In the crowded lunchroom of a Sri Lankan university, an older visiting American professor, wearing a white, collared shirt and black pants, is looking for a seat. He sees a group of young Buddhist monks, wearing saffron robes and with heads shaved. He asks if he can sit at their table. In a tone of indignation, a monk says, “No!” and waves him off. Surprised, since sharing tables is the norm in this lunchroom, the professor looks around for a place. At another table sits a group of young Muslim women, identifiable by headscarves, and engaged in animated conversation. Worried that this group might be uncomfortable about a request to sit down on their bench, the professor keeps looking for a spot, now seriously considering leaving the staff room of the cafeteria to go sit with undergraduates in their larger hall. Deference to rank means that students would certainly not deny a request to be seated at their table, so this seems the best option. The professor finds a spot and enjoys his lunch, smiling at the students of his table, but not really joining in their conversation.

Intercultural communication requires imagination. As I thought about approaching the group of Muslim women, I had to imagine their response, even though I didn’t really know what that might be. Perhaps they would have welcomed an opportunity to chat with a visiting American, but I thought their religion might make them uncomfortable having a male so closely in their midst. I used my limited understanding about gender separation in Islam to guess what might be the right move. Maybe I missed a chance to have a lively conversation; maybe I was courteous. Either way, I had to use my imagination.

The monks just pissed me off. Who do they think they are haughtily dismissing someone twice their age and higher in academic rank? Calming down a little later and putting my ego on the shelf, I tried to use my imagination, coupled with some cultural inquiry. I learned that monks in Sri Lanka normally don’t eat with laypeople, and that they are traditionally limited to two meals a day, which in ideal circumstances come from begging. These monks hadn’t begged for their lunch, but those cultural details lay in the background. I needed to use my imagination to understand why I’d been waved off. I needed to see things through the eyes of the monks, for whom my request must have seemed transgressive.

It’s hard to see things through someone else’s eyes, especially when that other person comes from a world that’s far, far away. The pressures of living abroad, of never quite knowing if we’re doing the right thing, help us develop a habit of trying to use our imagination to figure out what someone else might be thinking. But imagination alone isn’t quite adequate. For the Muslim women, I used some of my limited knowledge about Islam; for the Buddhist monks, I had to inquire about their perspective. That is, I had to have good will, but I also had to have some information.

My intercultural communication in the Sri Lankan lunchroom is defined by the spatial distance between my normal home and a university on the other side of the world. As a professional classicist, my most customary form of intercultural communication is defined more by time than by space. To read Euripides thoughtfully, I need to imagine the perspective of a world very far from my own. I don’t always do that very well; sometimes I think I know what Euripides is saying when I really don’t. Libraries are full of volumes written by scholars arguing about what he might actually be saying. Classicists are professionally obligated to use historical imagination for intercultural communication. Sometimes we do that pretty well; sometimes not so much.

To use historical imagination we need information (hence the volumes in the library), but we also need good will. Thomas Jefferson has been in the press on and off in recent years. The author of the Declaration of Independence held slaves and fathered children on at least one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. That makes for a confluence of racism and sexism that invites our condemnation. As moral folk of the 21st century, we should certainly reject the racism and sexism, but extending the condemnation to Jefferson himself, appealing as it may be, shows a lack of historical imagination, arising from a lack of good will and a lack of information. Moral perspectives have changed radically over the centuries. It was once considered morally obligatory for men of a certain class to engage in duels with pistols in cases of verbal insult; now that just seems silly. To impose the moral perspectives of the present upon prior centuries may be soothing to our sense of superiority, but it is a sign of a lack of historical imagination. Can’t I condemn Jefferson’s racism and sexism even as I admire his defense of liberty and his elegant prose style?

The book of Leviticus notoriously describes homosexuality as an “abomination” (18:22), and those who utterly lack historical imagination adduce this text as an argument for 21st-century discrimination against homosexuals. Some defenders of gay rights point to other opinions in Leviticus, like the statement that one who curses a parent should be killed (20:9). Such draconian laws, which few today would actually defend, might be taken as evidence that all the moral perspectives of Leviticus should be summarily dismissed. But that argument also shows a deficit of historical imagination. The book of Leviticus gives us a window into an ancient perspective. If we too readily embrace or reject that perspective, we miss an opportunity to understand the perspective itself. Leviticus is mostly a legal document showing the views of a priestly caste of Jews living in a multi-cultural world they see as threatening to their own cultural integrity. Modern readers might use this text to better understand the virtues and vices of preserving cultural identity in a world of diversity.

The students in the lunchroom eat with their hand. They have a sheet of paper, or a plate, with rice and several kinds of curry, each with its own sauce. They like to massage the rice into the various curries, creating a little cone of rice with many flavors, before lifting that to their mouths. Several students often eat from the same packet of lunch, or several students with different curries in their own packets will share, either distributing their own lunch to their friends, or reaching from another’s lunch to get a piece of tasty stewed fish or maybe a bit of cooked mango curry. There are several sinks in the lunchroom, and when you’re done eating, you take your curry-covered right hand to the sink to wash it clean. I’ve learned how to eat with my hand. At first, I was a little timid and thought that massaging the rice and curry into a mound was indecorous. But I learned that it makes for a tasty morsel that can be more easily transported to the mouth. I don’t reach for someone else’s curry, nor do I invite others to take some lunch from my plate. I’m not about to give up my own perspectives entirely; I am, after all, an older visiting American professor. Sometimes I get things wrong and offend my hosts. But I’ve learned some things about eating with the hand, and that required a little bit of good will and a little bit of information.

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