Experiencing different cultures expands the mind and opens the heart. Whether the cultures are as starkly different as rural South Texas and urban Beijing or as similar as Dallas and Little Rock, the cultural distinctions educate, inform, and change a person—if she is open to change. The shifts in mindset brought about by exposure to different ways of thinking or ways of looking at the world can lead to transformational insights. But unless one intentionally keeps chauvinistic attitudes in check—and unless he reins in in his parochialism—absorbing the lifestyles and ideas of unfamiliar places in the world can simply amplify a person’s ethnocentric zealotry.
I often wonder whether the difference between people who revel, versus those who recoil, at experiencing difference cultures are intrinsic to their nature. Or is insularity the result of subtle—or not so subtle—guidance during their development? In my case, I think the magnetic appeal of cultural differences was innate, but somewhat stifled, as a child. My interest was awakened during my youth, seeing and hearing and tasting the differences between the Anglo culture then prevalent in South Texas and the growing Mexican and Hispanic cultures that have since become predominant there. But my curiosity about and appreciation of cultural differences mushrooming during my years in Austin as a student at the University of Texas. The diversity of the student population was an important component of my growing interest in different cultures. The deeper exploration of culture to which I was exposed through sociology classes and the associated reading was even more crucial, I think. Sociology completed the initial phases of my transformation. Moving to semi-rural, small-town East Texas furthered the metamorphosis. The change in me continued when I moved to Houston, where I lived for eight years at the fringes of a cultural melting pot. Then, four years in Chicago and almost a year in and around White Plains, New York and Greenwich, Connecticut, helped solidify my appreciation for both subtle and in-your-face cultural differences.
While I think my eyes have been opened by exposure to different cultures, I suspect my oldest brother’s expansive world-view must be dramatically more advanced than mine. He has lived in India, Algeria, French-speaking Quebec, Ohio, the Bay area of California, Texas, Mexico…and on and on. And he is far more well-traveled than I. My world travels, mostly on business, exposed me to brief snippets of cultural surprises. His more extended experiences in various places around the world must have given him far greater insights than my short visits. Though living in different cultures is probably the most impactful way of enhancing one’s understanding and appreciation of different cultures, I think reading and watching non-fiction explorations of different cultures can be nearly as effective—providing, of course, one is open to challenges to one’s unsophisticated, small-minded mindset.
Despite my appreciation of different cultures, I am not blind to the faults and ugly flaws inherent in some of them. Often, I think, small-minded people judge as gullible (or easily misled) those who are more broad-minded. Moreover, they assume more open-minded are entirely uncritical of other cultures and are “taken-in” by them. That assumption, and more like it, tends to supplant insights about the positive aspects of different cultures. That’s my opinion. Almost everything I’ve written here is opinion; it should be taken with a grain of salt—which can either enhance the flavor or hide it entirely. 😉
Today is Monday. The beginning of the “work week” for some. The continuation of a predictable set of rotating moments for others. And the commencement of an opportunity to begin life anew for still others. I choose—just for this moment—to look at this day as that incredible opportunity. A new life! A new way of thinking about the world! A new chance to correct mistakes or rethink my definition of what is “correct” and what is “wrong.” I hope this attitude lasts. The part of my life I’ve lived thus far is much longer than what is left to live; I suddenly feel an urgency to more acutely experience every second available to me. Time to light another cone of incense; lately, I have replaced patchouli with sangre de dragon, dragon’s blood. They both are quite nice; they help hone my appreciation for life in general, and my olfactory capabilities, in particular.
Smile at someone who looks like they need it. Even if that someone is looking at you in the mirror.