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A case for international-mindedness

I recently watched a TED talk on the topic of international mindedness. For me, the concept isn’t just a way of thinking­—it’s a way of life. The speaker explained that in some parts of China, medical doctors require that you pay regularly when you’re healthy, rather than when you’re sick, because it implies that they are doing their job well when you are healthy. There’s a flip side to everything — something I think is very easy to forget when living in one country and culture.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to live in multiple countries throughout my life, and experienced many things that I would not have had I remained in one country. If my vagabond experiences have taught me anything, it’s that international-mindedness is the key to living a fruitful, rewarding and meaningful life. I’ve found King’s to be decent at this, in my short few weeks here. But there’s always room for improvement. Having been fortunate enough to experience a plethora of cultural diversity, the least I can do is share some of what I’ve learned.
I was born in Oklahoma, not that I can claim to remember any of it. I moved to Ottawa less than a year after my birth, so I’m afraid I can’t share any deep life lessons from here. Ottawa came to be known later in my life as my ‘passport city.’ It is where Third Culture Kids—children raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture—refer to as the place they are technically from, but really don’t have any deep affiliations with, apart from maybe a distant uncle and a flag in their room across the world, speaking from personal experience, of course.
I moved from Ottawa at the age of five, and from what I’ve heard from my scientifically smart friends, those are the most formative years in one’s life. With this in mind, I suppose I can say that my four years in Ottawa served as a base from which I was able to compare all later countries that I moved on to. For all intents and purposes, Ottawa served as a perfect example of a very middle-class society where for the most part, equality and fairness governed daily life. If you’re currently muttering ‘ignorant Harper disciple’ under your breath, I plead of you for the love of the world—quite literally—to read on.

(Photo: Flickr/athoos)
(Photo: Flickr/athoos)

My first posting was Kiev, Ukraine. I moved there when I was five years old, and stayed until I was seven. It was there that I had my first experience of attending an international school, and learned that being the linguistic and cultural minority was, well, not something I noticed much—it was my new norm. I remember asking my mom to cook quail eggs for me for lunch because my friend ate one everyday. Every weekend, I looked forward to seeing the same one-legged Ukrainian opera singer in Independence Square begging for money. Through this, I developed a sensitivity to those who had to beg for daily sustenance. He would dress in the same worn, but clean and neat clothes each week with a styrofoam cup pinned to his shirt pocket. He seemed to have no inhibitions about his profession. He was an amazing opera singer and wanted to offer that in exchange for a few coins. It was my first experience of debunking prejudice I didn’t even realize I had at that point.
Another memory is how the babushkas would grimace and yell at my parents in the street for not dressing us kids as warmly as they thought appropriate, even though it meant being on the verge of heat exhaustion. Even my young mind was able to question: why did old ladies who didn’t even speak our language get to tell me and my parents what to do? Surely they had no right. In retrospect, I realize I was living in their country and their culture. I was the one who had to adapt or live with the consequences.     
(Photo: Flickr/insmu74)
(Photo: Flickr/insmu74)

After a brief two years, my family of five hopped across continents to Manila, Philippines. If immersing myself in countries is the aim of my life, then I consider my two years in the Philippines as the epitome. In a class of 14 students, I was the only white person. I only realized this when my mother pointed it out a couple months ago. I was truly colour blind, in the best possible sense. I’ve been fortunate to have so many friends from different backgrounds before I had even heard the term racism. When I see headlines about race issues, I can’t help but question the extent to which the gunman truly took the time to see the person beyond their gunpoint. It’s scary what people can do when they immerse themselves so freely in one way of thinking.
Being in the minority for so much of my life, I learned not to see people’s skin colour—it was passive learning, as it really occurs to me every day—but rather by personality and interests.
After another two years in Manila, I moved to London, England for four. It was there that I began to grasp what international-mindedness meant to those in a developed country. How was I to reconcile living in a grandiose mock-tudor house in central London, having just lived in developing nations for the past four years? I no longer was a minority, neither linguistically nor ethnically, and I wasn’t living in an impoverished nation. I found that I did not fit in well with my white upper-middle-class peers. Despite blending outwardly, I found myself naturally gravitating to the international students at my school in London, especially those ethnically different from me. I suppose subconsciously I had decided that I had more in common with those who were minorities of different ethnicities and cultures than with those of the ethnic majority.
This made my posting to New Delhi, India, where I’ve lived for the past three years, quite the comforting experience. I seemed to seamlessly blend into my life at school and in Delhi as a city. I was comfortable being around Indians, it seemed normal in every sense that walking around on the quad today doesn’t seem normal to me. My school in Delhi was largely into sensibility campaigns and activism of various kinds, particularly about gender equality. We talked about values, beliefs and opinions. We debated current events. We learned about Indian history. It was a stimulating environment where I could help kids from the slums, weekly, with their homework, learn Hindi words and culture, hike in the foothills of the Himalayas and travel to the Arabian Gulf for sports competitions. On every front I experienced and learned new things. In all of this, I learned lots about myself and my prejudices and weaknesses.
Nearly 99 per cent of the people I’ve encountered at King’s thus far have said that one of their plans for the future is to travel. If you’re to get anything out of this convoluted life story, I hope you understand that just because you’ve been abroad doesn’t imply that you have mastered international understanding: it truly is a mindset that needs to be developed, no matter where you are and what you’ve seen. No matter how ‘aware’ we are of what happens in our world, unless we try to experience the world from inside another culture, we won’t understand the issues. Socrates said that the truly knowledgeable are the ones who recognize their limited knowledge. We can easily apply this humbling mentality to understanding the world around us. I plead, don’t settle for a monocultural outlook, be internationally minded.

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

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