Friday, December 23, 2011

For deep experiences, is salad bowl or melting pot best?

I was priviledged to have an informational interview with Janet Bennett, a pioneer and thought leader in the intercultural communications world, a few days ago. Among her many insights, I was struck by a comment on recent findings about study abroad students. The ones who do the best in learning about culture, thriving during the program, etc. do NOT spend all their time with hosts.

They do best when they spend the majority of the day immersed in the new culture and then return to live with people from their own culture who can help them process their experience. (Obvously, it is a problem if they spend too little time in the host culture as well. The ideal numbers are 25-75% of their waking hours in the host culture, I believe.)

In a similar vein, we had a short discussion about faith communities and their efforts to be multi-ethnic. Many churches -- and other religious organizations -- try to draw in all the ethnicities represented in their community to a "united" service or program. The leaders (often white Western males) are usually convinced that everyone should move toward each other, adjust, and eventually become completely united in our diversity. But is this the best?

When I lived in South Africa during a turbulent time (my family left Cape Town three days before Mandela was elected), I began to understand unity wasn't the ultimate goal. From universities to the churches to media, separate language and culture specific programs with irregular opportunities for cross-cultural unity were emerging as the best model.

People certainly should come together at times to express their unity. Certainly we should learn to understand each other and cooperate on specific projects/issues/programs to build a better world. Definitely we must move past tolerance towards respect. But for deep experiences -- whether a learning experience like study abroad or a religious worship experience -- they are best done in your mother-tongue and with people like you.

Of course, this assumes the people from your culture are good at processing cross-cultural experiences, helping you focus on principles not minor differences, and don't reinforce stereotypes. Also, keeping "separate but equal" programs is virtually impossible for a government like South Africa -- or India which has thousands of sub-cultures -- to administer fairly. But that is fodder for another blog entry.

If my kids study abroad someday, I might not fight to the death for them to live with a host family. Then again, cross-cultural success is an art (as well as science) and perhaps if the goal is language learning, it would be good.

But the bottom line is that we shouldn't assume complete immersion or integration is always possible or best. Perhaps a salad bowl instead of a melting pot is a healthy model.

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