Born in India and raised in America, I grew up with a strong awareness of the cultural differences between these two countries. From a young age, I began noticing subtle, but clear differences between the two nations. In the United States, nobody plays cricket on the streets. In India, there is no concept of “tailgating” at sporting events. Though the United States was a whole new world, I soon found myself falling in love with my new home, tiny differences and all. This said, I did encounter one recurring intercultural issue throughout my years in high school. My peers lacked virtually any awareness of the many distinct Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cultural identities! I found many students around me grouping these nations together as a geographic no-man’s-land known only for oil and war. These students also often incorrectly assumed that my Pakistani and Sri Lankan friends were Indian, just based on their skin tone. Many of us felt that these peers did not understand, nor care to understand, about our differences. To many of my peers, the Middle East was defined by the fighting in Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This perception could not be farther from the truth. The Middle East is host to a myriad of geographic landscapes, ranging from bustling metropolises to vast deserts, and it is home to some of the most beautiful, rich, and unique cultures in the world.
One day in my sophomore Human Geography class, the students were asked to name as many Middle Eastern countries as they could. Most of my classmates tapped out after naming 4-6 countries, though a girl from Persia named about 12. I found these numbers incredibly low! Without even counting Southeast Asian countries like Sri Lanka or Pakistan, the Middle East is home to more than 15 different nations. Each of these countries has its own culture, identity, and sometimes even its own language! I was shocked that the diversity of the Middle East had been so ignored by my classmates. Many of them had professed pride in sharing heritage with countries like Germany, France, Ireland, and the Netherlands. They were often quite precise about what percentage of their heritage was linked to which European nation. I was baffled that individuals so concerned with the makeup of their own heritage could be so ignorant of the cultural identities of Middle Eastern nations. Taking pride in one’s heritage while dismissing the heritage of others is disrespectful. Still, I cannot say that the students themselves are at fault for this. It is the education system which must take the blame. In Human Geography, we memorized the locations of countries on maps, but we were never taught about the unique cultural identities present in those countries. The only times we discussed countries in depth was when we covered Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel – but all of our discussions of these countries were related to the turmoil and violence within them. We never discussed art, music, language, or culture. Without intercultural education in the public school system, how can one expect students to keep an open mind about other countries?
But who cares, right? Why is it important to learn about countries half a world away? Knowing about Oman’s people or Lebanon’s traditions won’t help you ace a job interview or earn an “A” in statistics. Why learn about a country if it isn’t part of your culture, and you have no plans ever to visit it? This is why: because intercultural, international education has the power to broaden your mind in ways you may never have foreseen. You don’t have to know every international statistic. I’m not asking you to look up Kuwait’s population or Turkey’s favorite sport. All I ask is that you simply keep your mind open to the world, and that you try never to reduce vibrant, distinct cultures to stereotypical generalizations. It’s fine to not know things: this presents an opportunity to learn! Allowing ignorance to breed misconception and bias is what must be avoided. So keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to the world! Ask lots of questions, and never form judgements based on your own cultural bias. By listening, understanding, and avoiding assumptions, you will find that the world is much smaller than it seems, and that each distinct country is home to unique and beautiful cultures, traditions, and people.
By Rhea Gajaria, Development Intern