“Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbor is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.” – Paulo Coelho
The term “cross-cultural education” is quite the umbrella. Applicable, flexible, and vague at most. What does cross-cultural education even mean, for that matter? Or a better question -- why is it so important in this day and age?
We divide each other, point fingers and judge, question others’ beliefs and character, and yet, on the flip side of the coin, we celebrate and document travel on Instagram. We listen to the stories of local indigenous people, and we fantasize about slurping chili-splashed noodles while sitting on plastic stools in the streets with Anthony Bourdain. It’s an interesting time to discuss cross-cultural education and to maybe look at it in simpler terms. In light of all this, I’d like to share with you where I feel the roots of cross-cultural education reside and why they are essential to building bridges between cultures. And hopefully, this will make us more aware of who we are…together.
Once again, terminology is a very tricky thing to navigate. And I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with friends about what the word “culture” means. We all have our various definitions that come from our backgrounds, which in the end, we should respect. One comes from where he or she comes from and I’ll simply leave it at that. But how we start to analyze and almost discover the diverse pieces that form our respective cultural identities is important for our understanding of one another.
The stories of how our identities are formed may help us. We often forget what kind of influences in our lives create our value systems, impact how we interpret the world, and make us who we are. Whether we are from a small town in the Midwest of the US or the bumping streets of Beijing’s Chaoyang district, we still have our traditions, our family values, our way of life. All of us have this, no matter where we come from. And I think often, we do not respect it in others. Whether we choose to venture out of our native environments is up to us, but we cannot deny that all human beings have also come from backgrounds that have shaped their stories.
The media, the geo-political environment, language, education, economics, and even the natural geography of where we are located plays a role in the formation of our identities, but despite these differences, the stories we are individually living are actually more similar than different. We all share the journey of trying to make sense of what we are taught to think is right — core beliefs, values and ideas in one’s family, community, etc.. We also try to understand all the influences outside of that foundational world, which often challenge us and differ from what we have previously known to be right. But it simply comes down to choice. Do we choose to say no — my way is the right way of life and everyone else is wrong? Or do we choose to say yes — my old ways are wrong, and all of these new ideas are right. Everyone is entitled to their choice. Is there a third option?
I believe there is. I don’t think it simply comes down to a right or wrong way to live, but rather to an acceptance and validation of different ways to live. We often forget that there are so many ways to live in this world and more often than not, we get caught up in our own spatial vacuum, and don’t recognize others — when in fact, there is a beautiful opportunity for connection and understanding. From the simplest cases of parenting styles to classic meals traditional to a region or passed down from generation to generation -- all these fascinating things we are proud of being and that have and continue to define us, lie within each of us. Ideas of love, family, purpose, friendship, health…We are all trying to write our respective stories and simply make sense of them.
When it comes to cross-cultural education, it’s not just a one-way street. I have my way of comprehending my cultural identity and you have yours. We have our own defining moments of struggle, success, and happiness. So in the name of cross-cultural education, let’s share these moments that have formed our stories and use them as a bridge to bring our humanity back together. From the basic to the complex, our stories across cultures connect our lives in ways that we still need to understand. What we share is the responsibility for writing this world’s next chapter.
So next time you meet people from another culture, another country, or maybe even neighbors living next door, take a moment to engage in their stories; learn, share, and embrace the differences. For what makes us all different, in the end, makes us all the same. For me, this is the essence of cross-cultural education, and in order to unite this world in understanding, we need to first share who we are.