The Adventurous Mailbox – Introducing Kids to the World
This is a guest blog post from The Adventurous Mailbox.
Beyond memorizing national capitals and heads of state, there is a deeper level of international exploration that kids should undertake. We launched The Adventurous Mailbox because we think it is awfully important for kids to not only learn about other countries, but also to explore underlying cultures and, by doing so, develop an international perspective as they grow up. The ability to understand and appreciate the way other peoples think and live their lives may not be assessed on standardized tests, but it is vitally important for every kid’s future.
Prepares them for the future
For starters, the most obvious reason cultural education is important is that as countries of the world become more and more connected, chances are that the kids of today will need to work or cooperate with people from other cultures. Whether conducting business or collaborating on a design project, it would be helpful to know, for example, that when communicating with people from many Asian cultures it is very important to never let them lose face. With Confucius having a mighty influence on the region as well, it is also important to understand and operate correctly within the established hierarchy.
Beyond Eastern Asia, there are little nuggets to learn about cultures from all over the world that will make collaboration and communication more fluid and more successful. If kids can develop the ability to learn about and truly understand other cultures, as well as to see things from entirely different perspectives, they will have a major leg up in the future with much more opportunity available to them. This ability will also benefit them in other areas of life as it strengthens open mindedness and the ability to empathize. Kids who are raised to study only their own culture and believe other cultures should adapt to their own way of thinking will be left behind in future work and social spheres, just as adults are starting to learn firsthand in today’s world.
Allows for personal growth
The amount of personal growth that comes from exploring other cultures also makes the endeavor time well spent. We all want our kids to grow up into fulfilled adults, but we also know that for many of us life as an adult isn’t easy and that happiness and contentment aren’t things that are easily acquired. Even if one “succeeds” by having a healthy family and a stable job, so many of us fall into ruts. We get into ruts at work, and we get into cultural ruts at home where the only new inspiration comes from primetime TV. How, then, do we get a kid on a path that leads to more fulfillment? If a child learns to study and appreciate other cultures or even pick up another language, more prospects and ideas will be available that make life richer. Just learning about other cultures opens up a world of options and choices that would have otherwise been undiscovered, and over the course of adulthood options would be continuously revealed. As Marcel Proust advised, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” One great way to “see with new eyes” is to learn about how other folks live their lives.
Along the same lines, studying other cultures also helps kids who may feel out of place in their own. Whether they don’t fit into their small town, urban environment, suburbia, or even the country as a whole, learning about other countries and cultures can give them inspiration to push on and not be limited by the surroundings that don’t suit them. It can serve as a “window out” and ease the massive pressure kids feel to conform.
Learn about your own culture
Finally, another great benefit from studying other cultures is the insight you gain into your own. As you learn about other cultures and even grow to understand and respect them, at the same time you may think, “Thank God my culture is not like that.” That is entirely okay to think because this process of negation reveals your own culture.
To illustrate, when I first moved abroad I had no idea what it meant to be American. I mean, I knew what Americans did, but I wasn’t aware of what was unique or defining about American culture or American people. Like many Americans, I was raised to think the rest of the world was learning to act like us, and I assumed people everywhere would be about the same. Of course I knew other countries had different religions and governments that would impact daily life, but what I didn’t know would be different were operating philosophies, perspectives, motivations, ways of processing information, strategies of communication, and even things like how one walks down the street or waits in line at the post office.
Three years into my ongoing stint abroad, I was hired at a South Korean university as part of their international team staffing their foreign language department. My contract stated that I would have 16 teaching hours a week, plus would need to maintain four office hours. I was also guaranteed three months of paid vacation a year, which was extremely important as it allowed me much-needed visits home to see family are friends. On the first day of the job, though, things had changed. All foreign workers, when not teaching, needed to stay in their offices from 9-6, five days a week, to be available to students for one-on-one tutoring. Times when not tutoring would count as office hours that could be used for grading. This never happened, however, and I was usually grading papers a few hours every night. On top of this, the school had decided to keep their foreign teachers around for the summer, taking out two of my promised three-month vacation.
Needless to say, I was furious. I had left Shanghai for this new position, and felt betrayed after trusting them enough to relocate to a new country. I asked the other foreign teachers about their contracts, and they were similar to my own. The other teachers, from Japan, China, Russia, and New Zealand, simply accepted the fact that the boss had lied and were happy that they still had a job. I couldn’t picture spending two years in this sort of circumstance, however, and called a meeting with the dean. That meeting taught me a lot about being American.
For starters, I was rude and arrogant. Having just met him, I spoke to him angrily and in raised voice. I called him a liar, told him that this would never happen in America, and in general lost my cool. Taken aback, he had a few harsh words for me for speaking to him in such a way and for forgetting that I was no longer in America. Even so, he admitted that the contracts were not being honored and gave me the responsibility for organizing new office hours for the team of foreigners. Our total work hours were split in half, and summer work became a voluntary opportunity for overtime pay. Even though I got the dean to honor our contracts, I paid for my rudeness by being given the earliest of class times and in general a chilly attitude whenever I walked into the department office.
Over time, I mended the relationship with good old-fashioned humor and American goofiness. I also endeavored to learn the local language as well as go above and beyond when the school needed help with any editing or writing needs. My boss later explained to me after we had gotten friendlier (over dinner and a couple bottles of soju) that it is common to request things of employees until they say no. Until then, no one had. I learned later from my New Zealand colleague (a wonderfully friendly Mormon Maori) that the team of foreigners already in the department were allowed to choose the new hire (me) from a pool of applicants. She told me that I was chosen primarily for being an American because they had hoped I would be loud and arrogant and stand up to the dean.
So there I was, far away from home and any kind of support network in a brand new country where I couldn’t speak a lick of the language. I also did not have a great deal of savings to rely on. It never occurred to me to be scared or to accept the bad treatment because I was in an unstable circumstance. Instead, I made demands of my new hosts, told them that I simply would not stand for it, and that I would be happy to let all those who would listen know how the university treated me. I am not special because of this, as I firmly believe this is what most Americans would have done.
What I learned about Americans, then, is that more than other cultures, we stand up for personal rights and individual freedoms, and that we cannot tolerate these freedoms being infringed upon. It had never occurred to me that in countries that had known centuries of oppression, this idea of individual rights was not a given. It is with us, and that makes us different and changes how we interact with others. Others may criticize us as being entitled, but really it is just the way we are.
Along the way as I’ve traveled and lived in different countries, I’ve learned a lot about Americans, some good some bad. For starters, when not arrogant, we can just be goofy and “unformed”. You know how tourists from the Midwest look out of place walking around Manhattan? Well, that is how Americans (even New Yorkers!) look walking around the world. That is only the fault of our youth, though, as we are babies learning how to walk in a world of ancient cultures. You know what else is weird about us? We love top-ten lists (beaches, baby names, livable cities, movies of the year, etc) and ranking things in general. Other countries aren’t so obsessed with this. Americans also love to be watched and assume everyone is doing just that, like we are walking around with our very own imaginary film crew thinking our lives would be a show everybody would tune in to.
Sorry for the long digression…
In truth, there are probably a million more reasons studying other cultures is vitally important for kids, and no doubt I will still learn many more as I continue running The Adventurous Mailbox from abroad. This option is not available to most, though, and it remains difficult (especially in North America) to get immersed in or even gain access to other cultures. This, again, is why I launched The Adventurous Mailbox. There are also many great resources online for kids, as well as great pen-pal programs for them to contact other kids around the world. There are also a lot of other things families can do to learn about other cultures, like attending festivals, adventure eating, watching foreign films, learning world languages, or even hosting an exchange student. However you choose to introduce your kids to the world, it is an introduction that could just start them off on an adventurous and fulfilling life.
The Adventurous Mailbox, Founder and Creative Director