Rendahl: Hands Across Borders

My people settled near the border between the United States and Canada some 110-plus years ago. The International Peace Garden straddles the invisible line between North Dakota and Manitoba, and is filled with symbolic reminders of the friendship that exists between the neighbors. There’s a peace tower, peace poles in 28 different languages, floral displays of the national flags, reflective pools, a 14-bell chime, and a chapel with engraved messages of hope and peace all over the walls. As a result, my childhood notion of what a border looks like was markedly different than what is actually experienced around the world.

An Armenian once taught me not to shake hands across a border. He didn’t mean just those that exist between countries. He pointed out the boundaries that exist between people in everyday life—doorways, tables, even chairs.

An Armenian once taught me not to shake hands across a border. He didn’t mean just those that exist between countries. He pointed out the boundaries that exist between people in everyday life—doorways, tables, even chairs. “Someone must come to the opposite side to accommodate the other person,” he said. This was such an appealing tradition to me, and it’s one that I couldn’t shake now if I tried (no pun intended). Now, when meeting or greeting someone, it feels crass to offer my hand if there is anything between me and the other person. If for some reason I’m stuck between people at a table, I stand up as far as I’m able, lest they think I’m disinterested in their company.

The people of Botswana take this idea yet a step further. When shaking someone’s hand or exchanging an item, the expected etiquette is to support the extended arm with the opposite hand. This applies even if simply passing the salt across the table. Out of a tradition of respect, this is even more deliberate and rather ceremonial with elders. As the point of first interaction, it establishes recognition of the other person’s humanity and creates a welcoming environment for dialogue.

It’s interesting to consider the tenuous nature of the boundaries in our lives. Nearly 10 years ago, I picnicked with a group of Armenians in a buffer zone along the Turkish border. We talked, sang, fished, and cooked alongside the river that day. Two young soldiers came down the mountain on the Turkish side and ppzelov (crouching) they watched us silently for hours from just across the narrow river.

As the host local resident waxed eloquent about his Turkish neighbors and how we all need each other to make it on this earth, my heart was warmed. “Should we give some food to the soldiers? They’re probably hungry,” someone said, but time passed and the would-be gesture of goodwill was forgotten. Later, after imbibing in some homemade spirits, the host shot his rifle into the air for no apparent reason. “Oh boy,” I thought, “here we go.” But nothing else happened. We finished our meal, sang another song, and the day became a memory.

I visited the International Peace Garden with a 16-year-old Armenian guest about six years ago. We didn’t need passports to cross the border. I showed the border patrol agents a laminated card I’d made for Gor in case of an emergency during his stay. It contained just my contact information and the like. The agent took a look at me, at Gor, and at my retired parents, and decided we were an acceptable risk. “Just check back with me when you return,” he said. His shift was over when we crossed back a few hours later after seeing the sights and the obligatory placing of our feet in both countries at once. The other agents didn’t seem to need any explanation and just waved us back to the U.S.

Things have changed since days gone by. That area along the Armenian-Turkish border is no longer restricted to local residents. I visited it this past summer with a friend who has wonderful visions for some land he bought there. I’m told that the impetus for increasing freedom of movement there was that villagers complained about being unable to marry off their daughters. But today, Gor couldn’t go into the gardens—and I couldn’t cross into Canada—without a passport. We’ve taken a step back from our once welcoming gardens of peace. Perhaps there’s good reason, but it’s sad for me all the same. While the area along Armenia’s border opens up, our own becomes more tightly controlled.

The word for border in Armenian is the same as the word for boundary: sahman. The terminology seems insufficient, likening geographic borders to personal boundaries. My own boundaries must be dotted lines—permeable and subject to reorganization. In Armenia, especially, perfect strangers ask me all manner of questions that are none of their concern, even if they’re sincerely interested in my wellbeing. I am offered some kind of counsel every single day, whether or not it was solicited. It’s enough to make me want to pull my hair out some days.

But this seeming disregard for boundaries comes from the same root as something much more important. Friendship and hospitality pay little heed to boundaries. That is how I ended up in the home of an Armenian family in Damascus when I’d already been settled in a hotel room. That is how I’ve been on the receiving end of countless kindnesses from people around the world. And so, on this day after the Thanksgiving holiday, I am grateful for the gray space that straddles the divisions between people. The place where people take small risks for the sake of friendship.

—November 26, 2010

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Kristi Rendahl

Kristi Rendahl is associate professor and director of the nonprofit leadership program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Prior to starting with MSU in 2017, she worked for over 20 years with nongovernmental organizations on several continents, including living in Armenia from 1997-2002. She speaks Armenian and Spanish.
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8 Comments

  1. Glad you are here, Kristi.
    Your articles – refreshingly different from the usual political stuff (which we also love) – are much appreciated.
    Expands our perspective.

  2. Wonderful article. Thank you for writing about your experiences in Armenia. I particularly liked the Botswanan show of respect.
    I used to live in Canada across from the US border and it was very easy to go back and forth. Just a birth certificate would do if you were born in those two countries. This has changed now, although getting into Canada with a Canadian passport still easy and you’re welcomed with a smile.

  3. Delightful article, typical Kristi’s style, light, romantic and educational. Something for everyone to reflect upon and feel good. No medicine needed! Thanks Kristi for your past articles as well. Keep up the good work and God Bless.

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