By Seung Chan Lim: 2006 was a significant year for me. It was not only the year that I turned 29 (as in just about to hit the 3-0), but it was also the year that planted the seeds that would eventually put me at this scary place I am at right now.
One of the things that happened that year was that I attended a small art panel in downtown Pittsburgh. It was a totally unexpected thing for me to do because of the attitude I had back then toward "art." To put it bluntly, I equated art with BS. I had very little respect for artists in general, and the word "art" was just fluffy, fuzzy, and meaningless.
Writing that last sentence leaves me physically uncomfortable now, because my ignorance is so obvious in hindsight. But back then I was absolutely certain about that feeling. If attending this small obscure art panel could have been expected, it would have been to prove that art was BS. But even that was not why I was there.
The reason I was there was a highly irrational reaction to a phrase I read the day before: "Do one thing every day that scares you." This was a transitional period in my life, where everything I had believed in had come into question, so that phrase struck a chord with me. After reading it, I happened to see a note about a panel discussion in a downtown art gallery, where artists would be facilitating a discussion on racism. It seemed like a random lil event, but that randomness -- and the idea of meeting strangers in a panel setting -- was, well, scary. :) So I had to do it.
The art panel turned out to be very very small. There were maybe 15 people in the entire space. After a long awkward period of browsing nonsensical paintings around the gallery, we were asked to sit in the main hall of the gallery. We then split into three groups of 5 to start the discussion around the topic of racism. I had my share of stuff to say as I have experienced this in the U.S. myself, so I was quite eager to pitch in. But then as I sat there listening to one person after another sharing their stories of how they experienced racism, and why they found it unjust, etc... I noticed a pattern. Each one of them not only shared what had happened to them, but when they got down to the bottom of their feelings, they divulged the fact that it has effected their daily lives by filling it with fear. That because something heinous had happened to them once, they had come to believe that they can indeed happen again. And this fear was preventing them from questioning the strong belief they had developed as a result.
This was a huge smack on my own head, and it became very clear to me at that moment that I have also been living a life of fear. And this fear resulting from having experienced a heinous act of hate by others, had deeply seeded a sense of fear in me, which has essentially turned me into yet another hater not much better than those who had acted badly toward me.
I've experienced two horrible incidents on the street. Once in Seoul and once in Beijing. Both times all I did was look at someone in the eye and say "hello". But what happened afterwards was that they got very angry and wanted to beat me up. Well, run like hell I did. After having gone through something like this a couple times (across culture, no less) I must have taken a mental note to myself that smiling and saying "hello" to strangers is probably not a good idea.
So, what I absolutely __loved__ about the "idea" of America (before I got here) was that people seem to say "hello" on the street and smile to each other. They say "good morning" as they enter their work place, they greet the door man, the guard, etc... At least that's what it looked like in the movies. I was fascinated! It seemed like such a wonderful place to be! So when I got to the U.S. I tried it out by smiling and saying "hello" to strangers on the street. And it didn't work! :( Many times people gave me the "who the hell are you?" look. So I quickly got very timid, and stopped doing it. It was bad enough that this was a new thing I was trying...
But what this discussion made me realize was that, the fact that I stopped trying, meant that I was discouraging others who might also be trying. To bring it back more closely to the realm of racism, if I saw a black man walking toward me downtown, even if I didn't have the racial prejudice of thinking he's bad news, I would still avoid eye contact because I have never had a positive experience greeting strangers on the street. But then he can very much take that as a racially prejudiced act, and be reaffirmed of the racism that still clearly exists in the world today. What just happened there? Nothing good. It only perpetuated fear. While I may have acted on my past negative experience of greeting people on the street, the result is reciprocal feeding of fear on both ends.
This really made me think again about how simple it can be to bring joy into our everyday lives. Not only our lives but of others. If we could just muster up the courage to smile and greet at the strangers we pass by on the street, I wonder how different the world would be?
Just that lil conscious act of courage, of trust. Nothing more. Nothing less. I think that would be an amazing act of design.
(The short film below describes these thoughts in more detail.)