I remember boarding the plane at 16 years old to venture to Australia. I was alone, scared, and excited. I was leaving all that I knew for a year as a Rotary Cultural Exchange Student in the Southern Hemisphere.
I had some idea that I would need a new level of self-reliance in the months ahead. What I did not plan on was the red carpet around every corner. My entire public high school near Sydney planned a welcome assembly for me. Families from town brought meals to introduce themselves and their children. There was a parade, complete with a band upon my departure. I was not special. This was normal protocol, but there were few outsiders, so when they came they were valued.
The remarkable thing is my children are receiving the same treatment as we travel and live in various communities in Europe. Strangers embrace them and want to understand American culture and customs. They invite us into their homes and go out of their way to treat us with special experiences. It is truly humbling.
In contrast, when I was teaching in an American public high school, very few people even knew the exchange students’ names. I remember how scared and overwhelmed they looked getting banged between locker bays in the crowded hallways.
I remember, one young woman, in particular, that walked into my classroom about two months into the school year. She was wearing a traditional Eritrean dress and smelled of ginger and cardamom. My students teased her out of their discomfort until she was brave enough to tell her story. Both of her parents and sister had been killed in crossfire during the Eritrea-Ethiopian war just months prior to her arrival in my classroom. Her aunt paid for her passage and organized her escape. She was living with a friend of her father’s, in a town near the school, as she felt her way through life in the USA virtually alone. As the weight of her experience settled around the room, there was a shrouded silence. She brought the world into my classroom with her brave spirit. How many stories are there in classrooms all over the USA that could literally open windows and pave roads for deeper understanding?
I wonder what accounts for the difference in experience:
- Perhaps it is because the USA is so rich in diversity, that a foreign presence is not such a novelty?
- Perhaps it is about living in a superpower and thinking others may have little to offer?
- Perhaps it is because less than 50% of American citizens have a passport. According to the Huffington Post, only 5% (about 14.6 million out of 311 million) of Americans travel internationally each year.
- Perhaps it is not slowing down enough to recognize the wealth of knowledge in the people around us?
I only have observations, not answers. What I do know is that everyone has a story. Traveling is not required to broaden our horizons, but slowing down to listen is critical. At 16, I was forever changed by an entire town gathering to hear what I had to say. My kids are different people because of the genuine interest people have in them as Americans.
Perhaps as Americans, it is time to reignite our passion for diversity and understanding in a way that goes beyond tolerance. Maybe a grander sense of wonder and curiosity, coupled with a more mindful pace, is a good practice.
Living in Italy, red carpet, and all, I am reminded of what an honor it is to be an American and also the value of being surrounded by people that want to understand America so passionately. Every day people approach us from a genuine place of inquiry and appreciation. I hope to always reciprocate their authentic curiosity with grace.