You know the trick. What do you see: a young woman or an old one? A vase or two faces? Though it seems so now, It wasn't that obvious until someone pointed it out to you.
Read on to learn about: (not) being a terrorist at the age of 6. What's worse than teenage angst. How looking people in the eyes isn't a good thing everywhere. Why things aren't that simple. Why curiosity is a very, very good thing.
One of my first post-immigration memories is being asked if I was a terrorist. I was around six years old and I had no idea what to do with that question. At six years old how the hell are you supposed to respond to that? How are you supposed to process that? Here is how it worked for me:
Except that you’re 6 years old and don’t actually understand what a terrorist is.
By the time you’re 8 you have an idea of what’s really going on, but it’s too late – the damage is done.
By the time you’re 10 you have mastered the act of rolling your eyes, of saying “yeah, I’m a terrorist” with incredibly over exaggerated sarcasm just in case they don’t get the joke.
You’re hurt. You’re confused. And you’re really, really angry.
If you think teenage angst is bad, you haven’t seen immigrant teenage frustration – it’s teenage angst on steroids.
And like the next situation below, my immigrant teenage frustration/angst would have been a lot easier to manage if I and my fellow classmates had had some simple culture intelligence instead of cultural monuments weaved into our curriculum.
The next cultural memory I have is of my dad gently telling me, in his best professor voice, that here, in this country, you have to look people in the eye when you're talking to them or when they're talking to you. I remember thinking: I really, really, really don't want to do that. It just seems wrong, too personal, too disrespectful. Because those were the norms that I was raised with.
And just like with my terrorist name calling experience I was frustrated, embarrassed and angry. I was yet again in a situation I didn’t understand, where I wasn’t sure what was expected of me or why and that was just too much for me.
And the only real reason why this was too much for me was something that I would learn about years later, something that would completely knock me down and make me so incredibly happy to learn about because, it turns out, there is a name for so many of the childhood confusions I experienced like the am-I-a-terrorist? situation and the look-people-in-the-eye issue, and that, as you guessed, is culture.
Yes, I know, obvious right?
Nope, not so obvious.
Culture is Something You're Born Into not Born With
Yep, it's really not that obvious. That's because culture is not something you're born with, it's something you're born into. But, just like having two eyes, two ears and one mouth, the culture you are born into feels like it is simply the natural and normal way of things. And, just like having one eye, one ear and two mouths, behaviors that are outside your culture seem really strange, and sometimes just wrong.
Are they really wrong though? Is looking into someone's eyes, or not looking into someone's eyes when you talk them something wrong? Is having one eye or two mouths actually wrong, or just different? And different from what? It's just different from what you are used to.
Being open to differences, understanding differences and acting different in different situations, that's real cultural awareness. Real cultural awareness is not only about culture, it's really about differences and expectations: beliefs and behaviors that are different from what is familiar to you and people behaving in different ways from what you expect. That's it, that's all there is to it.
The kids who were asking me if I was a terrorist were obviously getting that information from their parents. They weren’t born with those questions and assumptions; they were born into a context where those assumptions are seen as normal and natural. Were the kids to blame for this? No, not in my opinion. Were the parents to blame for this? To be honest, I don’t think so either.
Taking Culture for Granted
Before you bite my head off, think of this: how many things have you taken for granted and never thought to question because you thought they were simply the normal and natural way of life? If you think about it, I am sure it’s a long list. It can be something as simple as the toilet flushing one way, of connecting Christmas with snow instead of the beach or thinking that greeting someone with a smile is the correct way to act. All three of these examples are geographically and culturally related. They aren’t absolute universal rules. But unless someone pointed them out to you, or you had the curiosity to see if maybe, just maybe, things are different elsewhere, you would not have realized that.
And even if you are a very curious person, I bet you that you do not respond with curiosity and questioning to every situation you are in, just as those kids and parents didn’t.
So what’s the solution? Educate yourself on what your worldview is. What are your assumptions about the world and "how things are"? In what ways your culture has shaped your world view?
Let yourself be reminded that you take things for granted; do this by questioning your reactions and thought patterns.
Or you can simply be like my friend Yuliya who questions everything:
Me: “I love green apples”
Yuliya: “When you say green, what exactly do you mean?”
Which may not have been a bad way to respond as a kid: “when you say terrorist, what exactly do you mean..?”
By: Shiva Roofeh
6. 3. 2
That's 6 countries, 3 languages and 2 religions. Expat, immigrant, refugee, TCK, there are lots of things you can call me, but I prefer Shiva.