoming Christian. It was simply my way of traveling. I was a senior in high school and I wanted to see as much as I could of what the world had to offer. I am still fascinated by the dizzy panoply of secular and spiritual permutations and practices to explore. I collect beliefs, traditions and holidays as some folks collect matchbooks, recipes or CD's.
Humankind has developed an extraordinary range of belief and practice over time. We all have much to learn from each other, and much to teach, as well. When we feel that our own culture is lacking in meaningful ritual for our own life and times, we might be tempted to adopt or emulate another tradition. But no matter how interesting, enlightening and inspiring we find another culture, we can't just put on the entire ceremonial way of others whole cloth as if it were a costume. Imitation, in this case, without serious study or permission, is the ultimate form not of flattery but of disrespect. It is never appropriate to expropriate.
Yet we live on a small planet and our world is becoming ever more intimately interconnected by transportation, trade, telecommunication, multimedia and computer networks. As peoples and cultures meet and mix they tend to blend. This cross-fertilization based on interrelationship results in an authentic ritual evolution which produces completely new, yet uniquely appropriate custom. Today we are all spiritual mixed breeds to some extent, tapping our toes to the same integrated world beat.
In the process of living our lives, we all develop our own personal traditions, which may augment or replace entirely the religious traditions of our heritage. We each create idiosyncratic ceremonial expressions, which reflect our ancestry, our personal history, our particular temperament; our experience, our preference, our needs and our own quirky take on life. We repeat what we like, drop what we don't. By incorporating what is truly meaningful to us, we take a tradition and make it our own.
Thanksgiving is a perfect example. It is the great All-American adaptable ritual. The menu is always identical, but for that one out-of-place-item which expresses a certain regional, ethnic or cultural taste. I learned this delicious fact first hand during the many Thanksgiving dinners that I have been privileged to share with families across the United States. The Donatello family feast featured turkey and all the trimmings and lasagna. The Quans served turkey, all the trimmings and white rice. The Castros added yellow rice and beans. The Robinson clan had turkey and all the trimmings and macaroni and cheese and collard greens.
Diversity is the great strength of the human race. And it behooves us to avail ourselves of its richness. Don't stand on ceremony -- savor it! Start by exploring your own community as if you were on a grand tour around the world. Talk to the elders who remember the old traditions; talk to neighbors, shopkeepers and strangers. Attend folk festivals, educational programs, and multicultural events. Visit a variety of ethnic stores, restaurants, museums and places of worship. Sample the rich smorgasbord of foods, music, dance, literature and philosophy, which surround you. And, exactly as if you were traveling abroad, if you are sincerely interested and polite, friendly and respectful, you will be welcomed and treated as an honored guest wherever you go.