Fun fact: I’ve lived in Central Illinois for quite a few years, but I grew up near Tucson, Arizona. Caterpillar moved my family there when I was one year old, so I grew up in a world without snow, falling leaves, and temperatures below fifty degrees. When we moved to Illinois, a couple things took me by surprise. For one thing, there were no Kokopellis anywhere. For another, my new, 99% white school was comprised entirely of Michaels, Jacks, Hannahs, and Caitlyns. Where were all the Alejandros, Xaviers, Rosas, and Josefinas?
As time went on and I became accustomed to life in Illinois, I gradually went from wondering why everyone was white to being surprised to see someone who wasn’t white. My school was 95% white. So was my church. So was my entire community. This gradually became my normal.
My best friend went to Namibia on a missions trip a year or two ago and met fellow missionaries who are now some of her closest friends. She recently attended a missions conference in Florida, where she was reunited with those friends and had the opportunity to worship in a crowd of several thousand people from nearly a hundred different countries. During each session, she told me, the lyrics to the songs were on one screen in English, another in Spanish, another in French, and so on. I hung on her every word as she described the experience of worshipping in such a diverse setting. Suddenly, a thought struck me. That’s what heaven is going to be like. This realization made me long for the diversity I’d known in Arizona.
Thus, moving to college was like a breath of fresh air. I was placed back into an environment in which not everyone was the same. I made a new friend after we found ourselves talking on our phones with our families in the same dorm kitchen, her in half Spanish, half English, me in half German, half English. We exchanged some kind of knowing smile/soul wink as we listened to each other. Before the week was over, we were hanging out in each other’s rooms and grabbing dinner together. Not long after, we stood over the stove in the same kitchen, her mixing up a pot of Chocolate Caliente Abuelita, and me mixing up a pot of Kinderspunch. We sat in the kitchen with our drinks, serving them to passers-by and talking for hours.
These experiences made me wonder: If I long for culture and diversity and the ability they give us to connect beneath the surface, why do I nonetheless build friend groups out of people so similar to me? And while I understand the reality of true cultural appropriation, if I call myself a lover of culture, why do I hesitate to share in the cultures of others? A line from my art teacher in high school came back to me: humans like things that look like us.
Ugh. If I’m going to call myself a lover of culture but maintain that attitude, why don’t I just move back to Central Illinois, where the people are as similar to one another as the infinite rows of cornstalks?
In order to truly love a diverse group of people and connect on that deeper level, I’m going to have to actively remember that 1) I’m programmed to love myself and will therefore be most comfortable with people like me, but 2) that there are a lot of people out there with whom I could connect if I would simply get over myself.
So today, the people manning the Hispanic Heritage Club’s booth at college called me over as I passed through the cafeteria. I’m not Hispanic; They must be calling someone else, I thought. But the man pointed directly at me, yelled, ‘Headscarf! (yes, I do respond to that)’ and motioned for me to come over. I headed on over and met a man named Jose. We talked for a while and tried to get one another to cough up the phonetics of our own languages. (Is Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften really that hard to pronounce?!) It was a little connection, but I left the cafeteria higher on life than I was when I walked in.
So my conclusion is this: Culture is not a sociological phenomenon; it’s a gift from God to help us humans love and connect with each other! So I’m embarking on this adventure of getting over myself to learn how to connect. And I even have an extra incentive: Maybe I’ll get more Mexican Hot Chocolate out of the deal!