The following guest post was authored by Brittany Kutz, Junior League of Ogden.
My first realization that there were other cultures than my own was when I was 9 or 10 years old. I was in the locker room at the indoor pool on Hill Air Force Base when an elderly woman stripped completely naked in front of me. I was changing in the locker room as well, but using my towel to keep covered as my mother had taught me. Bewildered I rushed to dress and asked my mother why the woman had been so inappropriate. My mother explained that she was from another country and not everyone is as concerned with modesty as we are in the United States.
Over the years I became more aware of cultural differences. Having grown up without religion, and then being immersed in Utah’s Mormon culture, I learned how much your culture influences you. It was difficult at first. I felt for a long while like I was an alien the moment I left the base, but eventually I took the initiative to learn about their culture. I attended the Church of Latter-Day-Saints a few times, I learned the lingo, and was told what was considered offensive and appropriate in the religion, so I could adapt accordingly. I learned not to call my friends on Sundays, keep the swearing to a minimum, and provide more options than caffeinated soda, for starters.
Learning about various cultures changes the way you approach different situations. What one considers appropriate in their hometown may make someone else uncomfortable. An example is eye contact. In the United States, if you do not give eye contact while talking or listening to someone, you come off as disinterested in the conversation. In Asian culture, eye contact is considered rude. Whether eye contact is rude or respectful depends on the culture you are immersed in. To prevent embarrassment, or offensive situations, it helps to learn about other cultures.
The Association of Junior Leagues International recently partnered with Cross Cultural Solutions to provide members the opportunity to go to Guatemala to volunteer and learn about the country’s culture. The trip was highly enlightening. We were shown the beautiful scenery—the active volcano Pacaya, Lake Atitlan, Mayan ruins. We interacted with the bright Mayan culture and surrounded ourselves with friendly folks. But we also learned of the government corruption and immense poverty. We learned of their flaws in providing for the elderly, those with disabilities, and children from lower classes. It made me reflect on what the United States is doing right, but also gave me time to explore other ideas and methods of improvement—in my case for working with children.
Providing opportunities of cultural immersion can help us within our own communities. In a melting pot, as the United States is, we interact with various cultures daily. By gaining knowledge of each other’s cultures we can better tailor our approaches. One example of this is the foster care system and Native children. The United States government viewed Native American’s as uncivilized and chose to commit cultural genocide by removing Native children from their tribes and putting them into foster care. By doing so they lost cultural identity, and because Native Americans operate as a tribe, they lost their whole family in one foul swoop. In 1978 the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed due to distorted views of Native American culture. The foster care system now needs to find ways to maintain the child’s cultural heritage. They have become more culturally competent in their approaches—as we all should become.
As Spanish cellist Pablo Casals has been quoted as saying, “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?” Opportunities like the trip to Guatemala not only allow us to spread our love to children globally, but they help us become culturally competent, so we can help improve our communities without damaging the beauty in our cultural differences. It also makes us stronger as citizens—helping us grow as leaders, as an organization and personally as the Junior League of Ogden’s mission states.