I believe in the introduction of global cultural awareness through opportunities of exploration. Children become aware of people’s differences as early as three years old. Social conditioning factors influence how a child learns to view and respond to differences through the years but it is not until a child reaches a stage of cognitive development that allows him or her to think from other’s perspectives that true appreciation for cultural differences can be learned.
In my own experience, I had little exposure to families communicating in a different language, dressing differently, or daily eating different foods, outside of my own family traditions because I lived in a fairly homogenous community. I applaud my school for their efforts to expand those cultural experiences at a young age through the mandatory video Spanish lessons we were forced to watch during second grade. But this non-interactive method of learning about another culture had no lasting impact on my views of multiculturalism, except maybe to give me a dislike for learning Spanish that lasted all the way through my teen years. It was not until my family became involved in a program for hosting foreign exchange students that the world beyond the United States became alive and real for me.
My family hosted a student from Japan during her first month of a yearlong exchange in the United States. I was fascinated by the fact she did not speak English fluently. Through spending time, talking, and interacting with our her, I made “discoveries” that had life shaping effects. One day I remember running to tell my mom Japanese people do not call their country “Japan” but rather “Nippon”! Concepts I view as fundamental now, such as people thinking in languages other than English, were new and exciting as I explored and identified differences and similarities between our cultures. Learning about Japanese culture in a classroom setting would have communicated information, but instead I was given the opportunity to explore and discover these treasured bits of knowledge for myself, forever shaping my view of human differences. I believe that it is not through discussion and lectures our nation will be broken of its ethnocentric thinking, but by allowing individuals and especially children to explore and make these discoveries on their own that will be the most effective teacher.