Growing Up in a Multi-Cultural Learning Environment

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My friends from the West are often intrigued by India – in an inspiring as well as resisting way. they find this land exotic, eclectic, even outlandish. I can see why. For, even though I'm an Indian myself, as I'm discovering more and more of my country by traveling far and wide and to the remote corners, a sense of wonder sweeps over me. the very same multi-cultural, multi-faith and multi-caste dimensions that have often caused this vast country to be shaken up internally, are also the reasons why India paints such a stimulating and exquisite picture of cultural diversity and versatility in art forms, music, languages, cuisine, architecture, handicraft, textiles and attire. Infact, the country is what it is because of the multiple cultures and faiths that have thrived and co-existed for centuries. Every single grain of this country is born of and nurtured by its cultural melting pot.

In India, we have no dearth of conversation starters. on the contrary, you can breakthe ice with a rank stranger with a – "O, I like your Saree! Is this the Rajasthani Tie and Dye or the Gujarati" or, "Ah, I love your Kolhapuri chappals", and yet more - "O, your wedding rituals take place early in the morning? ours are at mignight". Gosh! One can go on exchanging nuggets of cultural wisdom in an unconscious, almost breezy way!

My family is as much a cultural medley! While, I am from Rajasthan(West) and speak Rajasthani and Hindi as my mother tongue; the hubby is from Karnataka; Kannada is his mother tongue! Pari is fluent with Hindi and English and understands Kannada and Rajasthani. I, too, have learnt a smattering of Kannada to feel at home when we visit my in-laws in Sagara (near Bangalore). I love the South Indian delicacies, which has inspired me to learn quite a few lip smacking South Indian recipes from my mother-in law besides the Rajasthani recipes from my mom – both are world-class cooks! and, I do believe that a well-fed hubby makes for a good lover, a caring father and a patient listener! beyond us, my sis-in-law (my younger brother's wife) is a Punjabi and she brings with her the flavours of quintessential Punjabi Chhole (Chick Peas) and Rajma (black beans).

Many urban Indian families these days bear a similar multi-cultural, even multi-ethnic look with more and more youth marrying inter-caste and even inter-religion (a big taboo here, otherwise). Globally, the distance remains the same, but the proximity is increasing with the number of immigrant population on the rise and with the internet enabling us to peek into and learn more about each others' ways of life.

What are the Schools doing?

Considering how multi-cultural interaction can enrich, I, as a parent to a 5.5 year old, don't see our schools really doing much to encourage a multi-cultural learning environment. At least, not much here in India. Ha! what an irony. Really! Isn't that shocking and a huge set-back considering India is the flag bearer of a multi-faith society? In Pari's class, there are children from the North East of India, from the Southern states, from East, from families following the Islam and Sikh and Jain religioius faiths. But, besides just declaring a holiday on an Id-ul-Fitr or a Buddha Jayanti or a Guru Nanak Day and besides celebrating some popular festivals like Diwali, Christmas, Holi or Janmaasthami, the schools haven't taken any positive step further. Probably, they don't even realise that given the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic backgrounds their studens come from, there is a need or may be just an opportunity to make the students learn about the faith and culture of their fellow class mates. 

What do those holidays mean anyway?

I don't see any relevance of a holiday on Id-ul-fitr for a child who has not the slightest idea how his Muslim friend celebrates that day. and, it goes for any other holiday – be it Diwali, Holi or Easter. 

A multi-cultural learning environment is beneficial in every aspect that I can think of. 

  1. It is an opportunity to learn about people, culture, countries, festivals – which is a fascinating subject in itself  
  2. The subject is such that it lends itself very well to interactive, project-based study rather than just textbook-centric. There can be story-telling through puppetry, dance and drama and folk music; children can exchange recipes and songs; learn to greet in each other's language etc.  
  3. A cultural exchange and reinforcement such as this will help in preserving our myriad languages, art-forms, folk culture and traditions  
  4. Last but very crucial – it will make our children more sensitive, tolerant and appreciative of culture and languages and faiths other than their own, helping in a more peace-loving society.

I recently read an article in which a US-based author expressed her views against those liberals who frown upon the concept of a multi-cultural education. she says that, in a country where there are multi-ethnic groups due to a vast immigrant population, segregating the schools on the basis of culture and religion is as bad as propagating a "liberal-only" public school education. it will erode our society of the richness, of culture, languages and traditions. she says – it's a pity to see the children of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant parents not being able to interact with their grandparents because they cannot speak their language. they have lost touch with their parental culture.

In another article, another U.S.-based author writes with concern that the children of immigrant societies in the U.S. and elsewhere suffer from an identity crisis as they often don't even want to talk about the culture/ethnicity they belong to for fear of not fitting in. Often times, they carry an inherent complex about their native country and may even lie where they come from. this is the result of a lack of multi-cultural learning and sharing environment at schools. 

In India, television has done more damage that any other medium. Children's content on the small screen is replete only with animated movies on Hindu Gods and Goddesses like Ganesha and Hanuman and Krishna besides borrowed content like High School Musical that don't really portray a realistic picture. There's a shameless absence of any programme whatsoever pertaining to any other faith. Why? Because, the majority of population is Hindu and the TV producers will gain more eye balls and hence more revenue by such content as compared to, let's say, about the life and times of Jesus or the Prophet or Guru Nanak? what a disgrace. the popular Indian cinema, which has an astonishing reach, hasn't done much either. apart from the handful of movies that have restored taste and sensibility back to Hindi cinema in the past few years, most continue to showcase the 'Bhangra' and the big fat Indian wedding jamboree as if this is what India is all about!

Going back to what I was saying about the lack of multi-cultural sharing in Indian schools – when I  say introducing the child/class to the diversity of culture and faith, I do mean it's done in an age-appropriate way. I don't think introducing the scriptures from a Bible or the 'Granthas' from a Hindu epic to a 5-year old is a good idea. There are many age-appropriate ways to familiarize the child with the cultural diversity of her/his class of 20 or 30 or 40 with whom the child spends 6 hours (sometimes even more) with. 

In my experience of introducing cultures of the world to in our home to Pari, these are some of the things that I have found very helpful and fun-filled for a 5-year old.most are relevant for both parents and schools.

And they don't have to be heavy-weight information load on the child. they just need to be links and nuggets that help them connect with the world around them and help them admire and appreciate the diversity that they live in. For, it's the diversity that makes the world so interesting as well as challenging. 

If South Africa wasn't any different from India, I wouldn't have cared to save and shell out big time to make my dream of visiting this country true. a country so rich in art, nature, culture, languages and landscape and ever so fun and colourful due to the people who inhabit the land. and, when there, if I don't prefer mingling with the people, tasting their food, taking interest in their history, or attempting to learn a word or two in their language, I might as well stay put in my home and be content with my curry (sabzi)!

And, if the schools fail to realize their role as propagators of cultural exchange, among other things, the day isn't far away when more parents will prefer to home-school their children. I, for one, have been thinking hard about it..

Some stimulating and interesting reads on traditions, diversity and more from my favourite blogs:

  • Top 5 things I've Learned After Traveling a Year in India

  • The Power of Traditions, Iranian Culture and stories from a Cup

Dear readers, I would LOVE to hear your thoughts and views on this topic – of multi-cultural learning for our children. Please share freely and enrich this article.

Update on July 3, 2011

In the comments, below, my blogger friend Melissa @ the Imagination soup shared a link to her post on a similar subject. she writes about her shock and agony and how she handled the situation when her little girl comes back home from school singing a song with racist undertones. the words in the song make fun of Chinese eyes. You can read the article here.  I really admire Melissa's sensitive, compassionate and mature parenting.

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