Joe Lurie: Fostering intercultural understanding

Joe Lurie. Photo: Lori A. Cheung

Joe Lurie has spent most of his adult life interacting and engaging with other cultures and promoting cross-cultural understanding. As a young man, he served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, the beginning of his life of “intercultural encounters.”

For 20 years, Lurie was the executive director of the University of California’s International House, whose mission is to “foster intercultural respect and understanding for the promotion of a more peaceful world.” Since his retirement, Lurie has been a teacher, intercultural trainer, and consultant. In 2106, he published a book drawing together all he had learned about understanding – and misunderstanding – one another – in the book. Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures. 

Lurie will be discussing the book Jan. 14 at 3 p.m. at the North Berkeley Library. Berkeleyside caught up with Lurie to talk about his book.

You served as executive director of UC Berkeley’s International House at the top of Bancroft Avenue for 20 years. I-House, as you put it, is “one of the great multicultural institutions” in the world with close to 600 residents from 80 countries and 25 states. It is now a landmark in Berkeley, but when it was proposed in 1928, many were opposed to its construction. Why? What were they afraid of? What happened? How did it finally get built?


When the intended creation of International House Berkeley was announced to a segregated Berkeley in 1928, there was resistance to men and women living under one roof; hostility towards foreigners; and the notion that people of color would live with whites in an integrated setting was, to most, simply unthinkable. Many Berkeley landlords protested, fearing an influx of foreigners and a collapse of property values. There also was fear of miscegenation, then illegal in California. In 1929, at Berkeley’s Veterans’ Memorial Building,   approximately 1,000 people protested against racial integration in the proposed International House. Delilah Beasley, a Black reporter and columnist for the Oakland Tribune passionately defended the I-House concept to a disgruntled and disapproving audience.

I-House founder Harry Edmonds chose Piedmont Ave. for the building because it was the home of fraternities and sororities which then excluded foreigners and people of color. By proposing the site there, Edmonds wanted to strike bigotry and exclusiveness “right hard in the nose.”

The I-House in 1930 with a Model T parked outside. Photo: UC Berkeley

In August 1930, I-House opened, its construction supported by a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. In following years, I-House residents integrated the first fraternity at Cal and struck down restrictive covenants in the Berkeley Hills. During World War II, I-House was one of the very few institutions to oppose the internment of Japanese-Americans. And despite laws forbidding miscegenation in California, many of the first interracial marriages in the state were born at I-House.

What inspired you to write Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures? What is its main message?

With the acceleration of globalization, I saw increasing misperception across cultures. Without preparation and context, many cross-cultural misunderstandings can have confusing, even dangerous consequences.


For example, why did once-friendly Afghan soldiers attack their NATO partners? They’d unintentionally broken an Afghan taboo against inquiring about female relatives. Why do many refugees traumatized by violence find Western “talk therapy” alienating? As a Syrian refugee confided: “I can’t share my painful, humiliating stories with a stranger.” A South Sudanese refugee was diagnosed “psychotic” because she seemed to be talking to herself; her New York psychiatrist was unaware that in her world, conversing with ancestors is normal.

And here at home, when a Singaporean computer programmer asks her American co-worker about her husband, the American woman is afraid to say she has a wife.

An Italian friend asked how my nephew was doing at Cal. “He’s in heaven,” I answered. Lowering his eyes, my Italian friend said softly, “I’m so sorry.” Through his Catholic prism, he thought my nephew had died. And I realized that the pleasure I’d meant to express often could be misunderstood in other countries – even my own. That’s why the title of one of my chapters is: “Words That Conceal, Words That Reveal.”

While writing about misperceptions across cultures, I remembered my years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, where I misunderstood much of what I initially saw. While I was walking in the village where I lived, men held my hand – very unsettling for a heterosexual man. I later learned that throughout Africa and in parts of Asia and the Middle East, men hold hands without any suggestion of homosexuality.

As I wrote in my book, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off, or the light won’t come in.”

How do our inborn cultural biases influence how we view things? Can you show us using the example of a cow (which also graces the cover of your book.)


Wildly contrasting values across cultures are symbolized by the cow I chose for the book cover. Does the cow represent: Dowry? Divine? or Dinner? For the Masai and many other ethnic groups in Africa and some other parts of the world, the cow is a “dowry,” a show of wealth. Among Hindus, the cow is considered “divine,” so sacred that it’s often cared for in old age and eating beef is forbidden. How strange this taboo appears to many meat-eaters around the world who associate the cow with hamburgers, steak or ribs – a divine “dinner.” But for many Hindus consuming a holy cow for dinner would be a disgrace.

In your book, your chapter on International House is full of anecdotes of how people from different cultures misunderstand one another. Some of these tales, which you dub “smashing stereotypes,” are amusing, like the time one student was offended when Asian students slurped their soup noisily. He regarded it as rude whereas the Asian students saw it as an expression of their pleasure. In the end, the student ended up slurping his soup. Can you share some other examples?

Nadine, a graduate student frequently was asked what part of Africa she’s from. When she answered, “North London” students were amazed. And in the Queens’ English, she’d explained she’s British and never has visited Africa.

Some French students told me how disarming it was to meet a student from Texas who played Beethoven sonatas beautifully on the piano and discussed Jean Paul Sartre with ease.

A PhD. student told me that I-House residents usually don’t believe he’s Turkish because he’s blond and has green eyes. A third-generation Indian-American was often asked what part of India she’s from. When she answered “Boston,” the common response: “But where are you REALLY from?” Many Asian-American students often express similar frustrations.


Then there was a Chinese student who discovered his new roommate was African American from Chicago. He felt uncomfortable, even afraid after seeing US TV shows. A few days later, when he heard the American speak fluent Mandarin, he was shocked, enlightened.

Joe Lurie served as executive director of the I-House for two decades. Here is is at a July 2015 alumni reunion on top of Memorial Stadium. Lurie is on the left in the bright blue shirt. The I-House is visible in the background. Photo: UC Berkeley

In your book, you suggest that we all live in our own “cultural ponds.” What do you mean by that?

A 4th-century Chinese poem asks, “How shall I talk of the sea to a frog if he never has left his pond?” Consider footprints on a toilet seat at San Francisco Airport. How many of us are startled, perhaps disgusted, to see this? Yet millions of people from different cultural upbringings squat to relieve themselves and so they understand why there are footprints. They wonder why anyone would even consider sitting on a toilet seat. Only when one leaves one’s pond can both perceptions begin to make sense.

We live in a world that has been wrought small through jet travel, the internet, and the mobile phone. Do you think this will help multi-cultural understanding? Does the speed of communication carry its own risks?

With YouTube videos, Tweets and fake news instantly crossing cultures without context, it’s essential to understand the actual meanings and intentions behind words and actions which seem abnormal or provocative.

In our hyper-connecting world, colliding cultures increasingly are causing misperceptions and misunderstanding. Some French see a Muslim woman in a burkini, a full-body swimsuit, as oppressed or a potential terrorist. Yet, the woman considers her burkini liberating because she can swim modestly.

Recently a UC Berkeley student with a Spanish last name snidely was asked when she’d return to Mexico. Her angered response: “I’m from Kansas and don’t speak Spanish.”

In the United States, English is our official language, there doesn’t seem to be much emphasis on learning other languages or getting to know other cultures. Has this harmed our reputation in the world?

Because for so long we’ve remained geographically far from the rest of the world and because of our militarily and economic power, learning other languages hasn’t been a priority. Even today it’s possible, unlike most other countries, to earn a PhD in most US universities without ever having studied a second language.

International visitors, businesspeople, and students often tell me they’re shocked to discover how little most Americans know about their countries and languages. One Brazilian businessman recently told me an American asked if they have July 4th in Brazil. His response: “Yes, of course. And we also have July 5th, 6th, and 7th as well!”

Our incoming president has vowed first to ban all Muslims, then he narrowed the bar to just those from “problematic” countries and he said that Mexicans are rapists, killers, and drug dealers. If you could talk face-to-face with Trump about this, what would you say?

I’d ask him to consider how his overly generalized choice of words alienate Muslims abroad who’ve experienced the most violence and suffering at the hands of radical Islamic terrorists; and also how these words fuel fear and alienation among Muslim-Americans who have an important role in helping us all to keep our country safe. And I’d ask him to reflect on a Mexican proverb in my book: “There is no one as blind as the one who does not want to see.” And to remember a Yiddish proverb I cite: “When one always drinks vinegar, one does not know anything sweeter exists.”

How do you think those who have lived at I-House have benefitted from the multicultural experience?

In spite of, or perhaps even because of wars, racism, and ideological conflicts, the encounters at I-House among residents from different cultural background often produce dramatic and unexpected new friendships.

I recall a Muslim Berkeley student whose once friendly Christian -American dorm mates turned against her after 9/11. She moved to I-House thinking she’d be safe surrounded by supportive foreign students. Her hopes were shattered when she learned her roommate was an American Caucasian from Alabama. She feared sharing a room with a “southern redneck racist.” Soon she discovered her roommate was thoughtful and refined and a transformative friendship was born.

Since not all of us can live in an I-House, what can we do to increase our understanding of people from other cultures?

Living with a family in another country as part of an educational exchange program frequently is mind-opening. Perhaps during this time of increasing polarization in the U.S., we should launch a domestic homestay and study exchange program in which people from different ethnic, economic, political, religious and racial backgrounds can discover their common humanity and the limitations of their perceptions.

How can we find out more about your book?

I’m giving a book talk at the North Berkeley Library on Jan. 14 at 3:00 p.m. For an excerpt from the book, chapter themes and reviews, visit PerceptionAndDeception.com. It’s in paperback and Kindle on Amazon, and e-versions at Barnes &Noble and Apple.

The book also will be featured in an intercultural course I’ll be teaching in the Spring for UC Berkeley’s Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning.

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