Sometimes we get a chance to bridge cultures, ethnicities, and races without even realizing it.
For example, I’ll never forget the first time I met Holly. She would become my roommate junior year. One time early in our relationship, our discussion turned to our backgrounds. White, Anglo-Saxon – indeed, mine seemed rather straightforward, although looks can be deceiving.
Then I turned to ask her about hers.
“I’m a mutt,” she replied. “There must be 17 different ethnicities in there, or maybe more. I think we’ve lost track.”
Holly’s glimmering hazel eyes and darker-than-average white skin revealed she wasn’t your typical northern European child, although she assured me there was some Norwegian in there as well.
And yet she wasn’t dark, although she told of Polynesian and African American roots as well. Hints of Chinese poked up here and there, too. You could see it, especially in the slight slant of the eyes.
Good thing. At 18, Holly already excelled at the Chinese language. She hailed from Hawaii and had Punahou, the same respected high school from which Barak Obama graduated, in her legacy. Although he was older, she remembered him as “Barry.”
So, in Holly’s case, how do you sort through the jumble of culture, ethnicity, and race to make sense of it all?
CULTURE represents the non-biological or social aspects of human life. Anything expressed or learned by humans is culture.
RACE is usually determined by biology and observation. Most often it is identified externally, but it can also be self-identified as well.
ETHNICITY focuses not on physical traits, but rather on social traits. It often refers to a group’s common ancestry – connection to a distinctive shared past and culture. Common distinctives of ethnicity are nationality, tribe, religious faith or shared language, culture or traditions.
Two clear challenges stand in our way when we consider and apply these concepts to our own understanding, especially when we aim to bridge cultures.
The first is that they often interweave a great deal.
As in my example with Holly above, her culture is expressed on multiple levels.
- Home life (or lack of it), is the greatest influencer of culture, especially in the early years.
- Growing up in Hawaii. Island culture and mindset differs from those of the mainland. Any good Hawaiian (whether native islander or “imported”) will verify this statement. Hawaii finds itself at the crossroads of Pacific island, East and Southeast Asian, Anglo-American and of course native Hawaiian influences.
- Holly is American, through and through. At the time we met, she identified as an American just as much as any Midwesterner would.
The second challenge in applying these concepts is our own ethnocentrism. This is a fancy term describing how we tend to see the world through the lenses of our own values and standards.
Let's face it. It’s difficult to get outside of our ethnocentric mindset. But not impossible.
How do we get into the other’s shoes?
I believe we must view this as a process. We don’t suddenly cross the bridge, arrive and have it all figured out. But there are ways we can grow in our intercultural quotient – both in head and heart.
Here are a few:
- Go into areas different from your own. Shop at the Latino market. Cultivate a friendly relationship with the checker. Interact with the African-American postal worker, not just for a business exchange. Try to find out a little about him. Children? Hopes? Dreams?
- Really look at the people who serve in the simple jobs that make society work – cashiers, garbage collectors, construction workers. Desire a heart for others. Be thankful for all the people in your life, not just the ones you consider friends.
- Then…be intentional and become friends with others from different backgrounds. Intention is the key. For some, this comes easier. But for others, this takes work to seek people out from different backgrounds and cultivate relationships of trust (and fun)!
- Serve others with your gifts. Crossing cultural, ethnic and racial boundaries can often be sweetest through service. Give, and you will see walls come down. The most significant resource you can give is your time. Even just an hour or two a week will go a long way. Try it!
- Travel or live abroad with the intent of really learning, not simply being a sightseer or living the pure ex-pat life. Dig into the culture(s) you are in. Learn as much as you can – from history, to language (a dozen key phrases will lower the highest walls), to social trends, to the political and economic realities of the day. Seek to be that bridge.
Back to Holly
Holly remains a dear friend to this day. She has lived out her life using her Chinese language in the highest levels of business and life. In fact, she is married to an incredible Chinese man and together they are raising three multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial children in Hong Kong.
Almost nothing is simple about Holly’s life in terms of culture, ethnicity, and race. But, in a way, it is all simple. Because the predominant value in Holly’s home and in her life is love. For sure, that love goes a long way to bridge the differences and smooth over the intense, fast-paced lifestyle they live in Hong Kong.
Most of all, when love predominates, the texture of culture, ethnicity and race only enhances life and makes it better. Indeed, love is the greatest leveler of all.
What do you know about your background? And how can it become a bridge for crossing cultures?
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