It is strange that in this digital age, when the world is getting smaller, it feels as though we are being pulled further apart. It is human nature to seek out people like ourselves; people that we understand and identify with. When people are in their own countries, they connect with those who share their language, religion and region. When they are abroad, they bond with people of their nationality or subcontinent. The sense of safety in what we know and a fear of the unknown causes us to look for the familiar. But, isn’t exploring the unfamiliar the best way to get over this fear? When we surround ourselves with things we don’t know, we start learning about them and they become a part of our lives. In other words, they are no longer out of the ordinary.
So, what happens when we come across someone who is “different”? Are we curious or are we wary? Do we judge them based on preconceived notions or do we try to know more about them? Do we make them feel uncomfortable or do we make them feel welcome?
A few years ago, I took a sabbatical to pursue a short course in a city different from my hometown. I was going back to school after a long time and felt clearly out of place. But, on my first day, I noticed three girls who looked more unsure than I was. They had good reasons to. They were far from home in a foreign environment. With things like different weather and surroundings, unfamiliar people and culture and unknown food and language to consider, they had a lot more to deal with. Not to mention, their appearance set them apart and made them receive quite a fair bit of attention. As an introvert, I kept to myself while other students in my class acquainted themselves with each other.
After a few hours, we were asked to make our way to the lab for some practical sessions. As we entered the lab, it became clear that each system would have to be shared by two students. I took a seat at the nearest available machine. Most people had already decided on who they would pair up with and, as time went by, it seemed likely that my inability to socialise would lead to me having the system to myself. But then I heard a distinctive voice politely ask, “Is this seat taken?” I turned to see one of the girls, described earlier, pointing to the seat next to me. Two of the girls had decided to share one system and the third was left by herself. Since everyone else had chosen their lab partner, I was probably the only option she had. “No, you can take it if you like”, I said. She thanked me and took a seat.
We struck up a conversation and I learned that Agnes was from Ghana and was attending the course as part of a company sponsored initiative. This was my first interaction with someone from Ghana. But, I realised that I had more in common with her than my own compatriots. We were both married and had some industry experience before joining the course.
Over time, I discovered that, like India, people in Ghana have a strong preference for the male child. They also have a dowry system, but the groom’s side pays. They, too, have a tradition of staying with the family after marriage but the family custom determines whether the bride stays with the groom’s family or the other way around. In addition to English names, they have Akan names, which are influenced by the day of the week and the order of birth. I was introduced to Jollof and Fufu.
Agnes was very curious about Indian culture. She found the Indian habit of pouring water from bottles into the mouth rather than sipping from them hygienic. She couldn’t understand why Indians touched the feet of the person they had accidently touched with their foot.
The girls had a tough time with spicy food. A lack of options meant that they, frequently, had cupcakes and biscuits for lunch. Agnes was very adventurous and open to trying out local food. She was also in awe of the variety of biscuits and chocolates available in the supermarket and how cheap they were compared to Ghana; the land of cocoa. I remember the girls spending their leftover allowance on biscuits and chocolates for friends and family back home.
I had rented a small apartment close to the educational institution. Agnes and the girls insisted on visiting me. I tried to dissuade them because the apartment had absolutely no furniture, but they didn’t care. They didn’t utter a single complaint as they sat on a mat on the floor of the living room while I apologized for the lack of chairs.
When the course ended, I was very sorry to see them go. I wish I could’ve taken them home to visit my family. It made me wonder, what if Agnes had not come up to me that first day? I would’ve missed out on knowing such wonderful people; good, kind, polite and generous. I saw the girls face so much ridicule and disdain from some who were quick to judge a book by its cover. But they took everything in their stride.
Many people state their reason for visiting a new place as a desire to experience different cultures. But, should our exploration of cultures be restricted to when we are tourists in a foreign country? Isn’t interaction with people who visit from other parts of the world another way? Some people want everyone to be like them. But, wouldn’t the world be boring if we were all identical? Is it not the differences that spark our curiosity and give us so much to learn?
Having a dialogue with people from different cultures increases our awareness about them. It changes our perspective and makes us more sensitive and tolerant of their customs and traditions. It enables us to embrace and celebrate differences rather than dwell on them. It allows us to know the person beneath the surface. To understand their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations and their fears; to know that beyond the differences, we are all the same.