CultureEducation

“I honestly believe if people traveled more often, there would be less conflict because there would be more understanding.” I said this in my Youth Spotlight last week, and I meant it with all my heart. Traveling is a powerful educational tool for everyone and, I believe, is especially eye opening for minority youth like myself. Let me tell you why.

With cultural tensions spewed across the news and social media platforms as of late, people seem quick to grab onto fear before attempting to peacefully resolve a misunderstanding. We are all guilty of being fearful sometimes, but let’s remember, fear is only a result of unfamiliarity. For example, you may be terrified of insects until you watch the Discovery Channel and learn the many ways they help protect us from even scarier things like low crop yields and a massive buildup of animal waste (no, thank you!). Suddenly, you’ll think twice before stepping on the little creatures that are more helpful than we think, and this is all thanks to a bit of new knowledge.

The same concept goes for people. In my personal experiences as a young minority woman traveling, I have often found myself in places where no one looks like me. For some of you, whether Black, Asian, Hispanic, a lovely mix and so on, this might sound familiar. It can be awkward at times, but always eye-opening and beneficial for all parties involved. Travel is absolutely transformative for minority youth in three major ways.

First, it allows those unfamiliar with your culture to become more familiar. When I traveled to New Zealand a few years ago, I never saw another black person during the trip, aside from the few traveling with me in the tour group. This doesn’t mean black people don’t exist in New Zealand; I just never crossed paths with any. During my home stay with a Kiwi family (the native minority population in the country), they told me they’d never had any black friends before and I said I’d never had any Kiwi friends before. At first they were timid to ask pressing questions about my culture, but eventually conversation began flowing as I told them about ridiculous stereotypes that exist in America, the daily struggles faced, and about my personal family history. They reciprocated by telling me about theirs. As native New Zealanders, many of their experiences were similar to mine, as a black American. Who would have known? By the end of the conversation, we could all say we were friends. Pretty good ones, at that. Just think about it – if discussions like this would happen more frequently, there would be much more respect than conflict.

Not only does traveling teach others about you, but it can also teach you about your own culture. Every time you go to a new location, you unlock a part of yourself you didn’t know existed. For example, when I went to Paris for the first time in high school, I learned about how many black Americans in the 1920’s hopped the Atlantic and settled in the City of Lights. Many did this because they felt race was not as much of a hindrance to living a happy life in Paris as it was in America. There were more job opportunities, a booming arts industry, and less violent racism. I found it so interesting to learn about how people like me lived in other countries in the past, and are still living there today. Traveling to Paris expanded my mindset and, in a sense, gave me a newfound sense of my own identity within the world and its history.

Last but surely not least, travel has the power to make the variety of race seem minuscule compared to the unity of humanness. What I mean by this is that through exploring new areas, speaking to new people, immersing yourself in a different society, and catching a glimpse into how others live, similarities across cultures are more evident than any differences could ever be. We all struggle to find ourselves. We all get lazy, grumpy, giggly, frustrated, happy, and jealous at times. We all laugh at our own jokes, have secret crushes on people who don’t know who we are, and have blood flowing through our veins. You get the point. But mostly, we all want to just be happy.

So, whether you are thinking about traveling to another country, a new town, or a new school, I want to encourage you to go for it… for yourself, and for all of us.

Image: Jay Mantri

CultureLearnTravel

There is no shortage of great literature about England, or by English writers. Whether it’s about the English and their manners, a foreigner moving to London, a little red-headed school girl taking a class trip, or a day in the life of a woman planning a party, stories set in the country you’re visiting will provide you with a new perspective and add another layer of excitement into your planning or actual trip.

If you’re headed to England, spend some time reading these books before your travels. Reading about a country you will soon explore will make your adventures rich with knowledge and more fulfilling. There’s nothing like learning as much as you can before a trip to get the most out of it and to see the stories you read about come to life.

1. LONDON: A BIOGRAPHY by Peter Ackroyd

Get to know London through its history, people, and observations. Two thousand years worth of history and folklore are in this biography of the capital of England – read it to get a good sense of the culture and events that shaped this city.

2. A LITTLE PRINCESS by Francis Hodgson Burnett
You might know this story better as the movie version, which we grew up watching too many times to count. In this 1905 children’s novel, wealthy Sara Crewe tries to make friends at boarding school in London. However, when her father, Captain Crewe dies, the headmistress of the school strips Sara of her nice things, and she is transformed from a princess to a pauper.

3. SORRY!: THE ENGLISH AND THEIR MANNERS by Henry Hitchings
What does it mean to have proper manners? Henry Hitchings examines English manners and investigates what it means to be English. We love books that help us better understand different cultures, mannerisms, and provide a unique anthropological view of how others live.

4. WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s debut novel is the story of two friends and veterans from World War II – Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal – in their later years. Set in North London, Smith tackles a beautiful story of friendship, life, race, history, and culture.

london books 2

5. THE GREAT STINK by Clare Clark
In 1855, engineer William May returns to Victorian London to transform the city’s sewer system. When a murder occurs in the tunnels, William is considered a suspect. Clark creatively combines fact and fiction to produce a gripping story.

6. BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens
Dickens tackles the injustices of the British legal system in this classic novel. Known as one of Dickens’ most ambitious novel, he takes readers from the British aristocracy to the poorest of the London slums.

7. LONDONERS by Craig Taylor
Journalist Craig Taylor shines a unique perspective on London through the eyes of those who live there. From a rickshaw driver in the West End to a Soldier of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, London is loved and hated. The memories and stories from those who have been a part of its history are included in this book.

8. MRS. DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary talent is captured in this novel through her examination of a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party in London in June 1923.

london books 3

9. A CONCISE CHINESE-ENGLISH DICTIONARY FOR LOVERS by Xiaolu Guo
An inventive novel of language and love, Guo explorse a young Chinese woman’s journey to London to learn English. When she meets an Englishman and falls in love, she learns more about herself and language than ever before.

10. THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE by Muriel Spark
In this story, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish migrant, moves to Peckham in London and wreaks havoc on the town and those who live there. This 1960 short novel is known to have a fresh comic style and interesting supernatural elements.

11. BRICK LANE by Monica Ali
After an arranged marriage, Nazneen is taken to London and has to leave her Bangladeshi village behind. Readers are taken along for the adventures of Nazneen’s new life.

london books 4

12. THE NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters
In this story of four Londoners, three women and a young man’s lives intertwine and then change in the shadow of a grant event. We are all for literary suspense.

13. SECOND-CLASS CITIZEN by Buchi Emecheta
In this classic tale of a Nigerian woman, Adah, who brings her family to London, themes about immigration, identity, and racism emerge. Though Adah seeks an independent life for herself and her children, she is faced with the hard truths of being a new citizen.

14. MADELINE IN LONDON by Ludwig Bemelmans
The beloved Madeline makes her way to London with her class and Miss Clavel to visit Pepito, who has just moved there.

15. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
First published in 1813, this beautiful novel is one for the ages. The story follows Elizabeth Bennet as she deals with issues of manners, upbringing, morality, education, and marriage in the society of the landed gentry of the British Regency. You can never go wrong with Jane Austen.

What books about London have you read or are interested in reading?

P.S. 11 books to read before traveling to Ireland.

CultureLearn

Gender identity and sexual orientation are two different but related things. The media sometimes confuses them and it makes it hard for high school and college students to really understand it. Everyone has their own preference of who they like and how they see themselves.

Let’s clear it up a bit as to what is what.

Gender Identity

It is about you. It is about how you see yourself. Do you think you are male, female, both, neither, or sometimes one or the other? Are you being okay being called he, she, or they, or ze? There are more than the ones listed here, but the ones that have been in the media lately have been a­gender, genderqueer, transgender, pan­gender, and gender fluid.

There is no wrong answer. There is no permanent answer. You are allowed to change your view of yourself according to how comfortable you are with it. If you do not feel comfortable being defined or you are unsure, that is okay too.

Sexual Orientation

It is about who you like. Do you like men, women, both, neither, or one or the other just sometimes? What do you like in someone? What characteristics do you find attractive in someone? The ones that have been in the media have been the lesbian, gay, and bisexual. There is also asexual and pansexual and heterosexual and demisexual. There are more than these here and they can be similar. You aren’t defined by your sexual orientation and you aren’t defined by your gender identity, either. These are just things that help you better understand yourself and it is up to you whether or not it is useful.

Sometimes gender identity affects sexual orientation, and sometimes it is the other way around. Everybody has their own understanding of who they are and how they came to be that way. Maybe you are pangender and pansexual. Maybe you identify as gender neutral and asexual. There are many ways a person can love and many ways people can see themselves. Both are decided by you and only you. Both can change.

My experience with these topics has gone from heterosexual to bisexual to demisexual. I’ve also come to feel comfortable with being gender fluid, but I have no problem being called she. It was kind of confusing, but I was surrounded by understanding and patient people and that made it easier. If you’re in a place that isn’t very open about this type of thing, that’s okay. There will always be people who are willing to listen, understand, and help in the future, if not now. As you grow and understand the world and meet new people and learn about yourself, you will find that your perspective may change, too.

Resources

Everyoneisgay.com is a place with advice and resources on sexual orientation, gender identity, and pretty much life itself. I’ve been following them on Tumblr for years and I have found the two co-owners to be open-minded, positive, and funny. They understand the difficulty of family pressure, the confusion and insecurity of being alone, and the joys of being supported and supportive of others in the community. They’re easy to access from various media platforms and you can spend hours scrolling through relatable content.

Embrace the change and don’t let anyone tell you any different. Just be you!

Image: lgbtq.missouri.edu

CultureInspiration

Gender identity is a complicated topic. It is very personal and there is a lot of media with conflicting information about what it is. Once upon a time, it was just “male” or “female,” but that has changed. High school and college are confusing times, and a lot of wrong or misunderstood information can hurt people who are figuring themselves out.

Tumblr and Facebook and a lot of other social media have embraced various gender identity situations. Even though labels aren’t always the best way to get information across (because it can lead to stereotyping and harmful actions), it can also help people find others in similar situations. For example, my school recently started a group for “Trans or Gender-Nonconforming,” and the club is meant to provide a safe space for students to discuss gender and personal experience.  Many schools and universities have such clubs, and people who attend the meetings often realize that they are not alone, and this is comforting. 

What is important is that people are happy with how they see themselves. Theoretically, someone shouldn’t be judged negatively for how they identify.

Even though there are environments that allow for people to be a-gender, bigender, pangender, gender fluid, transgender, and many others, there are also places that are unaccustomed to this variety. It may be because of certain local or social customs. It may be because of misinformation. Either way, such environments can be a scary place for someone who is trying to understand themselves or others. The fear of being judged, shunned, bullied, hurt, or worse because of how they identify shouldn’t’ be an issue, but it is.

Like sexual orientation, gender identity is now becoming a topic that is being more socially acceptable to talk about. I hope that our society is able to transition to a place in which tolerance, acceptance, and freedom are words that can be associated with gender identity. I hope that people are able to accept others and themselves. I hope people can be free and open-minded.

It is okay to not be sure right now and it is okay to explore and try to understand. Growing is a part of change, and change is a part of growing.

If the situation now is difficult or scary, that’s okay. There will be new places and new people. Things get better. Love yourself and accept others. Remember that being happy and safe are the most important things.

Image: le vent le cri

CultureTravel

“Where are you from?” she asked with a confidence that rapidly dwindled into embarrassment when I responded, “I was born here.” The awkward pause that causes eyes to wander, skin to prickle, and blood to rush is quickly relieved by the “but my parents are Colombian.” She seems to breathe again and feel the comfort she was familiar with six seconds before she had asked me the line-drawing question. My parents were born and raised in Colombia, but I was born and raised in Weston, a Fort Lauderdale suburb. Answering the following questions almost makes me feel like an actor rehearsing my lines for the millionth time. Yes, I am bilingual; yes, I have traveled to Colombia; in fact, I visit every summer and my profound attachment to the country has made the declaring of myself “American” unfit, yet, classification of myself “Colombian” slightly uncomfortable.

I knew I couldn’t be the only one with this dilemma, and it became an even more prevalent confusion in my junior year of high school when I chose “White” on my answer sheet through the process of elimination. I am not Indian, Asian, African or biracial, and choosing “other” at the time seemed more like giving up in how to identify myself rather than making a statement; leaving “white” as my last option. But I asked myself, “Do they mean ‘skin-color-white’? Or ‘I-was-born- in-America- white’?” I justified my answer by reminding myself that my father has white skin and green eyes, so, I chose “white” when, in reality, I have dark olive/tan skin. While I could have easily bubbled-in “Other,” at that moment, I chose to identify with my American self. But this was not always the case.

I have spent years trying to decipher this mystery. Am I both? Am I neither? What am I and where am I really from? For years I have felt absolutely uneasy with the idea of trying to label myself one or the other. However, being raised in South Florida has made it much easier to answer the black-or-white-question, “where are you from,” in a grey form. If the U.S. is a melting pot, South Florida is a recycled city bench. The amount of South American, Central American, European, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern communities in that region is astounding. More specifically, in my particular city, Venezuelans and Colombians are even more heavily concentrated. Most of my friends and people of association were either fully American or first or second generation immigrants from Colombia or Venezuela.

In light of this, to those who were first generation immigrants, I was an “American” and those who were second generation immigrants like me thought of me as “Colombian.” Likewise, I am considered Hispanic in this country but considered Gringa, or American, in Colombia – or any other country for that matter. This points directly to how easily others can perceive you, and many times, it may not be in correlation with how you see yourself. It all depends on adaptation and just how much those who have foreign-born parents or immigrants themselves have accustomed to the very-American, semi-American, or in my case, almost Hispanic-colonial-based culture. It has to do with what exactly the person has chosen to integrate into their lives, and what they reject as something they don’t want in their lives. In other words, it is very possible to create one’s own culture, per say, and develop one’s own identification.

Having parents from a different country than the one I was born and raised in means I have Carlos Vives and Frank Sinatra downloaded onto my iPod. It means I am the vegetarian that gets confused looks when I order only a side of red beans with rice and a pandebono at Colombian restaurants. It means that I speak the truly convenient and creative Spanglish language with my friends and US-born-family members, yet, jot down any unfamiliar English word in my agenda to look up and learn later. It means that when I am in the U.S., I will miss Juan Valdez Coffee and when in Colombia, I will think of how many free Starbucks drinks I am missing out on every 12 days. It means I chose to stuff my luggage with a stash of home-made frozen arepas to cook for breakfast instead of swiping my ID card at the college dining hall every morning. It means I criticize both American and Colombian governments and societies. It means I felt the knife in my heart that Saturday afternoon when I abandoned my unfinished homework to protest for a better Venezuelan government in snowy Boston. It means I had to unwillingly part from my cousin at the airport only to wait two hours for her because owning a blue passport unshackles me from having to bear the immigration process. It means that I am a daughter of the breath-taking mountainous rock that veins Colombia and a daughter of the Miami concrete jungle that is arranged as an unending labyrinth. It means many, many things, but it most importantly means that I am a little bit of both cultures and I find my balance in what I create it to be.

Figuring out just where to draw the line in your opinions, practices, and beliefs is where that balance is created. The next time somebody asks you where you are from, strapping yourself to one label is unnecessary; even when you find yourself surrounded by people who are of a certain nation or have decided their ethos, you can craft your own identification through a medium of what you have been exposed to.