Privilege and responsibility

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According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), in 2013 there were 168 million children world-wide who were working to help support their families instead of attending school.

As a teacher, I find figures such as this both saddening and alarming since it means these children won’t have a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. Even though education is highly prized in many parts of the developing world, particularly India, dire financial circumstances sometimes dictate that children must work during the day in order to have enough rice for the family to eat at night. Sure, many of us have read about forced child labor or seen documentaries about the children who work long days in brick-making factories or use their small hands to weave rugs since tiny fingers can produce finer weaving, but do we see issues such as this as simply being someone else’s problem or as being so totally overwhelming as to be insurmountable, and therefore not worthy of our reflection?

One of the main differences between Westerners who’ve traveled widely and those who haven’t is that travel brings you much closer to the realities of daily life for the poor masses living in the developing world. It’s much easier to turn off the TV news than it is to remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation while being surrounded by a new language and culture. I believe that being faced with such challenges and observing how we react to them is a chance to make huge strides in learning about ourselves and fostering personal growth.

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Whose life is more important?

Having been brought up by very humble ‘salt of the Earth’ parents who taught my sisters and I to be both generous of spirit and empathetic with all others, I’ve never really understood the way media coverage of an international disaster—plane crash, terror attack, earthquake–tends to focus on the nationalities of the dead and injured. Of course, I understand that local and regional media outlets depend on viewership and ratings for advertising revenue which therefore dictates that their reporting remains relevant to the local viewing population. But what about international news organizations and their wider responsibilities?
During my years of working and living in the Middle East, I often got my TV news from BBC World, Al Jazeera or Euro News because I wanted news coverage that included more stories from Africa, Asia and Europe than CNN International either deemed necessary or had the courage to air. These major world news organizations, however, do share one thing in common–when reporting on major disasters with casualties, they tend to place more focus on the number of Western lives lost, even when the number of Western casualties is significantly lower than the number of those killed or injured who just happen to be citizens of poorer developing countries. This bias in reporting has been most evident in media coverage of bombings and shootings labelled as ‘terrorist attacks’. I could mention a litany of both major and minor events that took place in the USA, France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Australia, Israel and others where the international news coverage exhibited this Western-Centric bias.
What accounts for this double standard?

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The alt-right movement

The most alarming trend I see in the USA and other Western countries at the moment is the growing support for the alt-right movement and its obsession with race. Richard Spencer, the current golden boy of the Alt-Right movement in the USA, has repeatedly denied being a white supremacist and in a December 2016 interview with CNN reporter Sara Ganim said, “Only white people can support what we call Western civilization.” He has also advocated a “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” with those of non-European descent voluntarily leaving the United States. Is this a likely scenario? Fortunately for the well-being of the USA’s economy, arts and culture, it’s highly unlikely. The Atlantic allowed Spencer to tell his own story in this 2016 interview. Take a look and then please read on.
Trump’s election rhetoric and the Alt-Right
The thing I deplored most about Donald Trump’s election campaign rhetoric was his verbal bigotry openly aimed at women, the physically challenged and racial and religious minorities. By firing up his supporters with what would normally be considered as ‘hate-speech’ at his political rallies, Trump led the way in making it okay for folks like Spencer to come out of the closet and throw off the white sheets. With his clean-cut, 1950s all-American good looks (which is fitting since Spencer uses appearance as his base line for separating one group from another), Spencer seems to be the perfect poster boy for the movement. He’s well-spoken and looks like a normal young suburban guy who might live next door. The most alarming thought to me is that he just might be, but perhaps it’s better for us to be able to identify who these radical racists are on a day to day basis rather than waking up in the middle of the night to find a cross burning in the front yard without a soul being in sight.

“Trump is a white nationalist, so to speak, he is alt-right whether he likes it or not.” Richard Spencer in a recent interview on The David Pakman Show.

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Developing cultural awareness

While reading about other cultures is valuable, it has limits as an educational tool and doesn’t fully prepare you for the experience of actually ‘being’ in a different culture. You can do research online or by reading travel guidebooks, but you will still remain in your comfort zone without the emotional changes and challenges that take place once you find yourself alone and surrounded by a different culture.
I remember walking the streets of a lesser known inland Chinese city and suddenly being startled by cries of “laowai, laowai” coming from across the street. I understood the meaning of laowai–foreigner–in Mandarin Chinese, but I was still surprised that it was considered acceptable to yell that at a foreigner in public. Of course, many of the other locals on the street at the time (which was everyone) stared at me, which of course made me feel more than a bit conspicuous as I picked up my pace to pass everyone with a smile and wave. You see, all the research I had done before going to work and live in China hadn’t fully prepared me for dealing with such an awkward public situation, but it did make me aware that keeping a sense of humor would be a valuable asset in future encounters which might otherwise have turned out to be uncomfortable for both me and the locals I encountered on a daily basis.
Gaining some degree of cultural awareness doesn’t depend on having advanced degrees or being highly intellectual, but in my view it’s accessible to anyone with a keen sense of ‘personal’ awareness and who’s willing and able to spend time living within a foreign culture. Skillful observation of the target (foreign) culture as well as critical examination of your own cultural upbringing are also prerequisites. At its heart, cultural awareness rests on  an individual’s ability to ask the right questions about both their own culture and the new one.

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Cultural relativity? What’s that?

Even for those of us who grew up in less traditional cultures where it isn’t unusual for individuals or entire families to scatter and move the breadth of a continent, our cultural roots run far deeper than we might imagine. If the American presidential election in November 2016 clearly indicated anything, it’s that citizens from different states in the USA continue to harbor quite different world views despite two centuries of mass immigration from abroad and 150 years of region to region migration within the country.
Statistics also indicate there are further differences between urban and rural world views and priorities within each given state when it comes to voting patterns and proposed government legislation. If citizens from the same country can’t seem to agree on most important issues, what hope is there for agreement among the diverse cultures on our planet?

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Global reach of American culture

As an American who’s been living and working overseas for more than 13 years, I often find myself pondering the question: how do the local folks I encounter on a daily basis see me? Am I viewed as a benevolent foreigner, a cultural disrupter or merely a nuisance that can be either ignored or tolerated? Since nationality is often one of the first things that comes up when meeting a local or another expat in a foreign land, it’s pretty awkward trying to completely avoid the subject, which is something I often attempt to do.

That isn’t to say that I’m ashamed of being born an American, or a ‘Canadian’ as I often proclaim when traveling in certain regions of the world. Compared to my Indian and Arab friends, I realize I’m incredibly fortunate to have the freedom of international movement that’s allowed by having a ‘preferred passport’. With only a few notable exceptions, it allows me visa-free freedom of movement across international borders while individuals from many developing countries are required to pay a fee and wait weeks (or months) to obtain a proper visa prior to traveling. Dealing with that kind of bureaucracy for months in advance could be enough to discourage even the most enthusiastic traveler, so yeah, I do feel lucky.

Before I go any further, let me say I ‘get’ that some Americans may think of American expats as somehow being traitors or less patriotic than the American masses who choose not to explore the world outside the USA. American culture, especially music and film, is so globally dominant that I’m certain it must feel quite reasonable for some to assume they can enjoy a full life without ever setting foot on the soil of a foreign land.

For better or worse, this writer seems to have been born with a genetic predisposition to wander this amazing (and sometimes terrifying) planet we all must share. What I’ve discovered is that there are a variety of ways in which Americans are perceived abroad, depending on the culture of the region and current events being portrayed in the media on any particular day.

Is it possible for anyone to truly be free of prejudice?

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