Crossing Cultures

As part of the Classroom Connections program I am participating in, I’ve been communicating with a high school class in Madison, Wisconsin. As the students are currently doing a unit on “The Art of Crossing Cultures”, they have asked that I write about that in my blog. So for the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about what is takes to successfully cross from one culture to another.

What I’ve realized is that it is best to focus on similarities and not cultural differences. It’s finding commonalities that connect us, and not differences that divide. The most common thread that cultures share is that we each have the same human issues and challenges to deal with. In response, each culture has developed its own unique way of solving them. The cultural traditions and lifestyles of each group are merely different ways of getting to the same place. We’re all basically headed in the same direction. The key to crossing cultures is to be open to the solutions that each new culture has developed, to reserve judgment and to respect that culture’s choices. And the best way to do that is to learn to communicate, so that you can fully understand their solutions. Making friends naturally follows and what follows from there can be amazingly rewarding.

I’ve recently begun attending a Taekwondo class with my host sister as a way to participate in a shared experience with her and other local people. We both hope to stay in shape and learn safety skills – common goals. We also go for long walks together and often sit on our rooftop in the evenings sipping tea and chatting. I love these times. And I love learning the language while immersed in this culture. In the past I have learned both Spanish and Turkish in this way while living in Panama and in Turkey. I have taken both languages in the United States, but always found classroom language learning to be very difficult. Words without the context of the culture seem one dimensional, and understanding comes very slowly in a classroom alone. Learning Arabic immersed in this culture provides constant opportunities to practice. I was thrilled yesterday to have had a real (though short!) Arabic conversation with my taxi driver! However, although I love to try out my new Arabic skills, I have found that it is best to be a good listener and observer. I get to hear the subtleties of the language, and I also pick up the cues that are so important in successfully navigating my new life here.

If I’ve learned nothing else from my travels in Central America, Turkey and Morocco, it’s that the world is smaller than we realize, and that we’re really not as dissimilar as we often think. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s actually true. Yes, there are the little things – and there are lots and lots of little things. In Morocco they eat camels and shark. They don’t believe in killing ants. They have three hour lunch/nap breaks everyday. They eat with three fingers instead of with forks. These things just take a little adjusting to and some open mindedness. But by recognizing how similar we are and by learning to communicate, crossing cultures seems almost simple!