I spent a year living in Tokyo when I was 18. As I prepared to go overseas, I was taught a little bit about Japanese culture. One thing I was surprised to learn is that the Japanese consider it very rude to tell someone “no.” For Americans, this can be disconcerting—we tend to value directness and saying what one thinks. When Japanese people say “we’ll think about it,” Americans might think they’re being evasive or wishy-washy, when really, they’re just being polite.
This is a good example of how cultural differences can cause misunderstandings—and that learning more about other cultures can give you a new perspective. You can understand that a Japanese person who says, “I’ll consider that idea” likely means “no,” and you’ll understand that they’re being polite rather than misleading.
When kids learn about other cultures, it helps them understand and feel engaged in the world. They become interested in how other people live, their cultural norms and values, different religions and languages. I think it helps them see the beauty of different cultures and appreciate the differences and similarities in how we and others live.
Kids naturally feel compassion when they learn about less fortunate people. Maybe they’ll learn about a country where many of the girls are illiterate and decide to support “Pennies for Peace,” a charity that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maybe they’ll learn about a country that is facing a drought and decide to volunteer for an organization that brings clean drinking water to poor countries. They might choose to do a food-packing event for a birthday party, collect used books for an overseas school, or financially support another student in an impoverished country.
International Youth Day is August 12. Take this opportunity to remind yourself of the ways in which you can teach your kids to understand different cultures. You could go to a cultural festival, read a book about a different country or go online and do a fun research project. Maybe you could visit an ethnic restaurant or market or cook a new ethnic food at home.
As our global world becomes more interconnected thanks to the Internet, travel and immigration, knowing about different cultures is an asset. Think about how much “smaller” the world has grown in recent years, and how that trend is likely to continue. As world economies become more connected, so too do our lives. Understanding and appreciating differences seems to me to be a definite strength—for everyone involved.