I spent my most recent college semester in Rome, Italy. It was an experience, to say the least. One thing I can tell you for sure is that I learned a lot about my own family’s culture, and, in turn, I became a lot more aware of the other cultures around me back at home in NYC.
Growing up in The Melting Pot almost makes it sound easy to just know about other cultures and people because you’re surrounded. I’m here to tell you the truth: it isn’t easy. You have to make the effort to actually go learn about other cultures. You can eat all the sushi you want and never truly appreciate the Japanese culture. You can grow up in an Italian family, speak the language, and still never understand anything about Italy. That was my exact predicament these past four months. I thought I knew what I was walking into. I had seen all the foods before. I could communicate somewhat with the locals. I had always prided myself on being something other than American. I loved having some different culture to tell people about, but, up until recently, I actually didn’t even know too much about Italian culture outside of the food. It made me realize that I also knew nothing about most of the people that I grew up living right next door to. If you find yourself in that same situation, well, here are my three main tips to help get you through.
- Talk to people. Talk to everyone. You might be thinking that you do this on the daily, but I’m not just talking about simple conversations. I’m talking about the type of communication that opens your mind. Talk to other students about their heritages, especially exchange or international students. They have a lot of stories to offer you, I promise. Let them tell you about their life back at their home country; they can offer real insight to life under certain governments, with different education systems/religions/values. There are too many things we take for granted here in the United States, and a great way to connect with people and also become further aware of your privilege is through simple communication.
- Did you know that tomatoes weren’t always a part of the Italian tradition? As a matter of fact, people used to think that their bold, red color signified poison, and the leaden plates that peasants used to eat them off of would turn people ill, so they blamed the fruit. That brings us to the next tip. Learn about and eat/cook a traditional meal. If you manage to make friends with some students from different backgrounds, ask them about traditional recipes. If you’re really good friends, hang out after school one day or in one of your campus kitchens and put a meal together. Not only is it a great experience cooking with friends in general, but seeing new ingredients or old ingredients being prepared in wholly new ways will give you a new understanding of how people eat around the world. Some ingredients even have stories behind them and different meanings in other cultures, so take advantage of these opportunities.
- Here’s a cool video and an article about the right ways to eat sushi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auLmekEsaak and http://blog.gaijinpot.com/eating-sushi-the-proper-way/ .That brings us to tip #3: Use the internet if you have questions. How do we properly eat sushi? What are the different types of headdresses for Muslim women? Why are there different names for similar alcohols in different countries? What do the different gestures in Indian dancing mean? These are all great questions you might have, and you can start by answering them with a simple google search.
If you find yourself needing immediate help learning about another culture, have no fear. Here are two websites that can help you out:
While I love being back home in America, I sometimes feel isolated from the cultures around me, even when so many people in my neighborhood are immigrants. It’s easy to forgot how privileged some of us are to have been born here and to have United States passports and many different freedoms. We have to remember that people may feel like outsiders in our strange, ethnocentric American world, and one way to make them feel welcome is to simply try to understand them.