For years I have said that, if I were president, I’d send every high school student to another country for a few months. The teens would be young enough to pick up the language, and old enough to remember their experience. They could connect to other teens via music, and thereby have something in common while they simultaneously dealt with being shocked, as I was, when they notice certain differences.
I think that this experience would help them learn what I learned, so that they could resist the quick vilification of “They’re ____” (fill in the blank with a pejorative statement about the other culture/race/religion/part of town) that is so prevalent in social media and other formats whereby we “communicate” by reducing others to “them”. Sure, children and teens (and adults) separate themselves into groups for team sports and many other aspects of social life, using guidelines such as political affiliation, religious practice, dietary preferences, or any other characteristic one can think of. Social scientists tell us that we learn the ways of our own particular groups by focusing on what we do that is different from what other groups do. We are taught as children “We go to church because we are Christians; Jews go to Temple”, or “We are environmentalists so we pick up the litter we come across; we don’t just toss our trash”, or “We wear black because it is the color of mourning; others wear white because it is the color for their mourning.”
But social scientists also tell us that we set aside these group differences when we are faced with a larger problem. For example, in the village everyone joined the bucket brigade when something caught fire – regardless of which party they had voted for in the last election. It seems to me that exposing children and young adults to the differences between cultures may first confuse them (“Why are they eating that? Why are they wearing those clothes? What are they doing?”), just as I was at 19. But enough of this exposure also teaches them how similar we are to each other, in the ways that really matter to us as humans. It encourages them to go ahead and ASK the person of the other culture: “What are you doing? Why are you doing it?” and thereby learn about that other culture from the real “insider”: the member of the other culture. What could be a better way to increase one’s awareness that “differentness” doesn’t have to mean “wrongness”? Surely our increasingly global way of life demands that we have a more global understanding of human cultures.
Trilby Coolidge, Ph.D.
Clinical Assistant Professor
Division of Dental Public Health Sciences
Oral Health Sciences
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195
The winners will be announced at our Russia-themed Holiday Open House on Saturday, December 10 6pm – 8:30pm. Russian bazaar, dances by Ivan-da-Marya dance group, heart-warming pelmeni, chai, and more! We hope you can join us there!