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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Serious Sunday—How Do I Teach Culture to My Children?  

This one is for Serious Sunday. Is there such a thing? If not normally, today there is. Truth? This is long. Candor? This is for me. What is it? This is a journal entry—my stream-of-consciousness thoughts I still ponder nearly a year later as I try and figure out a very important topic to me: How do I teach culture to my children while trying, but not truly understanding differences myself? Feel free to read it. Feel free to comment. Please don’t misjudge my honesty as I work through it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dear Travel Journal:

I jumped off my vanilla Salt Lake City flight to Detriot, boarded flight 5573 to JFK, and entered another world with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, speaking foreign languages. I looked forward and saw an Indian baby wrap her fingers around her mother’s finger, instinctively of course. I watched one woman, head covered in a modern mauve scarf, smile to another woman with a stylish chocolate head covering. A million words of understanding transferred between smiles. It was a silent language foreign to me, yet intriguing at the same time. Questions spring to mind but go unanswered.

An African American guy sits in 4A, sporting an intricate corn-row weave and is seated next to the modern head-covered woman. Observing the two side by side, I am astutely aware of how significant hair and head coverings are in politics, style, cultural traditions, religion, and storytelling. Storytelling? Because everyone has a story and tells it in their own ways—starting at the tips of their heads. Without the ability to speak to each other, how do we tell and understand our stories?

The Mary Englebright quote “Bloom where you are planted” both inspires and confines me. It releases me, empowers me, gives me ideas, and at the same time reminds me of entering a small opening to a bat cave while sea canoeing in Thailand—a claustrophobic, apprehensive moment that nearly shaved the skin right off the top of my nose. Restrictive. I could follow Englebright’s urge and create the most amazing cultural-awareness program in white city USA where I live. Bring the world to us, right? I could introduce a culture in my home on regular intervals by learning and preparing new recipes and such. I could, along with my children, visit exhibits. I could travel and bring back information and trinkets and candy of course. But, how do you bring a culture into your own living room—bring back the actual experiences that forever make you see life differently? How do you teach your kids culture?

How do you communicate the experience of visiting a guinea-pig raising family who lived in a shed inside the gates of a used-car parts lot in Ecuador? Did I mention the dirt floors they slept on or the one room they cooked and ate and slept and reproduced in? We worshipped together every Sunday, where differences didn’t matter. They let us into their lives, and I walked away with friendships and something even more precious, perspective.

What about the “clean” river dividing Bangkok? The stark contrast of our dinner cruise with its exotic fruit and superficial conversation with Thai life around us. Children bathing in the water, squealing in delight, as their moms washed dishes next to them and their grandmothers on the other side collected leaves for their basket-weaving livelihood, making possible the family’s meager existence. Their eyes: Deep, dark, seemingly knowing, but utterly, almost blissfully, ignorant. All living in the shadows of lavishly adorned temples and gold-plated Buddhas.

Or, what about the commute to and from work in Frankfurt, Germany? Eating vegetables and fruit bought at the train station or at corner markets. Running into stores from the rain to be totally avoided—ignored really—by shop girls. No fight over customers to increase their commission. Not wrong, just different. Looking in their eyes time and again to see the distrust and anger of a nation so torn apart and beaten that nothing makes much sense anymore—even more than 60 years later. Realizing that I just don’t understand—not the distrust, not the anger, and not the claim that Americans are too superficial when we are just open. Is being an extrovert so wrong? Again, not wrong, just different.

When I look at my own road to forgiveness and my lack of understanding in my own situation with one family and to me, a horrific experience of betrayal, and contrast that with the Germans’ horror of a past, I realize I just can’t compare my story to a whole people crushed by their very leader, betrayed by not one neighbor, but by possibly and very likely every single person they came in contact with—all for a chance to trade you for power or food or clothes or sleep or faulty ideals. How do I make sense of my own path to forgiveness when I put the two experiences side by side? Yet, mine is real. It is my story. That said then, how do I not become untrusting—so bruised that all potential friends get pushed aside? How do I keep a Western country, small city, trusting perspective after feelings of betrayal—however significant in world history? What can I learn from the survivors? What can their forgiveness, their ability to move on and rebuild teach me?

Out of my thoughts and back on the plane, a Jewish mother and son sit across the aisle from me—asleep, mouths open. My immediate neighbor—Middle Eastern—quickly changes seats with them to oblige a son’s request to sit next to his mother—even though he doesn’t like aisle seats, as he confessed to me after the switch. Behind my neighbors and across the aisle sits a hip Japanese boy next to a balding, white haired, seemingly upper-middleclass man. Both are wearing button-down shirts, one striped, the other checked. Mary Kay is our, I’d like to say Mid-Western flight attendant, although she sounds Southern. The woman with the maroon head scarf exudes confidence. The Jewish mother seems at once totally dependent and yet strict—the type where you play by her rules. The lineage does pass through her, you know? She carefully opens her peanuts. She talks to her son with such respect, calculated and calm. Babies cry. They don’t notice differences—not in themselves, not in the passengers. They tell their own stories: “I’m hungry. I am wet. I have gas. I am dependent on you and you aren’t meeting my needs. Waaaaa!” What is everyone else sharing?

Every passenger sits upright on his or her best behavior. All of the skeletons in our closets are behind closed doors. All of our story books are tightly closed, not revealing the tales we would spin or share if we felt we could—if we knew we wouldn’t be judged or hated for the candor. This fact keeps me guessing.

The tall, lanky, late 40-ish Texan in the 38-30-sized Levis in front of me may be going on a business trip, leaving a wife he adores, meals he is used to, and is so afraid of flying that the word search occupying his every move is the only thing that can keep his mind off the inevitable crash. On the other hand, he may be trying to get his mind off the minutes until he reaches his mistress. Now, he’s French, not Texan, even though his Levi’s are still the same size.

The question I ask myself is: Can I ever get a straight story? A first impression is what?—only an impression, right? Will my own lens through which I view the world so obstruct my view that it keeps me from seeing or accepting the truth of people’s stories? Does my own perspective that I sometimes mistake for knowledge bind me to subscribing to commonly believed stereotypes even though I put myself above them? I mean look at what I’ve written so far? French men aren’t the only ones that have affairs. Texans, I am sure, do fine in that department as well. Jewish sons don’t always respect their mothers, and Middle-Eastern—are they really from the Middle East?—women wearing head scarves may be anything but confident. The smile that passed between the two may be a sorrowful understanding of their plight: “Bloom where you are planted,” right? It may be a thousand other things. It may be nothing at all but a polite, yet silent greeting that I just read into and stereotyped.

So… I am off to a wedding in NYC. Solo. The only Mormon girl with my story that no one will know the real meaning of. Or. Know. Period. Does she live a Big Love lifestyle? How can she have so much fun and not drink? Why isn’t she weird—she seems so normal? Just another story book, closed no matter how open. We never know, do we? So… Back to my original question: How do I teach culture—void of stereotypes—to my children when I am trying, but do not truly understand it myself?



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  • Anonymous
    September 7, 2008 at 12:54 PM  

    kids can only learn culture by SEEING it and living it. That is my opinion anyway. I've always heard that children don't learn behavior, they pick it up;-)

    we try to travel with our kids as much as possible, and it allows them to experience life from another perspective- which will give them a better understanding of others.....and maybe even compassion.

  • Kathryn
    September 7, 2008 at 1:58 PM  

    This was an absolutely amazing post. I love it! I am so glad that you visited me so that I could in turn visit your blog. I really love it!

    I love this post because all the different cultures just fascinate me. So different, and yet we are all the same. We have the same emotions, feelings, desires. We all want the best for our children, our families. People are people.

    One day I hope to travel the world and that my children will travel the world. It is the greatest learning experience there is.

    Beautiful post!!!!

  • Brittany
    September 7, 2008 at 3:03 PM  

    I agree with Candy, seeing culture is the best teacher. That way it becomes less of a concept and more of a way of life.

  • JenniBeanV
    September 7, 2008 at 4:05 PM  

    I am lucky to live in a very urban area so my kids are exposed to a lot of different cultures and religions. It is just how things are here, so they don't really even think too much about it!

  • Rhonda
    September 7, 2008 at 5:16 PM  

    We live in a multi-cultural community too. Rich and poor and many different ethnic backgrounds as well.

  • Judy
    September 7, 2008 at 5:57 PM  

    I agree with Candy. You teach it by living it. You expose your children to as much culture and diversity as you can and SHOW them. Not an easy task in little old Utah, but hopefully, your kids will travel with you and experience for themselves.

  • Your Pal Pinki
    September 7, 2008 at 8:17 PM  

    Definitely teaching our children to look around and experience life without being afraid to try new things and talk to new people especially in your own neck of the woods. Having an open mind and open eyes is the key. And who would have thunk there was culture in your own back yard?

  • Frizzy and Bird
    September 7, 2008 at 9:46 PM  

    First, I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Second, I found you on An AMerican In Norway's blog through your comment.

    I learned to love all people through watching my parents. At the same time I can't believe my parents are products of my grandparent's who minds are so small and closed off to various cultures and backgrounds. They are from a small town. They have small minds as they believe only what they see on TV and the news. They do not get that the news doesn't always portray truth but perceptions they want to exploit.

    I can see just by your questions and your observations of others that you are and will teach your children about culture. Encourage them to see the world from as many vantages as possible. When you travel with them have them venture outside of their safety zones. Observing my parents and living in Europe and traveling has really opened my eyes to a beautiful and often loving world where others may find it a bit scary.

  • Andrea
    September 8, 2008 at 12:11 AM  

    Wow. This post really was wonderful. I am living in another culture with my two small children and I certainly hope they can take their own impressions away from it all after our four years are up (and not my own biased and less than perfect ones). I'd love to expose them to another culture after this as well. We are already multi-cultural in our family because my dd was born in Taiwan. I hope being nomads at the moment helps my children to see differences and know that they aren't really differences so much as just the things that makes us who we are. I hope they will appreciate it down the road.

    Anyway, wonderful post. I am going to point my sister to your blog, I think she'd enjoy it :)

  • Good N Crazy
    September 8, 2008 at 12:15 AM  

    Okay, now I see where all the stop world hunger stuff is coming from. You SEE things. Don't you? (But not dead people I hope?)

    I forgot earlier have you seen:

    for the auctions going on?

  • Genny
    September 8, 2008 at 11:45 AM  

    Very insightful and though-provoking. I think "getting out of the box" is important, and remembering that we are all just people. Like one of your commenter said...people are people.

  • Mamasphere
    September 8, 2008 at 12:34 PM  

    I love your honesty. What a great post. I struggle with the same thing- how on earth to teach my daughter about respect of differences, about finding a common thread, about understanding and appreciating all the world has to offer, when I can't quite grasp it myself. I try. And we travel. So hopefully that will be enough.

  • Marketing Mama
    September 8, 2008 at 8:46 PM  

    Very interesting - I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this. My son has been most interested in people with wheelchairs or physical differences. He sees children of other races than us at the playground or at the mall and hasn't ever mentioned it. I think schools do a great job (at least mine did) of celebrating diversity. In fact, at Alex's preschool they are starting to learn Spanish as part of their curriculum, so in addition to the American Sign Language he already knows, he'll pick up some Spanish. That's pretty cool at age 3, don't ya think?

    Of course I was amazed what you posted on my blog today about your parents in Guatemala. Go figure! Thanks so much for the offer to visit! I can't imagine going next year when my kiddos are still so young - maybe in a few more years.

    Also, CFCA really prefers that people visit as part of a pre-organized mission trip, rather than just visiting solo. I think a mission trip would be really cool.

    Anyhow, sorry this got long. Do you speak Spanish? I think your trip to Guatemala will be an amazing cultural experience!

  • Amanda @ notsoextraordinary
    September 10, 2008 at 12:17 PM  

    hmmm... i'm not sure about this one... culture is something that is more or less learned, and not so much taught. If that even makes sense. I think you can teach your children to love everyone regardless of what they look like or how they live... constantly assuring them that God made us all equal, we just live differently... and then as they get older, I'm sure they will carry on in some capacity your desire to travel and see other nations... i'm sure they will learn as they follow your example of always trying to learn about other culture and your search to even understand it yourself

  • Anonymous
    September 11, 2008 at 12:03 PM  

    I loved this post. You are such a deep thinker. You inspire me to look for diversity in my everyday experiences. I am determined to help my children embrace differences and find solutions that will bring us all closer together.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  • CanCan
    September 11, 2008 at 12:38 PM  

    Teach them gently. Expose them whenever you can.
    I live in Laos. I have taken my son to China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore...he has been to different US states. He has been raised speaking two languages and going to school with a third language.
    We have gone to a Kenyan friend's house in America for dinner, twice. We had the same Kenyan family over for Thanksgiving. He is around diversity all the time. I celebrate it, I read books to him on his level about different cultures.
    But? Still he went through a phase where he said he "didn't like brown people". I gently, calmly explained to him over and over about how every one is different, we have different skin, different hair, different eyes, but we are all beautiful and special. And now? His best friend is a girl named Jessica from Sierra Leone.
    Be gentle. Be persistent.
    We aren't all the same. I think that is okay.

  • American in Norway
    September 17, 2008 at 3:21 PM  

    Beautiful post.... We are blessed to have so many different cultures around us... we talk about the differences... neither good or bad... just that it is different. But at the end of the day... the kids are just kids & don't really think about it... (which is really a beautiful thing..)

  • MoziEsmé
    September 19, 2008 at 4:02 PM  

    Great question - and deep so that it has no easy answer. It is always a challenge to avoid stereotyping while at the same time appreciating the genuine differences between cultures.

    For me, I guess the answer starts with immersing my child in other cultures as much as possible. Visit ethnic sections of town, invite people of other cultures into my home and accept invitations to others' homes. Watch movies in other cultures and read books, discussing how we are the same and how we are different. And most of all, emphasize that we are not better or worse because of our differences.

    I love watching my baby play with Mozambican kids. She doesn't see any differences at this stage. They all like dirt, and rocks, and making noise. I just wish I could preserve that in her.

    I've got a post about my confusion in dealing with different value systems - which is the hardest part of culture acclimation for me.

  • Anonymous
    December 10, 2008 at 7:42 PM  

    Most of us will never understand a foreign culture unless we actually went a lived in that country or with that specific group of people. And that's not really an option...

    What we do, and we are blessed to live in a diverse city, is to:

    1. Treat everyone equally, with respect

    2. Always assume the best of others, until you know differently

    3. Be genuinely curious about other people, in a friendly way

    ...and that's about it.

    I feel like your post created a conundrum where there isn't one. It's just not that hard to expose your kids to the world. They'll interpret it differently than you do anyway, so give them the tools of basic decency and they'll be fine anywhere they go.

    You're not teaching them...they're learning. It's a big difference.

  • Joanna Pineda
    December 10, 2008 at 10:00 PM  

    I agree that kids learn culture, respect and understanding by experiencing diversity and different cultures.

    Before our son, my husband took one international trip each year. We decided that this practice should not stop because we had a child, so he's been to Mexico, Japan and Costa Rica and he's only 4. We also travel throughout the US with him.

    As a result, he is an interested and interesting child, he's excited by new things, and he's adventurous.

    We have also purchased a series of books from Tuttle Publishing called xxx Children's Favorite Stories. We have the books for Filipino children, Japanese children, Indian children, Korean children, etc. He loves the stories and embraces the different ways that each culture teaches values through stories.

    Loved the post, thank you.