Learning About Diverse Cultures a Key to Global Peace and Understanding

Dr. Trilby Coolidge, a professor from University of Washington and admirer of Orthodox icons, received an advice from us RE: inscriptions on Russian icons and she was interested. Dr Coolidge who believes in the value of learning languages and cultural awareness, shared the following personal message with us in support of NWLA’s work at South Whidbey schools, our Global Culture program.:

I am delighted to hear about the Global Cultures Program at the Northwest Language and Cultural Center. My father was in the first cohort of youngsters who travelled to Europe to experience another culture through the auspices of the Experiment in International Living back in the early 1930s. His trip brought him to France, where he bicycled and met French boys his age, as well as other French people of course. For the rest of his life he talked about his amazing experience. I followed in his footsteps by travelling to a small Mediterranean village in the early 1970s, when I was 19, to attend an art school. I stayed for six months. When I arrived, I spoke but one word of the language. Although of course I had studied social studies in school, in many ways I was a typical young person who believes without thinking much about it that my familiar way of life was either the only way of life, or at least the “best” way of life. Because I was naïve and unprepared, I was shocked in many ways by what I saw and learned. This was a culture which practiced corporeal punishment for misbehaving children, used matchmakers to arrange marriages, and demanded strict codes of behavior for men vs. women (which I was exempt from, as a foreigner). On the other hand, I experienced genuine generosity towards me as a stranger, and gentle teasing when the locals got to know me better (which told me that I had been accepted by them). I also noticed some aspects of the local culture which seemed to me to be improvements over my American life. For example, widows, developmentally-disabled children, and others who needed assistance were never isolated or forced to take care of themselves alone. Rather, the villagers looked after each other. In addition, culture dictated that strangers be welcomed and offered food and drink, regardless of whether or not the stranger shared the same religion, race, political beliefs, or other characteristics. I shared the joys of feast days and also mourned with the villagers when the sea killed someone. I learned that cultures may appear very differently on the outside, but underneath we all share the joy of a new baby, the sadness of a death, the beauty of music, worry about storms that are on the horizon, the need to come together to  help in an emergency, etc.
       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
Box 357475
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195
Please visit our online auction that benefits this program
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!