My Next Door Neighbor lives 3000 Miles Away

The advent of the twenty-first century has changed our world in remarkable ways. In the past, it was easy for people from different cultures to exist independently from their neighbors because great distances limited the extent to which international trade and cross-cultural communication were able to take place. Today, however, in an ever more globalized world, it has become much more critical to make efforts to understand the cultural practices of different societies. Some groups view globalization as a positive force. Proponents of this school of thought put forward the idea that new innovations within the realm of information and communication technologies have created communities with “no sense of space.”According to this view, technological innovations such as the Internet or mobile phones, which have made mass media almost universally accessible in recent years, have caused contemporary societies to function in radically new ways which were never before considered possible. Today, a person in Palestine can speak instantaneously with someone in the United States. Similarly, a Chinese business person can conduct a transaction with someone living in Germany in real time.

On the other side of the spectrum, rest arguments which suggest that globalization has facilitated increased global disparity over the past several decades (Harvey, 2005: 159).Through this lens, globalization can be seen not as a globally inclusive phenomenon, but as a process which has benefited the global north while simultaneously disadvantaging those residing in the global south who cannot afford to participate in new technological trends.

Ultimately, however, though controversy exists regarding whether or not globalization is a good thing, the bottom line is that regardless of personal opinion, globalization is here to stay. Our world has become so interconnected that institutions now exist which govern at the global level. Thus, cross cultural exchange has taken on a new significance as to function within global society today means that you must also understand other cultures.

Expanding the idea of community to a global end allows students to appreciate foreign places and communities while leaving space for them to share their own Palestinian culture. Growing up immersed within a cultural script can make certain cultural norms seem like a priori values, so being exposed to diverse value systems of foreign cultures is essential in building a sense of personal identity. Identity based in both self-worth and community has power in giving children hope for the future. Seemingly superficial connections made between cultures across the globe have the power to breed deep gestures of togetherness that are essential in creating a brighter future for the next generation. These sorts of connections are the ties that lead to true global solidarity, something certainly lacking in today’s world.

We, as foreigners, have experienced first-hand the profound effect of cross-cultural connection that accompanies moments of surprise and discovery within the classroom. Although “culture” is often reduced to a series of traditions or recipes, through the informal education approach, TYO succeeds in framing culture as a lived experience unique to every student. Going beyond recognizing similarities between “traditional” clothing and ceremonial customs, during “Global Community” week, our goal at TYO is to find the shared values at the core of communities of any size. Through this approach, learning about other cultures is as much about discovery as it is building appreciation for your own culture. Finding appreciation for cultures around the world helps students find value in their own traditions, thoughts, and voice.

Similarly, this week’s focus of ‘Global Community’ here at TYO brings to mind the positive impact of cross-cultural partnerships for the furthering of development projects across the world. Throughout the history of international assistance there has always been a dilemma posed by the position of the aid giver in relation to the aid receiver. How can we provide aid and see effective results without stepping in and taking over completely? On the other hand, can we just provide financial assistance and then walk away? The techniques used here at TYO in the afternoon classes, The Women’s Group and in the An-Najah University classes, utilise foreign knowledge and assistance without jeopardizing local project ownership and involvement.

With this in mind, TYO brings native English speakers to Nablus to create cross-cultural partnerships that help spread awareness and enrich learning through cultural exchange. For example, by having an international intern work alongside local translators and volunteers, the minimal international presence is just enough to inspire a change in local attitudes. Not only does this improve the employability of local youth but also it helps to convey to this section of Palestinian society, that they can make a real difference within their own communities and that their situation is not hopeless. Similar techniques that build on cross-cultural partnerships and learning can be seen to be emerging across the sector of development and aid, such as the International Citizen’s Service (UK-Aid) and the International Youth Internship Program (CIDA). These kind of programmes put truth into the cliché that ‘together we are better’.

Smiling Kids practice Singing a traditional South African Song in music class

Fortunately for us, all of our classes lend themselves perfectly to exploring the world outside of Palestine with our kids. The power of drama, music, and sports to reach across borders and through time is often underestimated, especially when the focus is on harder skills. But we only need to see a Greek tragedy, listen to one of Mozart’s symphonies, or witness the legions of frenzied Barcelona fans to remember that we all share a love of beauty and self-expression, and that such shared interests often lay the groundwork for friendships and cooperation with others either in our own neighborhoods or on the other side of the world. Think of the international cooperation that goes into the Olympics, or the solidarity movements that have grown from within them. Consider the power of Shakespeare’s plays, many of which are still performed and adapted all over the world, or the fact that the world’s greatest composers are no longer seen as the sole heritage of their home countries, but as a part of our shared cultural heritage.

To be sure, we still have a way to go in this regard. Education in the West still suffers from a dearth of information about cultural heritages outside of our own, including but not limited to Asian, Islamic, and African artists, thinkers, and traditions. Perhaps more importantly, however, we also realize how much different cultures have in common that is never discussed. Nablus, and Palestine more generally, is full of landmarks that are important to all religions, and history that is important to all people, but many of these are only discussed in the context of conflict. Because the area is so politicized, differences are highlighted more than similarities. While we may have more work to do in teaching our children both here and at home about shared culture, for now teaching self-expression in our classes reminds us that sometimes the universal human experience does not need to be expressed through words, and that sometimes the fastest way to befriend a child is to know his favorite football team.

Kids race to be first in the TYO cross cultural Olympic Games.

- Rachel, Rosie, Noah and Cynthia

Rachel, Rosie, Noah and Cynthia are Fall 2013 interns in Nablus.