As Hu Jintao states, cultural exchange is a bridge or path for us to understand other people and their cultures, and many such paths exist: study abroad programs, personal travel, international work and internships. These paths are often not easy to cross; we must put in the work to see other cultures’ differences with limited judgement while also recognizing our similarities. When we cross back into our home nation following a cultural exchange experience, we also often find that our own culture’s reflection in that window has changed; it is of course not necessarily an adverse new perspective, but rather a clearer understanding.
As a young student, I’d always been rather individualistic and independent: fiercely proud of my ability to accomplish tasks on my own and ardently eschewing group projects. I believed I worked best when I did not have to compromise my ideas and opinions for someone else’s and I could let my full voice shine through my work. I didn’t find much opposition to this growing up, since independence and self-reliance are highly valued in American culture. Success accomplished alone should be admired above that achieved with help from others, right?
My view on the true meaning of independence changed once I returned from an 8-month study abroad program in Morocco. I didn’t truly realize what I’d learned about the concept until I heard another study abroad student speak about her experience to a group of prospective students and their parents at our college. This student explained with pride that the most important part of her experience overseas was living in an apartment in a large city in Germany, for the first time taking care of herself without a parent or other adult around to supervise. The parents in the audience certainly seemed impressed, nodding their heads, and looking to their children as if they’d like to see them experience something similar. While I agreed that living on your own at 21 in a foreign country was impressive, I felt some irritation that so much value was placed on whether an experience made you more independent or not.
“Culture is a window reflecting the history, culture and spiritual world of a nation, …Cultural exchange is a bridge to enhance the mutual understanding and friendship between the people of different nations.” -Hu Jinta
When it was my turn to share my study abroad experience, I spoke of how in Morocco, I’d come to appreciate feeling unashamed to depend on others, whether it was help from my host family, friends, or even complete strangers. There much more focus in Morocco and in other cultures on family, both al-usra (immediate family) and al-eayila (extended family). It took some time for me to get used to accepting help from others, but Moroccans kept offering me advice and help so often that eventually I had to start accepting it or else I’d appear rude. And looking back it does seem silly to spend more time and energy working on something alone just for the sake of saying you accomplished it on your own, when you could have saved that valuable time and energy and benefited from the help and ingenuity of others. I once lost an hour and a half and an expensive taxi ride home when I refused to ask if I was taking the bus in the right direction. I may have ultimately still learned the correct bus to take, but my pride in being “independent” made me appear foolish, although it did provide my host family with a laugh when I eventually made it home.
I came to learn over those months in Morocco that just because we can accomplish something alone, does not mean that we should. Asking for and accepting help does not mean we are weak; it means we are strong enough to recognize that someone else has different or complementary strengths. To me, that is a sign of a confident and wise person. Independence and self-reliance are still admirable traits, but they should not be valued to the detriment of growth.
Crises like the coronavirus pandemic can bring good deal of mistrust and judgement between other countries and even within our own. However, this is not the time to allow our pride or fear of the unknown let us shut ourselves off from the world. We need our neighbors and international friends. We need people who have crossed the cultural exchange bridge and who will enable more people to do the same. Cultural exchange programs strengthen us to confront our own preconceptions of “the other” and allow us to make small and profound changes within ourselves. Following such an experience, we come out the other side more willing to listen to new ideas, whether it’s from another culture or political view. We need to ensure that access to these exchange bridges are not closed completely. We need to continue to do the hard work of understanding each other.