By Juhi Waeerkar
If I could define cultural diversity, I would define it as, “the coexistence of culture and ethnicity within an individual as well as a society.” In an increasingly globalized world, we have individuals born in one culture, and raised in another. There is a lot of interaction and exchange. Through this, we have forged a diversity that has forced the world to question just who ‘us’ and ‘them’ are in the 21st century.
When I finished school, around the age of 16, I went to a small town in Germany for a year-long exchange programme sponsored by Rotary. With their aim of building peace one youth at a time, Rotary started this programme to help individuals like myself become global citizens. Similarly, I was sent as a cultural ambassador for my own country, along with several other teenagers from around 20 other countries all over the world, to the northern district of Germany. I lived in a small town called Bargteheide, about 30 minutes from the port city of Hamburg.
While in Germany, I lived with four host families during the span of a year. Rotary encourages this arrangement to help students understand the cultural diversity within the country itself by getting to know familial differences. My first host family consisted of my host parents and four host siblings (one brother, three sisters). They were, in my opinion, the epitome of Germans well endowed in society. They took me on a tour of the Bargteheide as well as Hamburg during my first few weeks in Germany. They took me for lunch at their friend’s, talking about cultural differences and teaching me how to adjust.
One of the main lessons I learnt was how to ask. I remember my host father telling me that, if I did not learn how to ask for exactly what I wanted, my behaviour in the German context would be referred to as one that is compatible with what is expressed. If I did not like a certain dish in India I would choose to not specify my dislike. In Germany, I would ask them to serve something different the next time I visited. The act of trying to not hurt their feelings was actually considered rude in Germany. I admired my host mother the most. I wanted to be like her. She reminded me of a headstrong lady not afraid to speak her mind, not afraid to go after what she wanted. That was something I hoped to be like. I still do.
Furthermore, I learnt a lot about German history through my host families as well. My first family actually took me to Berlin with them for about four days. We visited all the prominent historical monuments, and I also learnt how their own lives intersected with key moments of historical significance. For instance, my host mother was born the day the Berlin Wall was built, and her eldest daughter was born the day it was demolished.
My second host family was an old couple, very active in the Rotary community, and they were the loveliest individuals I had ever met. They spoke to me about their own experiences regarding the aftermath of the Second World War. I had arrived in Germany with the assumption that I should not talk about it because it was a sensitive topic. This was a common assumption back home. My mother was adamant that I not bring it up, especially since I had just read Mein Kampf, the autobiography of Adolf Hitler, before leaving for Germany. However, my host family did not seem to mind as much. They actually sat me down in the living room, and openly answered all of my questions. They also chose to watch the film Schindler’s List with me.
I appreciated their solidarity and open honesty regarding my questions, and they appreciated my candour as well. This behaviour made me feel quite foolish for assuming what I had earlier. However, as I had been told, it was still a sensitive topic among the general public. The swastika was illegal to reproduce, and the national anthem was something not openly played, especially not as much as it is in India. I believe nobody knew how it went entirely, at least nobody I asked. This experience made me think about how people choose to stay silent about many important topics. Several of the friends I made told me that they found the topic of Pakistan something they would not have asked me outright.
I made several friends while I was in Germany. I studied in Kopernikus Gymnasium Bargteheide. German high schools are classified based on the entrance tests you take after middle school, and the Gymnasium was the school for students with the best academic potential. This did not mean that students here wanted to focus only on academics. In Grade 11, which I joined, you needed to choose a subject to focus on. I assumed the system was similar to that of India and chose Arts. But in German schools, that would mean my focal subject was Art or Kunst in German. Therefore, my class consisted of all the kids who wanted to be artists or something similar. Coming from a family of artists (my father’s side of the family has always worked in the art industry), I got along fairly well with them, considering the cultural differences that stem from different nationalities.
One of my best friends there was actually a huge fan of Anime, Japanese animated shows, something I was a huge follower of as well. we hit it off right off the bat. If you ask me, that love for Anime, resulted in more behavioural similarities between us as compared to my own behaviour associated with my nationality.
I did not meet Germans only of my age. There were, in total, 72 students from all over the world in our district, all of whom met officially four times throughout the year, along with a three-week long tour of six countries in Europe. These individuals, while being from 20 different countries, were also from almost every continent present in the world, excluding Antarctica of course.
I was one of the only Indians any of these kids had ever met, and for them my mannerisms, behaviour, looks, etc. defined an average Indian. The same could be said of myself. For example, the Brazilian exchange students I met in Germany helped me define Brazilians as a whole. Their uninhibited behaviour, love for music and celebration was how I came to define the general population from Brazil. But then I realized something else from these interactions. I had known several people from back home who could be defined as the same.
The only prominent difference, therefore, was the accent and language, including body language. Even our clothing was merging into one global composition. Every teenager from either country behaved in a similar manner disregarding cultural cues. We were all the same. The only cultural cues that mattered were when we became adults. In Brazil, it was much earlier than in my own country. Other than this, though, their insecurities, gender issues, worry about the future, were all the same.
One of my best friends from Namibia, in the southern part of Africa, had similar aspirations as me. At that time I wanted to study English, and pursue a career path similar to hers. She had even studied in the same educational structure as I had — IGCSE! We ended up discussing similarities between our educational systems as well. She was also a huge fan of Bollywood, especially actor Shah Rukh Khan. We were way too similar while originating from very different parts of the world.
As I arrived back after my exchange, several individuals in my own country identified my behaviour as ‘being adopted in Germany’. I could sense cultural diversity within myself as an individual. I included several words from the German language in everyday life, shared German music with my friends, cooked German meals for my family, and actually became more punctual. Along with their changed perspective of myself, my own experience of getting back was very different.
There wasn’t a huge difference other than that of language. My ability to speak Marathi was hindered. Whenever I would try to speak in Marathi, I would end up speaking in German instead. This got me some confused looks from my grandmother during the few initial months of my return. I joined a group called Rotex, which included peers who had been on exchange programmes. This helped me transition back into Indian culture as I met individuals that could easily relate to what I was going through.
Though they were great individuals, I met a few with whom my worldview, or perhaps my nationalist view, did not match. One of them had lived in Mexico and spoke highly of the several opportunities he had received while there, only to comparatively assume that such opportunities were not present in India. I did not appreciate such biased opinions without any actual knowledge of what is being discussed but I chose to helpfully suggest a few places in our own city where he could procure such opportunities.
With my own return from Germany, I learnt to value several of the features people would think of as negative in the context of India. I learnt to appreciate the traditional view on gatherings, on meeting family as much as you could. I learnt to appreciate the chalega attitude to a point, wherein a lot of negativity could be forgiven, especially the small things that should not cause any issues. I hoped this was something the people I had interacted with knew. I hoped almost every individual in India that I met could also be enriched with these ideas.
His behaviour, from my experience, is similar to that among many youth today. Ignorance as well as less interaction with culturally diverse individuals is the cause of fascism in every culture. I believe that increasing interactions among students from all over the world would lead to empathy and understanding. Companies like Clap Global, who bring international travellers to the classroom to talk about their own countries, are already helping improve this among school children, by letting them hear about foreign lands from the people who have actually been raised there.
While we are at it, why not adopt cultural cues from different pathways? The less possessive and competitive we become based on culture, while including others in our own, the more prosperity and peace we can promote. I am proud to be an Indian but I am also proud to have a part of me be called German.