Unlike most of my peers, I grew up in a very diverse environment. Being a Caucasian male, most people would view me as being a part of the “majority”. Alas, in my hometown of Nashville,Tn, I grew up in Inglewood, an area where Caucasians are the minority. My Wushu (Kung Fu) teacher was from Indonesia. My best friends were from Cambodia and the kids at my lunch table who taught me how to unleash poetic rap verses were mostly African-American.
My mother and aunt were born in Germany. My girlfriend in tech-school was Chinese. My co-workers at my first professional job working with the Dell corporation were mainly Muslim refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. One of my first boxing students was from India who frequently invited me to events at the Hindu temple he attended services at. Needless to say, being around different types of cultures doesn’t bother or make me feel uncomfortable,in fact, I thrive on it! The notion of , “Birds of the same feather, flock together”, isn’t unfounded.
If you grew up in Japan, you probably feel comfortable being around Japanese people. If your skin is white, and your family is white, you probably feel comfortable being around those who look the same as you or share some kind of cultural similarity. It isn’t racist or bigoted to feel comfortable around those who look and believe as you do and it isn’t bigoted to feel uncomfortable around those who look different or believe different as you do…although it does say something about our world-view and experiences. (or lack thereof)
If you are not privileged enough to live a life that allows you to travel the world or take vacations outside of your hometown, do not fret! There is a way to become cultured without having to fork over thousands of dollars for plane tickets, hotels, and passports. You could joint the Army (Pray that you don’t get sent to Iraq), Join the Peace-Corps (Can you commit to two years, do you have a BA degree?), go on a religious mission….. what if none of these appeal to you. There is one last resort.
Live vicariously through other people!
Is there a Mosque in your neighborhood? Go visit! Attend a service! Do you see a foreign co-worker who sits alone and eats his/her lunch? Talk to them, get to know them, perhaps they can teach you their language or invite you to meet their family. Are you a Christian? Well, most Koreans are too! Visit a Korean church service and get to know the Korean community in your neighborhood. But, how do we approach foreigners?
I remember working as an office manager for a huge retail chain whereas we frequently has foreign customers. One time an Egyptian man comes through and is very upset that his product failed him in such a short time. He was irate! I asked him to calm down, (which he did), after he got silent, I said, “Shukran” (which means “Thank you” in Arabic). He began to smile, and he said, “You know my language!?”, I responded, “Only a few words”, and I smiled back. The entire tone of the conversation switched from negative to positive. The customer left the store happy and we resolved the situation. Even if we cannot afford or have the opportunity to travel the world, we can live vicariously through the experiences of our foreign neighbors. My Christian friends often remind me of a Bible verse, “Leviticus 19:34” – which commands us to treat foreigners as if they were our own family.
Last month, I was invited to attend a New Years party at a Khmer Buddhist Temple. In the Cambodian tradition, the New Year falls in the month of April, not January, as they operate on a different calendar. During this party, I had some interesting conversations with the head monk who goes by the name, “Mr.Sokham” or “Venerable Sokham”. We discussed Khmer Horoscopes, Karma, and other things related to Cambodian cultural norms. Two weeks later, I found myself attending an ordination ceremony of a newly certified monk at a Thai temple.
During these events, I often have those “eureka” moments. I look around and realize, “Hey! I am the only white guy here!” Foreigners often form close knit groups who have insecurities towards native citizens such as myself. They fear they we look down upon them or we secretly want them to be deported. However, I have learned that once you earn their trust and show an interest in their culture, they will quickly adopt you as if you were an unofficial family member. During my time with Muslim refugees, Cambodian monks, Chinese law students, Hindu Clerics, so and so forth, I have never felt out of place but very welcomed because of these principles.
However, after making friends with so many people from around the world, I now identify with my Humanity more than I do with my German ancestry or my American citizenship. Although those things are still very important to my character and function in society, I will never let it outshine my humanity and the qualities that are unable to be differentiated from any other person. Qualities such as compassion, a desire for food, shelter, love, and the universal challenges that face every human being, challenges like finding a job, overcoming health issues, and finding that special someone to share your life with.
At 29 years old, I’ve learned that the culture of man supersedes the culture of a nation. Yet, we cannot understand humanity as a whole until we experience the individual parts that make up that whole. Where I go next is anybody’s guess, but you can bet that it will be an adventure worth mentioning!