You Say Potato, I Say Po-taa-toe
Crossing cultural boundaries is not easy. For many of us, it involves a major commitment to learn new things, meet new people, try new food, speak new languages, and live a completely new life. Immersing yourself in a cultural exchange can certainly prove to be difficult, but for all of its challenges, it can be equally as rewarding. For those of us who try to consider ourselves global citizens as opposed to citizens of one country, cultural exchanges are essential. It is one way in which we allow ourselves to experience elements of another culture, while also sharing knowledge of our culture and lifestyle with others. Being raised by parents who are originally from Palestine, and also knowing enough Arabic to converse with those I met here, I felt confident that I had enough familiarity with Palestinian culture to jump right into my work with TYO’s women and kids. That said, my first days of teaching were certainly a testament to the fact that you cannot truly understand a culture until you become fully immersed in it.
For example, growing up in an immigrant family in Canada, academics were always a huge emphasis. My education meant the world to my parents, and even aunts and uncles. For me, that love of education was always a big part of what it meant to be a Palestinian growing up in Canada. When I began teaching soccer at TYO, I anticipated that the neighbourhood boys and girls would certainly be excited to come, but only to be as committed as one would be for an after-school program. I could have never anticipated the level of excitement shown to me by the kids from the moment the program began. From day one, my classes were already at full attendance levels, and even then, we managed to squeeze in a few more. Despite this, there were still a number of kids from the neighbourhood peering in through the cracks in the fence and cheering their friends on. It was at that moment that I realized just how important soccer was to them, because it was not just about playing the sport. For them, this was something much bigger than sport could ever be; it was a chance for them to play, grow, learn and achieve. This soccer league was about being part of a community and having an opportunity to achieve.
For me, as for most, the most essential portions of a cultural exchange come with the day-to-day interactions with people that live in that other culture. I have had an opportunity to engage in this every day since I have been at TYO, with all of the staff and volunteers that work at the centre. Most interesting and important for me have been my daily meetings with the volunteers that help me run my soccer league. Every afternoon, I meet with Samer, Soha, Salah and Waed, and if there is anything that forces you to really engage with a new culture, it is the lack of linguistic ability. For many, myself included, we tend to view the lack of ability to communicate perfectly in one common language as the end all of communication. What I have learned is that language is one of the best ways you can challenge yourself, and more than that, that language is only a small part of being here as a fellow. In the end, there is a common goal, which is to provide the best programming and learning environment for the kids that benefit and seek to learn from our programming. In certain cases, that involves us stepping out of our comfort zone, and reverting to body language as a means of communication with each other and the kids, but knowing that we are all working towards the same thing makes it easier and more enjoyable.
The importance of cultural exchanges in a world as diverse and complex as the one we live in cannot be understated. Exchanging cultural perspectives and elements allows us to view one another as diverse but human, and become more accepting of others. This exchange has been a humbling experience for me personally, because I am beginning to feel a connection with a culture that has always been a part of me, but that I have never truly been a part of. Someone at TYO told me that diversity is important because it is one of the ways we learn as human beings, and after working with TYO I could not agree more.
Mohammed, Zahi Khouri Fellow