Series on Multiculturalism, Cross-Cultural Relationships, and Diversity

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. 

A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called "Chiva" or "Bus de Escalera" used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

1983 – A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called “Chiva” (goat) or “Bus de Escalera” (ladder bus) used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

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 and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970

Mrs. Bouhafa and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970. That’s me, the Girl Scout Brownie on the left hand side.

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.

That's me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie 1969 waiting to discover the world.

1969 – That’s me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie  waiting to discover 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.

The "gringita" niece learns about animals at the "finca"  (the ranch)

1971 – The “gringuita” niece learns about animals at the “finca” (the ranch)

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.

1983 - On the first adventure that I plan and finance myself. Here I am by the edge of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

1983 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, here I am by the shores of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

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.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that's me on a train in the Alps!

1986 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that’s me on a train in the Alps!

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.

One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him in Tokyo, Japan

1994- One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him and his family in Tokyo, Japan.

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.

I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. Circa 1996

1996 – I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. 

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.

Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

1994 – Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

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.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai. 2001

2001 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai.

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.

Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An. 2013

2013 – Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An.

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.

 

Relishing the trip in the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

2013 – Trip to Vietnam. Navigating the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I love this picture my daughter took because if you look at my sunglasses you can see my daughter taking the photo and son and husband further back, all three the apples of my eye!

 

 

Definitions from various sources:

Multiculturalism:

  1. of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures
  2. relating to communities containing multiple cultures
  3. the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state of nation

Cross-Cultural:

  1. comparing or dealing with two or more different cultures
  2. pertaining to or contrasting two or more cultures or cultural groups.
  3. in sociology, involving or bridging the differences between cultures

Diversity:

  1. the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.
  2. the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures in a group or organization.
  3. 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.
  4. In sociology, the term can be used to describe groups of people whose members have identifiable differences in cultural backgrounds or lifestyles.
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An Adventure in Vietnam

Hoi An MarketCourtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Hoi An Market
Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Our family just spent an amazing 10 days exploring the country of Vietnam.

Because there is so much I would like to share with my readers I have decided to do it over several postings. In this article I write about general information about Vietnam and our itinerary.

Colorful Lanterns for sale in Hoi An

Colorful Lanterns for sale in Hoi An

Vietnam is located in the eastern section of the Indochina peninsula. It borders with China to the north, Lao and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east. By the way, the Vietnamese refer to the South China Sea as the Pacific. Approximately 80% of Vietnam is mountainous, with peaks as high as 10,308 feet (3,142 m). Vietnam boasts a coastline 2140 miles (3444 km) long with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Fishermen in Halong Bay

Fishermen in Halong Bay
Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

The total population of Vietnam is approximately 90 million people. Vietnam has 54 distinct ethnic groups. The Viet (or Kinh) people account for 88% of the population. Most of the 5.5 million ethnic minority people live in the mountains. Even today these ethnic groups distinguish themselves by wearing their traditional local costumes. The national language of Vietnam is Vietnamese. The ethnic minorities also have their own native languages.

Ho Chi Minh Bust in the Reunification Hall in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh Bust in the Reunification Hall in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh unified North and South Vietnam in 1975 and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established. Today, it continues to be a communist regime with only one ruling party in existence. However, in 1986 they embraced free market capitalism, abolished the practice of collectivized farming, and gave roots to political liberalization. Today, Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, with an average growth of 7 percent since 2005. In 1995 Vietnam joined the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations) and in 2006 it joined the WTO (World Trade Organization). It is now the number one exporter of rice surpassing Thailand. Some of Vietnam’s other resources include: coal, iron, aluminum, tin and oil; as well as many agricultural products like maize, sweet potatoes, soy beans, rubber, lacquer, coffee, tea, tobacco, cotton, coconut, sugar cane, jute, and tropic fruit. There is currently a dispute between China and Vietnam over some of Vietnam’s oil rich waters.

DSCN0013

Being an American, I was not sure how the Vietnamese people would react to me. We had after all been in a terrible war with each other. As a child of the late 60’s to early 70’s, my world was surrounded by the idea of the Vietnam War. My Girl Scout leader, Mrs. Marshall, had lost a son to the war. She proudly displayed his photo over the family television. My 6th grade teacher, Mr. McCarthy made us read The New York Times everyday and write a summary of current events. I hated this assignment because the whole front page of the newspaper was about the WAR. Many of my girlfriends wore POW-MIA bracelets. They were bracelets created in 1970 with the names of soldiers who were either prisoners of war or missing in action. The idea was to wear the bracelet until the soldier returned or was found. My parents and I would spend our weekend family outings in Manhattan. We would mingle among the hundreds of people in Greenwich Village, who would either be protesting the war, singing folk music, or displaying their Flower Power signs. And although, my parents and I, dressed in our Sunday outfits, stood out among the 1970’s tie-dyed, longhaired, so-called hippies, we felt comfortable in this setting and accepted by all. My father, who was dedicated to making 8mm home movies, captured some amazing footage of the times.

Communist Propaganda

Public Service Announcements

We all know how our involvement in the war ended, however it would be many years before I would educate myself in detail and fully understand the Vietnam conflict. It would be years later, that one day arriving from an international business trip in the mid 90’s, that I would hear the announcement as I stood in the immigration line, “Flight such and such arriving from Vietnam”. It was baffling to think that we were now vacationing in Vietnam. I knew then that someday I would make the pilgrimage to Vietnam to see this country, to meet its people, and to pay my respects to all of those killed in the sad and senseless war. And so back to my original concern of how I would be viewed as an American, quickly faded for the Vietnamese people showed me only kindness and friendship. They are very proud of their accomplishments and very positive about their futures. However, they have their version of history and proudly display how they defeated the aggressive United States in the “American War” (how they refer to the Vietnam War) and how under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh they were able to unify their country and expel foreign powers. It’s ironic to think that the Communist regime that once fought and defeated American Capitalism in 1975 would later adopt capitalism in 1986.

The length of our visit probably did not do justice to the country since there are so many diverse regions to visit: The Deltas, Central Highlands, Central Coastline, and the Northern Mountains. But we dabbled a little in as many as we could.

Vietnamese Woman selling lotus flowersCourtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Vietnamese Woman selling lotus flowers
Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Our itinerary was as follows:

  • Day 1 – Evening flight from London to Hong Kong
  • Day 2 – Connection flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi, Vietnam (northern Vietnam) Arrival in Hanoi by 7 p.m.
  • Day 3 – Day tour of Hanoi
  • Day 4 – Transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay by vehicle (3 hour drive). Board junk for overnight boat cruise on Halong Bay
  • Day 5 – Return to port by mid-morning and transfer to Hanoi Airport. Flight from Hanoi Airport to Danang Airport (central Vietnam) Originally was scheduled to fly to Hue airport directly, but it was closed for renovation. Transfer by vehicle from Danang Airport to Hue (2 ½ hours)
  • Day 6 – Half-day tour of sights in Hue. Transfer by vehicle to Hoi An with stops along the way.
  • Day 7 – Morning tour of Hoi An and free afternoon
  • Day 8 – Depart Hoi An and transfer to Danang Airport. Flight from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Transfer by vehicle to Cu Chi Tunnels for morning tour. Transfer to Ho Chi Minh City and free afternoon
  • Day 9 – Drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Mekong Delta for day tour.
  • Day 10 – Half Day tour of Ho Chi Minh City. Transfer to airport. Flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hong Kong
  • Day 11- Flight from Hong Kong to London
On a tributary of the Mekong River

On a tributary of the Mekong River

Ideally, we could have added 2 to 3 more days to the trip to include Laos or Cambodia to the itinerary or simply more down time by the beach. We decided to focus on just Vietnam with the 11 days we had available to us. This was a very busy itinerary. We did have some free time built into the schedule that allowed us to enjoy the pool and beach.

Dragon Fruit

Dragon Fruit

Although it was necessary to visit the big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, we were truly enchanted by our visits to Halong Bay in the north-east, the ancient cities of Hue and Hoi An in central Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta region in the south.

Emperor's Tomb in Hue

Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh in Hue Countryside

We booked our trip through our travel agent. She in turn went to several tour operators. We ended up using Cox & Kings. The agent in Vietnam for Cox & Kings was Trails of Indochina, a very renowned operator of Asian tours. The tour was private and customized to our liking. We had our own drivers and guides in each of the regions. We were very impressed with the quality of the guides and punctuality of the transfers.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Vietnam is a treasure trove of rich history, beautiful sights, delicious foods, bright colors, and friendly people. In my next posting I’ll share more of our visit to Vietnam.

Her Last Dance

I was truly saddened to hear of Donna Summer’s death yesterday afternoon. She died after a long battle with cancer. She was only 63. Her song “The Last Dance” started playing in my head and with that my eyes filled with tears. I think I was not only mourning Donna but also what she represented to me, the glittery Disco era, which I so adored and still do. I was only 16, in 1977 when her first album was released and when Saturday Night Fever, the movie, came out. The glamour of Disco twinkled in my eyes. On my way home from my after school job in a Manhattan department store, I would walk by a dance studio that advertised “Disco Lessons”. I thought to myself what a brilliant idea it would be to take Disco lessons. I envisioned myself dancing away with John Travolta. And so I ran home with all of the enthusiasm in the world to ask my Colombian parents if I could take Disco lessons in this Manhattan studio, and can you guess what their answer was… “NO”, a big indisputable ”NO”. I walked away with my head down, with all of my Disco dreams crushed in an instant. I had to settle for listening to Donna Summer at home parties and pretending to know how to dance Disco. We twirled and spun to hit songs like, “I Feel Love”, “MacArthur Park”, “Heaven Knows”, “Thank God Its Friday”, and “The Last Dance”. By the way, with most of the lyrics going over my head. Donna Summer continued to give us hits and transitioned us into the 80’s sound with albums like “Bad Girls” (still with lyrics going over my head) and “She Works Hard for the Money” among several. Remembering her songs bring a smile to my face and now I think I’ll go play her Best Hits album while I twirl and spin in the kitchen, still pretending to know how to dance Disco for the rest of the afternoon. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll play Disco music all weekend long. Wait until I break the news to my unsuspecting family that this is Disco Weekend in honor of Donna Summer.

Thank you Donna for this last dance tonight.

…So let’s dance, the last dance

Let’s dance, the last dance

Let’s dance, this last dance tonight…

Singer: Donna Summer 1978

Lyrics: by Paul Jabara