This blog post was contributed by our intern at AFS International, Lisa Hischer from Germany, who is working on education and school relations. After finishing her BA in Cultural Studies and Educational Sciences, Lisa went to Ecuador for doing voluntary work in the jungle. In summer 2014 she interned at InterCultur (a subsidiary of AFS Germany), where she prepared and took part in intercultural Summer Academies in Istanbul and Karlsruhe.
Excited about learning more about intercultural education, I arrived to my new home in New York City – a women’s residence in the heart of Manhattan for about 380 girls from all over the world. After a couple of days I developed my own routine and I found myself waiting in line to get my ticket for dinner. Girls in pajamas, business dresses, flip-flops or sportswear were eating everything from a small healthy salad to a pile of French fries. The room was filled with the buzzing sound of different languages: Dutch, Spanish, German, was that Turkish?, French and of course English with many different dialects and accents. So far, so good. But when I looked closer, I noticed that most of the Germans, English, French, etc. all seemed to sit together – mixed tables were rather few. What was that about?
I researched this a little bit on the internet and quickly discovered that I was not the only one wondering about this phenomenon of people from one country, ethnicity or community sticking together. I found this post of a college girl:
“Why do people only hang out within their ethnic groups? Ok, first this is just an observation. I am not a racist, and I am not trying to stir things up. But I was at my freshmen orientation for college […] and then everyone went to lunch and what I noticed first is that it looked segregated! Asians sitting all with Asians, African Americans sitting all with African Americans, whites sitting with whites. I mean literally, they were all sitting within their own ethnic groups and I didn’t see any MIXTURE OF people and I sat down also to eat, and I was just looking around and amazed. And its not just here, I’ve noticed that other places too, like school, classes, library, etc.”
Another girl from Penn State University posted this video:
Apparently there were more people out there who notice and question this behavior of groups. But why do people act like that?
Coming back to my situation in the dining room: Most of the girls haven’t been living in NYC for a long time, they moved to a foreign country and work or study in a new environment – isn’t it comprehensible to seek for something familiar in these new and maybe a little overwhelming living conditions? Speaking in a foreign language all day, being influenced by new experiences and being introduced to new people can be an exhausting part of staying abroad. It takes some self-confidence to seek out new relationships that cross cultural borders – it’s much easier to stay in the comfortable bubble of people with your own beliefs, values and interests. To me these arguments can definitely explain the situation described; on the other hand they also sound a lot like lame excuses.
And am I behaving any differently? Most of my friends in the residence are Germans as well, even if I am a person who is keen to get to know new people, who loves to travel and discover different cultures around the world.
When we leave my example of the dining room and look at the situation from a broader perspective, we find this gathering and sticking together also in such a big and multicultural city like New York – known as the melting pot, where different cultures live more or less peacefully next to each other. You definitely can’t overlook the great variety of ethnicities, it is striking as soon as you step out of your door. But does this necessarily mean that the people interact? I mean more than just standing in a tight crowd, waiting to cross the street? After living here for just a few weeks, I don’t feel capable of answering this question. Still, New York consists of different neighborhoods that are predominated by certain ethnic groups. So a diverse city does not necessarily has to be a non-segregated city. A researcher found out that when we look at the process of immigration, often in the second generation the social networks of immigrants are still largely homogenous.
Do we have to feel guilty now for looking for comfort in people with a similar cultural or social background? That’s hard to say and rather a question that everyone has to answer for themselves. No matter which conclusion we might come to, it is important to take a step back from time to time, to ask ourselves if we should maybe be a little less comfortable and a little more brave and curious when thinking of our social network. We should try not to be intimidated by diversity but rather get out there and discover what lies behind the differences that we perceive.
Say no to conformity and try out something new – there are learning opportunities everywhere, we just have to take them! AFS offers the opportunity to step out of your comfort zone, to actively engage with difference in order to learn and grow – even if it might be painful and challenging sometimes. Thousands of our exchange students and host families discover this every year though the AFS’s intercultural exchange programs, while our volunteers and staff are challenged on a daily basis to be the best providers of intercultural education. We could continue living together in a multicultural society, co-existing in the same environment – OR we could take a step forward to an intercultural society, where we actually interact and discover each others backgrounds.
In my case this means: I will try a different table tonight and leave my comfy German zone – I might discover more new amazing friends!