In my second grade class at Woodinville Montessori School, a playmate asked me why I had my ears pierced so young. When I answered that piercing babies’ ears is common in South Asian culture, she told me that my culture was “wrong.”
That experience was a form of cultural exchange — albeit an unpleasant one. But surprisingly, the incident inspired a mutual curiosity of one another’s cultures, and lo and behold, two years later we were close friends.
“I think our world is better when people are embracing difference, and if we start early we aren’t going to have the same socio-economic barriers we have now,” says Janine Jones, associate professor of Education Psychology at the UW. She stresses that cross-cultural interaction needs to become part of everyday life.
This summer, there’s a ton of programs in our region that are fostering cultural exchange by young people. Here are three particularly exciting ones on the Eastside that bring youth from different cultures together around a common activity, from theater to poetry to soccer:
Bayfest International Youth Theater: The Artful Exchange
San Francisco-based BIYT’s summer intensive course takes place in a different U.S. or the U.K every year. This July, Bothell High School played host.
During a noon rehearsal Jouman Barakat is spitting out harsh sounding phrases in Arabic. Her tone and movements are turbulent with emotion, it seems she’s expressing her deepest, angriest thoughts. But when her co-actor translates, the monologue is actually about fluffy pillows and plush toys.
“We put together this piece…the theme of which is really to point out the absurdity of basing opinions of people on their nationality,” program director Robert Shampain explains. He sees theater as a universal language that transgresses all boundaries, and thus an apt medium to explore ideas of cultural movement and conflict.
Barakat is from Jordan, and though she has traveled to the U.S. many times, she wasn’t sure what her fellow actors would think of her.
“I’ve dealt with people before that have for example thought I go to school on a camel or that I live in a tent or that I’m a terrorist and I thought that would happen again,” Barakat explained.
But no one in this program espoused such ideas. Barakat says she felt welcome — like she’s at home here.
Jack Howe, a young man who joined the company from England, reflected on the various times he participated in BIYT and other acting companies.
“The majority of groups have always got [along] because of their differences,” he says.
When Howe tries to explain why he finds difference comfortable, he is at a loss for words. Finally he decides homogeneous environments are just awkward.
Though the drama company is made up of members from diverse backgrounds, Barakat and Howe emphasize that ultimately, everyone in the company shares a commitment to putting their differences aside and putting on a good performance.
Mercer Island FC: The International Trip
Mercer Island FC’s U12 team is clad in white shorts and gray jerseys as they warm up for a scrimmage. The team, twelve parents and Coach Colin Rigby left for Dalian, China late last month for a friendly match.
“I think it’s going to be fun, [to] see how good they are,” team member Tripp White said a few days before departure. He looks forward to Chinese food, but shares concerns about pollution.
Chinese soccer has suffered greatly in recent years; China’s team did not qualify for this year’s world cup. Thirty years ago, it was one of the top 3 teams in Asia.
In fact, the team’s visit to Dalian is part of an effort to revitalize Chinese soccer
Wei Zhang — whose sons play on the team — was instrumental in arranging the trip. Zhang hails from Dalian, a city so soccer crazy it houses a gigantic black and red metal soccer ball at its center. Living in the northwest, Zhang noticed that soccer thrives because it starts with young people. He reached out to the Dalian Soccer Association. They were eager to organize an event where overseas youth could play with local youth and hopefully inspire a resurgence of the sport.
Beyond soccer, Zhang hopes the trip will pave the way for an economic connection between Seattle and Dalian.
“With our soccer team going to China…we can use this as a tool to going further into China, building a relationship,” he says.
Imagine Scholars: The Virtual Exchange
Since 2011, Sharon Dunn, a Jr. a high school teacher at Woodinville Montessori School (WMS) in Bothell, and Corey Johnson, executive director of Imagine Scholar a program for promising young students in South Africa, have been collaborating to facilitate an exchange of ideas between their students.
That started out by shared essays, but it wasn’t until the students started sharing videos of their spoken word poetry that the students really started to connect.
Dunn’s students were excited as they watched their South African peers perform with such expression, movement and passion. At the same time they were faced with somewhat uncomfortable topics.
“The thing that struck them the most was how many of the males and females talked about sexual harassment and abuse of women,” Dunn says.”That was really enlightening.”
Inspired, Dunn’s students wrote and performed their own poems for Imagine Scholar students. Both sets of students appreciated the chance to share their work with a known audience; poetry served as a medium for students to understand the experiences of their counterparts across the world.
Often times in an exchange such as this, one party becomes dominating, playing the ‘helper.’ Johnson says that helper tends to be the western country. But he has a different vision for the relationship between WMS and Imagine Scholar.
“I want our students to learn about a cultural group that isn’t an idealistic group… that they make mistakes too.”
Tricia Thabathe, one of the South African students visited Seattle this summer says the trip challenged her thinking.
“I had this theory that other countries were better than my own country,” she says. “What I’ve seen since coming to the U.S. is that poverty is everywhere.”
Cultural exchange programs like these can be a mobilizing force for young people, forever altering how they think about our world.
UW Education Professor Jones says young people are flexible and more impressionable than adults. When youth engage in exchanges of difference, the exposure can ‘normalize difference’, opening doors to new insights and collaborations that transgress cultural lines.
“When we think from other perspectives,” she says “we are enriched by that knowledge.”