On a trip to California last year to celebrate a birthday, I caught up with several college friends. There was Gail, a Filipino- American; Yi Sun, a Korean-American; Cherlyn, a black American; Marcy, a white American; Fitsum, an Ethiopian, and Glenn, a Japanese- American.
I chuckled to myself as I hugged them and got caught up, having somehow forgotten the rainbow-like nature of my associates from early adulthood. My college wasn’t necessarily the most racially mixed place on Earth, but there were plenty of opportunities to meet people from all over the world and from a variety of backgrounds. It was a far cry from my upbringing, where a mixed group mostly meant black and white people.
Some people claim not to see color in others. To them, “seeing” a difference is somehow inferior to being blind to differences in people. But recognizing and appreciating the uniqueness among the intriguing splashes of cultures and ethnicities of the world can be both respectful and educational.
A friend, who grew up as a missionary kid abroad, said her life was more interesting because she got to know people from other backgrounds.
Another friend recently remarked that hanging out with people who are different enriches her in ways she could never have never otherwise experienced.
I once had a philosophy professor in college rail against multicultural celebrations, believing the promotion of smaller cultures within the larger context of America would only lead to divisiveness and social warfare.
Many Americans fear the coming day (less than 50 years away) when America will have no real racial majority. Will this lead to all-out separation, a resurgence of intolerance, a new clash of cultures? If we can manage to appreciate each other and live together with curiosity and kindness, we may find that this new America will prove an interesting place to be.
I love the things I’ve learned from people who don’t look or act like me. Yi Sun introduced me to sushi and Korean barbecue. I was proud to correctly skin, clean, and stir-fry baby squid purchased from the Asian market, just as she had taught me. I first took a whiff of the amazingly pungeant Korean staple kimchi (fermented and spicy cabbage) under her friendly tutelage, and learned about the modern day struggles of Korean Americans from our many conversations.
Fitsum conducted herself with the grace of a queen, modeling an amazing femininity and formality my friends and I had not seen this side of the ocean. She would dress up for her dates (and she always had them) as a sign of respect. She seemed calm and in control, and quickly moved on from people who did not treat her as she treated them.
Generally individuals either adjusted their behavior or were left in the dust. We American girls learned new ways of behavior from her.
Marcy cried with me about the tumultuous racial issues of the 90s. She helped me heal in many ways by taking the time to enter my world. A Midwestern girl, she has fiery red hair and drove a moped around campus, a free spirit. Today she’s upgraded to a motorcycle and still has friends of many hues and backgrounds.
Breaking through cultural and ethnic barriers often takes courage, creativity, persistence, and even forgiveness for past and present issues. However, the rewards are many. Truly, to remain united in a varied and ever changing America, even small efforts help move us all forward.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a therapist at CBI-Richmont Counseling Center and founder of www.chattanoogacounselor.com, a resource website. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.