Understanding we see the world through our own lens – and that it is only ONE way – is the first step towards widening our vision.
It’s all about perspective
Living overseas is a transformational experience. The experience of getting outside of one’s own culture lets a person view his or her own culture from a new perspective. This was the case for me when I first left the U.S.
The first time I ever left the country was in 1980 when I was a 20-year-old undergraduate studying at the Stanford campus in Florence, Italy.
Learning to navigate a strange culture in a different language without a lot of support was a stretching experience, but one of the most intense experiences involved visiting my relatives in an obscure village called Cansano in the mountains of the Abruzzi four hours east of Rome.
Discovering my Italian family
I visited my relatives for the first time during a long weekend in February. Due to a bitter familial conflict (caused by my father marrying a non-Italian), my father had been estranged from his Italian relatives for 25 years.
I arrived in the village not really knowing anyone, but I soon discovered that almost the entire 500-person population of the village was related to me in one way or another.
A pivotal conversation
One night I had a discussion about politics with a cousin of mine. Nicola was 20 years older than I, so he seemed more like an uncle to me, but the conversation I had with him was foundational in my development of cross-cultural understanding.
As an American, I had always been proud of my country. I felt like it was a place where people from all over the world could come and pursue their own dreams. I assumed that people from other countries would think of America as a place of goodness and opportunity.
My father had inculcated this idea in me as he often told us about his immigration to the U.S. from Italy as a boy. To him, coming to America was a chance to achieve his dreams in a land of opportunity.
I know now that I was quite a naïve youth, but realize that this all happened when Reagan was president, the U.S. was standing up against the threat of world communism as represented by the Soviet Union, and America didn’t yet have the reputation of invading other countries, propping up right-wing dictators, and providing arms to everyone in the world like they do today (although it was probably already happening).
In general, America seemed to stand for something positive much more than it does today.
Since Italy was an ally, I again assumed that my cousin would have a positive attitude toward my country. Was I ever wrong!
“What the f@#* is Reagan trying to do, destroy the economy of Europe?” was his first outburst.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I thought Europe and America worked closely together.”
“Yes, well, as long as things go right for the U.S. Reagan is willing to throw any European country under the bus if it doesn’t lead to more money for the U.S.”
As we continued the discussion, I discovered that my cousin as well as many Italians hated Reagan’s policies and were afraid that his warmongering rhetoric would lead to disaster in Europe with the threat of the Soviet Union fighting the U.S. with Europe as the battlefield.
A true wake-up call
As it ultimately turned out, Reagan’s tough guy stance led to the end of the Cold War, but, at the time, the idea that many people in Europe completely disagreed with American policies was a revelation to me.
It has been common as an American to assume that people around the world have a positive view of America. Now, in 2019, these assumptions need to be questioned more than ever.
The reality is that every country views itself as special and important just as every individual views him or herself as unique.
Listening to each other and being willing to validate the interests and priorities of others, whether referring to countries or individuals, is a big step toward cross-cultural understanding.
Have you had an enlightening cross-cultural experience like this? Please share!