NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

The Millennial generation is often said to be fraught with a certain wanderlust that simply did not affect their predecessors. Fueled by the rapid growth of mobility and connectivity worldwide, they have an unparalleled desire to travel. Along with globalization, however, comes an increased need for renewed cultural understanding.

I have been teaching English in Indonesia this summer, in a small city called Padang. Not many locals here speak English, but rising demand has pushed English Language Centres to hire interns from around the world. Travelling has made me increasingly aware of how sequestered we all are in our society’s way of life, and how important it is to always work towards widening our perspectives, regardless of where we are in the world.

My experience abroad has not always been easy; I personally struggled tremendously to adjust to life without toilet paper or Internet. But, after just two months here, I relish the refreshingly cold bucket showers, the quiet reading time, and even weaving through traffic. My fellow interns report similarly altered perspectives as well, speaking of a newfound ability to see beauty in the chaos they once dreaded.

In a world of 7.4 billion people, it is estimated that only 1.5 billion people speak English. That leaves 5.9 billion people with whom many of us cannot communicate through speech and who often lead incredibly different lives to our own.

Some of us cannot even imagine living without Netflix, let alone WiFi or running water. We forget that only about 40 per cent of the world has access to Internet and about the same number of people are without access to running water. As an aggregate, this represents almost three billion people. This is not to mention levels of economic inequality: the average person in America’s bottom five per cent is richer than 68 per cent of the world’s population.

Clearly, most of us cannot even begin to relate to most of the world’s population. As a group of interns from abroad, our collective lack of cultural understanding often speaks volumes.

Culture is often unconscious to us — so is the subliminal projection of our beliefs onto others. Such a phenomenon leads to inaccurate impressions that cause conflict in all spheres, breeding hatred that can sometimes prove lethal.

This was brought to light during an interaction I recently had while travelling to the city of Solok. At a brief sightseeing stop, an intern from North America slid beside me into the car and pulled on his seatbelt.

Seatbelts remain fairly unused on this side of the world, so we jokingly told him that he really did not need to be wearing one. He looked down at me with an unsettling look of contempt and said, “I want to show these people how a developed citizen behaves.”

I was taken aback by his malicious undertones and lightheartedly retorted that I had spent most of my life in developed countries too. Without hesitation he replied, “But you’re not really from a developed country, you’re from Pakistan.

What aggravated me was not his stance on road safety, but his ethnocentric attitude — an attitude that said his wealth could buy him superior status. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon experience, as many of us lack a capacity for cultural understanding, which is necessary to relate to and respect people around the world.

Culture is often unconscious to us — so is the subliminal projection of our beliefs onto others. Such a phenomenon leads to inaccurate impressions that cause conflict in all spheres, breeding hatred that can sometimes prove lethal.

It is basic human nature to fear what we do not understand; the problem arises when we fail to see that the majority will not be familiar to us. The relatively minor individual variations within our own cultures can seem so pronounced at times that we believe greater differences could not possibly exist — research, however, consistently proves otherwise.

It is apparent that travel is not a surefire way — nor is it the only way — to widen our global perceptions. We are incredibly privileged to be living in one of the most diverse environments in the world, surrounded by people who have a plethora of different beliefs and backgrounds. Learning to accept diversity begins with admitting what we do not know and regularly checking any assumptions we may make. With a campus as diverse as ours, we have the unmatched opportunity to branch out beyond our comfort zones and try to understand the unfamiliar.

My time in Indonesia has made it clear to me that we should all be working towards a heightened stage of cultural awareness — where we can understand that differences are necessary to sustain a healthy level of diversity and mutual understanding. Letting go of control and learning to be comfortable with ambiguity is the key to finding harmony.

By actively practicing empathy and altering our perspectives, we can work towards living in a space where we are able to accept others; we can create a common ground that we all share.

Ayesha Adamjee is a second-year student at Victoria College studying philosophy and English.

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