While culture is often subtle, it’s always a powerful influence on what and how we learn.
Learning occurs in cultural context. While culture is often subtle, it’s always a powerful influence on what and how we learn. Over time, it’s increasingly difficult to be aware of the culture in which we live, work and learn. Marshall McLuhan, the famous communication authority, said it best, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.” One of the best ways to examine your own water is to invite others from a very different pond to dive into yours. The following are reflections on my own cultural blindness revealed by inviting others into my pond.
For 12 days, my wife and I enjoyed having two Muslim, Iraqi high school boys as guests in our home. The program is a joint effort between the U.S. State Department and the Iraqi government to build understanding and good will between people of vastly different cultures. Before you immediately think the best of me, you must understand that my wife dragged me into this with only my passive compliance. I suppose I was concerned about silly possibilities ranging from discomfort for my daughter to the potential impact it might have on my ability to clear airport security. Having lived abroad for six years and having been a CLO in several international organizations, I feel fairly culturally aware. But this experience showed me that I have much to learn.
I expected that our cultural differences would be significant. In some ways this was true, but in others it was completely absurd. To begin with, our Iraqi boys were revealed to be much better versed in U.S. pop culture than I am. My American children don’t find it remarkable that most people are more pop-culture adroit than I. But I didn’t know how much I didn’t know until Ahmed and Haasanain came to town. Within the larger group of visiting Iraqi students, one of the girls, who had never previously been outside Iraq, spoke with a flawless American accent. Were it not for the hijab, you would think she had always lived next door and would rightfully wish this delightful young woman was your neighbor. She explained the nuances of recent American films to her host family with insight that was far beyond any of our abilities. She learned to speak with linguistic and cultural fluency through exposure to a wide array of American media and by practicing hip-hop songs in front of a mirror.
One of the distinctive characteristics of our Iraqi children was the intensity of loyalty and closeness they expressed for their families. Clearly, family is an American value, but the intensity of their loyalty to family exceeded anything I’ve ever witnessed. Their constant, passionate and lengthy phone calls to nuclear family, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws and a host of distant relatives were incredible. The boys explained that weekends in Iraq are eating, stories, games, singing — and all centered on family. To say that family is the first priority for them is a gross understatement.
I was also struck by the profound nature of their cultural differences. One of our boys was a Shiite and the other a Sunni. The differences in their two worldviews cut deep. Intense arguments between them were constant, ranging from the importance of halal meat (the only kind we ate for 12 days) to whether or not Baghdad is currently a city.
On the one hand, consider the Iraqi history of science, literature, art, music and gastronomy as one of the world’s greatest cultures. Baghdad was for centuries at the epicenter of global progress. But this historically great civilization now lives with devastation and frustration over the chaos of its infrastructure and governance. Part of the vehement divide is over whether it is proper to call Iraq a “once great” civilization or if loyalty necessitates that one merely look beyond the current trouble, revere the past, create a future and eschew any sense that Iraq is anything other than a great country and Baghdad a great city.
During their stay, our boys enjoyed an amusement park, where they thrilled at getting me, a former Air Force pilot, green to the gills. They tolerated history and art lectures. They were polite at the world building lectures at Harvard. But the thing they most loved was to shop. Best Buy was their best friend. I was at first concerned about infecting them with American consumerism, but realized most of their shopping was not for themselves, but for their families. I am saddened by their departure, but enriched by an increased value and compassion for the Iraqi people and culture.
Fred Harburg is a private consultant, writer and speaker in the disciplines of leadership, strategy and performance coaching. He has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Motorola and Fidelity Investments. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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