As I grew older, I expanded my cultural I.Q. with two “educational” excursions: 1. An obligatory drive across the Ambassador Bridge to celebrate my 19th birthday in Toronto, and 2. A cultural exchange to Cancun, Mexico that just so happened to coincide with the same week as Spring Break during my Junior year of college. I wouldn’t describe either trip as particularly enlightening.
Despite my lack of cosmopolitan experience, I became fascinated with world cultures while in college and decided to pursue a career as a social studies teacher, specifically focusing in the field of world history. I studied the Spanish language and became friends with as many international students as I could. I read books about Ancient Greece, The Italian Renaissance, and the Silk Road – endeavoring to travel to distant lands someday to experience the sights and sounds and smells in person.
Then I got married and had kids. Priorities shifted and my plans for world travel fell further and further down on my “To Do List,” replaced by other items such as buying diapers, driving to soccer games, and saving for college and retirement. Somewhere between 4 a.m. feedings and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse marathons, I forgot how important it was to incorporate a bit of world exploration into our lives. Yesterday, I was reminded of this.
My children were fortunate enough to spend some time at the park yesterday with a young girl who is visiting from South Korea. My son’s teacher, who used to live and teach in South Korea, arranged the play date for her friends who are visiting the United States this summer. Play dates arranged by well-meaning adults, the childhood equivalent of blind dates, are always a bit of a crapshoot. You can never predict how they are going to turn out. Either the kids really hit it off and the moms can enjoy a few hours of adult chitchat, or the kids aren’t having it and the next two hours are an awkward mix of adult-led play and undercover threats muttered through clinched teeth (“Go play with him or you are NOT using your iPad tonight!). Luckily, for all involved, this one was superb.
They didn’t speak the same language, but within five minutes of meeting each other, the three kids (my two and their new Korean friend) were ready to leave their mothers behind and head off together to share the tire swing. Apparently a language barrier isn’t much of a barrier at all when you are 4, 6, and 7 years old. And when you are attempting to conquer the monkey bars, cultural differences don’t seem to matter too much either.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted origami before, but it is no joke. All of that complex folding and tucking makes my head hurt and, thirty seconds in, I’m liable to crumple up the paper and claim that it was my intention to make a snowball all along. Now imagine that you are four years old and you are learning to make a super cool origami ninja star. Imagine further that the person teaching you how to make the ninja star is seven, and she speaks a different language. Somehow, through body language and hand signals, my daughter was able to accomplish the task and moved on to learning how to jump rope and play Pokémon with her new buddy. With such effortless cooperation, it kind of makes you wonder why international diplomacy is so difficult. If only our ambassadors were school age children, perhaps peace in our time would be possible. At the very least, the United Nations should invest in crayons and coloring books. Sharing Crayolas could pave the way for respectful and productive negotiations over nuclear disarmaments – a show of faith, if you will. “I’ll trade you cyan for burnt sienna” could be code for “Dismantle your missiles in Turkey and we will do the same in Cuba.”
If I want my children to appreciate the beauty of differences within the human race, it is important to expose them to other cultures, other practices, other peoples. This could be as simple as ordering takeout from a Thai restaurant or as complex as international travel. However, if you are like me and you have both picky eaters and bills to pay, you have to find other ways to give them a bit of cultural exposure. Books and movies can help, but there is no substitution for actually meeting and playing with someone from a different country.
The subtle and pronounced distinctions between kids from opposite sides of the globe are entertaining to watch as a parent. But, even more fascinating to witness, are the similarities. All kids like cotton candy. All kids like to touch their toes to the sky as they are swinging. All kids have the same look of determination on their faces and the same outstretched arms as they are gingerly inching their way forward on the balance beam. All kids are capable of a laugh that seems to boil up from the bottom of their toes, erupting into a cacophony of joy. I’m convinced that the soundtrack for the waiting room at the Pearly Gates of Heaven is a compilation mix of the laughter of children, or at least I hope that’s the case.
If we can learn about cooperation from watching our children play, then we can also learn about kindness. While we were at the park, a group of adults from a local church were hosting an event at the pavilion that included face painting, bracelet making, and balloon animals. Our kids each received a specially made balloon creation and proceeded to incorporate their flowers, swords, and hats into their play. A few minutes later, I heard my daughter’s blood-curdling scream echoing off of the metal slide. I took off in a sprint that only mothers and Olympic caliber athletes are capable of, leaping over seesaws and toddlers in a desperate attempt to rescue her from imminent doom. What I found when I reached the slide was not a child with a busted lip or a broken arm, but a drama queen with a popped balloon.
While I was lecturing her on the definition of an actual emergency and explaining that this was definitely not a situation that warranted such an outpouring of anguished cries accompanied by a Jamestown level flood of tears, her new friend was taking a much more compassionate approach. This child, a stranger in a strange land, ran as fast as her little legs could carry her back to the pavilion. In broken English, using words she had only overheard a few minutes before, she managed to explain to the balloon maker that her friend desperately needed a replacement. As my daughter’s heaves of despair began to subside, her new friend approached, held out the brand new (exact replica) flower balloon to my daughter, and softly said, “For you.” So simple. So perfect. You don’t have to be a master of the English language to understand the depth of love and kindness inherent in that simple phrase. Imagine if we all used those two words a little more often.
My kids came home yesterday with a new curiosity about the wider world around them. They want to know more about how kids live in South Korea. They exchanged addresses with their new friend, and can’t wait to correspond as good-old-fashioned pen pals. Call me crazy (and a bit idealistic), but I came home feeling encouraged about the state of the world and the future of mankind. If only we were all a bit more childlike in the way we treated one another and in the way we interacted with people who are different from us. I intend to encourage my children to seek out friendships that will cross cultural barriers and extend beyond national borders, now and as adults. And if I’ve learned anything from yesterday, it’s that the language of play is universal; acts of compassion require no translation.