Getting to Know You — International Style

Originally Appeared in Huffington Post on Feb. 11

My daughters’ elementary school was bustling with excited kids and proud parents snapping pictures and recording on their iPhones at the school’s annual International Night on Tuesday.  More than 200 people attended this second annual celebration of diversity and global awareness, which was co-organized by the school’s Diversity Committee and PTO.  Families were invited to share their cultures and customs, encouraging our community to appreciate the diversity right here in town, as well as respect cultural differences around the world.

Foods from all over the world were brought in by families and shared at communal tables while kids puzzled over a globe-trotting geography quiz before the entertainment began.

A costume parade kicked off the entertainment, and student performances showcased karate and ancient Chinese weapons, Irish step dancers, swing and cha-cha dancers, and; a variety of traditional Indian dances promoting Indian, Southeast Asian and Eastern Asian cultural music and dance.

Following dinner and performances, students and parents grabbed their passports and explored the world through interactive exhibits featuring 18 countries.  At each stop, kids could learn a little bit about that country — its geography, culture, language, music, religion — through arts and crafts, map puzzles, interesting fast facts and architecture.  The countries represented this year included  Japan, China, India, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Portugal, Spain, France, Greece, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Brazil and Argentina.  I heard parents talking about the situation in Egypt, their integration into the US from another country, and, above all, the importance of nights like these. And a wise woman I know quoted Ola Joseph, “Diversity is not about how we differ. Diversity is about embracing one another’s uniqueness.”  This thought captured the spirit of the evening.

And although some people claim such events are too small and our schools need to open up to bigger and better inclusions of global-mindedness through curricula (I certainly agree with the latter point), I have learned as a parent that each schools is at its own individual place in the movement toward globalization and so we must encourage all steps toward opening the world to our children.

Of course I wish we could do more, faster, and every day. I’m a huge proponent of global awareness and inspiring our children to think globally so they can compete in the new world marketplace, which includes competition from other students around the world. This is what I “do” in my job: Speak, advise and write about the importance of international experience and global exposure to enhance competitiveness long-term.  And yes, there’s more to it than job security, promotions and higher pay for job seekers – there is the personal growth that comes from experiencing people and places different from us while enabling us to accept and embrace the differences, even just a little bit, as a facet of who we are, too.

People often comment that my children are more globally aware because we’re “world travelers.” Yes and no.  Our world lessons started with maps and globes at home.  They were born when we lived outside of Washington, D.C., and had the advantage of living in a vibrant, multi-cultural city. We ate diverse foods from around the world in our own neighborhood.  We maintained relationships with friends we’d made around the world and, in fact, very good friends from Hong Kong were in town the night they were born.  And while they did get their first passport at the age of three months – and went on plenty of international trips they probably don’t remember — much more of their awareness has come from engaging the world in our own home.

Not all families can travel overseas, but if you open their minds to the big, wide world at an early age, children will continue to explore as they become adults.  Parents can nurture children’s appetite for variety and adventure more than any school can.  Parents can raise less isolated and more globally-aware children by introducing them to multicultural cuisines early on; library and museum visits can open up the world, while cultural festivals and immigrant neighborhoods can bring the wider world closer.  Choices about work, leisure, entertainment, books, movies, and dozens of other areas can all help shape children’s interest in the world beyond their immediate exposure.

And as parents we should work with schools to actively encourage global exposure and awareness education, and can also provide supplemental educational opportunities in this area.  And since early foreign language education is crucially important in both “switching on” areas of a growing child’s brain and laying the foundation for bi- or tri-lingualism, those of us fortunate to have stellar foreign language programs in their communities should do everything they can to keep them.  History, geography, social studies, reading and writing, and even sciences can all be taught with a focus on multicultural competency.  As children become teenagers, study-abroad, work-abroad, and other direct global experiences become ever-more available and important for future career development.  Our children need such preparation to compete on a global scale.

And so, in the spirit of our International Night — and so many others taking place across the country this year — let’s celebrate the diversity and beauty of global cultures, while keeping in mind that this event is an important component to opening the world to our children.

As one parent said to me, “It’s a great way for kids to learn about their peers and what their friends’ cultures are all about.  If just one student appreciates and respects another’s culture – another’s differences — we’ve made progress – even a difference in the world.”

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