Part I: My Passion for All Things International
This is the first of a series of three articles on the topic of multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In this first posting I share with my readers how and when my interest in this area developed, creating a backdrop for the second article. In the follow-up article I communicate why I feel it is so important and critical to be exposed to multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In my last and third article I discuss some of the challenges that we face in this arena, and offer recommendations of steps to take that could increase our exposure to diversity. Keeping in mind that when I refer to diversity in my articles, I am including individuals with all kinds of differences.
There are things in this world that inspire our passion and interest. For me, some of those things are multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. There are various paths that have brought me here. I am a Colombian born immigrant to the United States. This allows me three distinct roles, that of being a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and lastly an American citizen. By moving to the United States I entered into a multicultural environment, I lived in a Colombian home in an American culture. A defining moment in my life, when my interest for all things international was sparked, happened when I joined Mrs. Bouhafa’s 3rd grade class in 1969. I joined her class after the first month of the school year when the powers to be decided I belonged in her class.
Mrs. Bouhafa stood in the front of the classroom with me and introduced me to the rest of the class and said something about my Spanish-speaking ability. I had been fully bi-lingual since kindergarten. A boy in the class, Stephen (bottom row 1st boy on left), took me by the hand to the back of the room, to a globe of world, pointed to Spain, and asked me if I was from there. I said no, and rotated the globe back and proudly pointed to Colombia and said, “I am from here”. Stephen smiled. I feel good even today knowing that he and the other children learned about Colombia from me. It would be the beginning of my lifelong mission of trying to share a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos with Americans. Mrs. Bouhafa was a world traveler. She shared her passion for all things international with her students. Her room was filled with pictures of her in various parts of the world, but the picture I remember the most was of her on a camel with the Egyptian Pyramids in the background. Mrs. Bouhafa taught us about world cultures, worldwide geography, and to find beauty in all of it. Little did Mrs. Bouhafa know that she had planted a seed of wanderlust in me, and the desire to see the world.
At first I would not need to travel very far. I lived in New York City where all you had to do was step out of your front door and see people from around the world. When I rode the subway I loved observing the different outfits worn by people, the beautiful colors of the fabrics, the styles, and the hats. In one afternoon you could see Hasidic Jews dressed in black with their payot, Indian women in colorful saris, African women in their long dresses of African print, Cuban men in guayaberas, Muslim women wearing hijabs and abayas, and Sikh men wearing turbans. You could venture into Chinatown and feel you were half way around the world as you walked in wonderment looking at the food markets, smelling all the fish, and seeing all the Chinese character signs. It was also the sixties and there were many changes happening in our society. The Civil Rights and Feminist movements were in full swing. People were protesting the Vietnam War and the Flower Power generation was blooming creating a historical generation gap. My dad’s hobby was to make 8mm home movies and capture the essence of New Yorkers on his films. On Sundays, our family would go to Greenwich Village in Manhattan to people watch. We have great footage of my mom and I dressed in our 1960’s Sunday church outfits hanging out with “Los hippies”, as my parents called them, while listening to guitar folk music and Hare Krishna chanting. There I stood at age 8, absorbing all of these experiences quietly in my head helping to shape my opinion of the world.
I attended Public School 151 in Woodside, Queens. Our 3rd grade class of 29 children was comprised of mainly white (European ancestry) children, 4 African-American boys and girls, 3 Asian boys, 1 girl from Aruba, and 1 Colombian girl (me). There was some religious diversity. In the month of December we learned Hanukkah songs together with Christmas songs. My first school trip to the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan was a true highlight. I was amazed with the concept of simultaneous language translation. The idea that someone could be speaking in their native tongue, and that dozens of translators would be translating in their private cubbies, speaking into microphones, which in turn were wired to members of the audience. That people could understand each other even though they spoke in different languages was mind-boggling.
In my other parallel childhood life, I would visit Colombia during the summers. I realize now how privileged I was to be able to have had those experiences. When I went to Colombia I would stay with family in my birth city of Medellin. Sometimes I flew with my parents, and other times they would send me by myself on the airplane. I would spend amazing summers discovering Medellin, its surrounding villages, and the countryside. But it was not all fun and play, my mother who gave me spanish lessons during the school year, would also request that I take spanish lessons during vacations.
As a young adult I would begin to travel the world. The first big trip that I planned and saved up for was during college. In 1983, I visited a total of 10 cities and villages in the Atlantic coastal, central Andes, and Amazon regions of Colombia.
In 1984 I began working as an engineer in upstate New York. That alone was a cultural change for me, Schenectady was very different to New York City. I continued to travel with work to other states allowing me the opportunity to see the vastness of this nation and the huge regional differences. In 1986, I took my first European trip to the Alps in Switzerland to ski. With each trip I knew I wanted to see and learn even more of the world and its cultures. There was no turning back. I started figuring out ways of traveling, not just for pleasure but also for work.
My career in engineering evolved and in time I got an MBA. Business school was transformative for me not just in academic ways but also in my view of the world. Prior to business school I used to think that the United States was the be-all and end-all. Sure, I had a multicultural back ground, but I was close minded in thinking that there was nothing better than the United States. I judged everything through the biased American view. Business school exposed me to international students and business, and broader thinking.
I learned about countries not just from a cultural perspective but also from a socioeconomic and geopolitical view. I started understanding the role that the United States played in world politics and in the global economy. I knew then that I wanted to work in international business. In time, I achieved my goal and ended up doing international business and product development that involved traveling around the world, working with cross-functional, and cross-cultural work teams. I was in my element.
Although, my own multicultural background and training has given me a heightened sensitivity to appreciating other people’s cultures, it has been with each subsequent trip and cross-cultural encounter that I have gleaned the cultural nuances, learned how to behave abroad, and learned to become a more open-minded person. This exposure to multiculturalism has also developed my sensitivity to understanding people’s differences no matter what kind. I thrive in environments that have diversity and I relish the opportunity of being inclusive and of being included.
My business and leisure travel has taken me all over the world. I have been to 5 out of 7 continents, and to 33 countries. I have been to 32 states of the United States. If only I could sit with Mrs. Bouhafa to compare pictures and experiences, and to thank her for sharing her love for all things international with me.
Everyday I continue to learn more and more about diversity and human nature. Although, I count the days until I can get on another airplane to visit some exotic part of the world, I know that I have hundreds of resources and experiences to be discovered right here in my own neighborhood.
With every connection I make to someone or someplace around the world or even right here in my own backyard, I discover we have more things in common with each other than I realized. When I focus on the similarities it seems to lessen the differences.
In my next posting I share why I feel it is so important to expose ourselves and our children to other cultures. I also make the connection to the importance of exposure to all that is different, be they people of different race, religion, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, mental health, socioeconomic, genetic attributes, etc.
Definitions from various sources:
- of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures
- relating to communities containing multiple cultures
- the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state of nation
- comparing or dealing with two or more different cultures
- pertaining to or contrasting two or more cultures or cultural groups.
- in sociology, involving or bridging the differences between cultures
- the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.
- the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures in a group or organization.
- the term can describe differences in racial or ethnic classifications, age, gender, religion, philosophy, physical abilities, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, gender identity, intelligence, mental health, physical health, genetic attributes, behavior, attractiveness, or other identifying features.
- In sociology, the term can be used to describe groups of people whose members have identifiable differences in cultural backgrounds or lifestyles.