Beginning September 30, 2016, young women soccer players from around the world will compete in the U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup, being held this year in Jordan. My thirteen year old daughter, a defensive back on her school’s soccer team, would love to see the games live and experience everything about the host country. “Wouldn’t you be afraid to go to the middle east?” one of her brothers asked her.
My daughter has no qualms – and neither do I. I learned a long time ago that the best way to appreciate the world I live in is to immerse myself in it and learn the stories of the people who share this earth with me. Yes, I used to be frightened. But my eyes were opened – at a circus, of all places.
Cultural Immersion Overcomes Fear
When I was a little girl, a clown taught me a most valuable lesson about the cultures of the world.
You see, I grew up during the Cold War, that period when, although there was no actual military action, the United States and Russia were in a state of political and military tension. In simplest terms, our country didn’t trust their country, and vice versa.
This situation was particularly frightening because, at the time, our government had access to nuclear weapons. So did the Russians. I grew up imagining the leaders of both nations sat with fingers poised on a button, watching every move the other made, ready at a moment’s notice to annihilate the other’s country. A scary time, for sure.
And it was during that time that the Moscow Circus came to Philly.
Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself
I remember the day my father announced he bought tickets for the entire family to see the Moscow State Circus. My siblings and I attended a Catholic school where “Russians” were sometimes referred to as “pagans” or, worse yet, “atheists.” We didn’t trust them; in fact, we feared them. We even had “duck and cover practice,” as regularly scheduled as fire drills, where we would fold our bodies under our desks and cover our eyes, in preparation for a Russian-initiated A bomb attack.
And here was my dad, waving tickets for us to go to a circus performance by those scary Russians. What was he thinking?
What he was thinking is what I now know – that our fears are, for the most part, unfounded. Oh, sure, governments will clash with other governments. Political philosophy doesn’t always line up, and sometimes there is cause to fight for what we believe in. But living in the shadow of “what might happen” steals from us the reality of what is – the rich cultures that await our exploration, as long as we don’t allow our fears to stand in our way.
That’s the lesson I learned at the circus that day. I watched the Ukrainian acrobats tumble and leap higher than I knew possible, I clapped for bears juggling balls with their hind claws and I admired gymnasts who were every bit as strong as they were swan-like By the time the sad-faced clown with the red nose handed me a daisy, I had a glimpse of what Russian children enjoyed. And you know what? It looked a lot like the same things that entertained me.
It’s A Small World, After All
Being at the Moscow Circus helped me to learn that the children of Russia weren’t so different from my siblings and me. We all laugh at the clowns’ antics. We all love the animals that do tricks in the ring. And we all reach for our parent’s hand as we watch the men on tightropes and trapezes defy death with their stunts.
As I grew older, I learned to appreciate not only the similarities, but also the differences between us. Those differences add texture and color to our world. Through my travels both far and near, I learned to appreciate the foods, the arts, the customs and the rituals that make each country distinct, unique and beautiful.
I taught my children to embrace the rhythms of other countries (and even other parts of our own country). I try to teach them phrases in the languages of the countries that interest them. We try exotic foods and check out international artists. We try to truly immerse ourselves in the cultures of an area, in our studies and in our travels, because it’s the best way to overcome fear and to appreciate diversity.
Overcoming The Fear
If we don’t ever overcome our fear of what is out there – those things different from what we know – we will never fully experience life. The world is an amazing array of people and cultures. There’s so much to learn and experience – but we’ll never know that if we stay hiding under our desks, covering our eyes and shrinking into ourselves.
So how can you teach your children about the diverse cultures of the world? Get out into it! You may not be able to travel overseas – yet! – but you can expose your children to other cultures right where you are.
Many big cities have cultural days, events or festivals where you can immerse your family in a celebration of a culture. For example, in my area, Philadelphia is currently holding a Puerto Rican Festival Gala, while an International Art Festival and an Asian American Film Festival are scheduled for this fall. (To find events in your area, just Google “Cultural Festival” and the name of the big city closest to you. Most have a diversity of offerings all year round!)
You can also seek out films, art exhibits, museums and even TV shows about other cultures. Most big cities have cultural areas – such as “Little Italy” and “Chinatown” in Philly – where you can start. Don’t just tour as a visitor – immerse yourself, talk to the people, hear their stories. This country is a melting pot – but it’s up to us to taste all the flavors that make us unique.
And finally, if you have the chance, don’t be afraid to travel to the countries yourself. There is no better way to immerse yourself in a culture – and come home richer for it.
As a little girl, I used to be afraid of other cultures, but no more. What the clown taught me that day was simple, but profound. We can find comfort in our similarities. And we can find depth and beauty in our differences.