In her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells listeners that the danger of having just one story about a person or group of people is that these stories “make one story become the only story.” The problem with this is that people and cultures are multi-faceted and cannot be reduced to one generalized vision. Adichie encourages her audience to gather many stories about people and places instead of persisting in a single vision of what those people and places are like.
In our digital age, opportunities to learn multiple stories abound. And in America, which is still a nation of immigrants, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to encounter people from many different cultures, often on a daily basis. The key, though, is to take those opportunities. Especially in our current climate of political turmoil, there is greater necessity to learn the stories of others. I’d suggest we have a duty to learn the stories of others so that we may be more understanding and well-rounded individuals. And thankfully, there are ways to expand our understanding of others that extend beyond traveling.
Understanding doesn’t always come from travel alone
As a bright-eyed 18-year-old, I had the opportunity to visit a high school friend in her home country of South Korea. I got to see the life my friend and her family lived and left feeling like I had truly encountered a new culture and learned a story other than my own. But it was just one story—the story of my friend and her family—not the many stories comprising Korean culture. The encounter did, however, prepare me for another trip, to Kolkata, India, a decade later.
Often associated in the Western world with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata initially seemed to me only a place of poverty and suffering. Though suffering and poverty are a part of Kolkata's story, Jhumpa Lahiri, an author with first-hand knowledge of this city, helped me to understand Kolkata as a place of economic and cultural richness. Reading about Kolkata revealed to me many stories of the city, instead of just the single story I knew. It’s a place I want to keep learning about so that I can continue to gather stories and further expand my understanding.
All kinds of reading can help build a fuller vision of a place and its people. In addition to creative nonfiction and fiction, travel blogs, photo essays, and even poetry can be useful to individuals who desire to learn about other cultures, especially if traveling isn’t an option.
Experience a different culture in your own neighborhood
While it’s important to remember that culture cannot be distilled to food, clothing, music, and performance, cultural festivals can offer an accessible primer in the culture being celebrated.
In August, I attended India Fest, an annual event in my city organized to bring both people of Indian heritage and people outside of this culture to a better appreciation and understanding of Indian culture. I listened to music, observed dances from the various states in India, and tried delicious food and drink like chicken biryani and chai from local restaurants. For me, this experience was a way to encounter another story about India, this time on a local level. I also learned that there are organizations in my city dedicated to celebrating Indian heritage, and I could continue learning about India throughout the year if I chose to.
Similar cultural events can be found in cities around the country. In terms of how to find them, I’ve discovered local museums and restaurants often have a pulse on what’s happening in my city. One of our art museums, for example, is active in annually celebrating a variety of cultures, such as Día de los Muertos and deaf culture. If you’re interested in learning more about what’s happening in your area, some cities have visitor sites that offer a range of upcoming events. It also may be useful to see what cultural groups are active in your city or town, visit their websites, and discover what kinds of events they offer.
Getting involved in these events—either behind the scenes or as an attendee—can lead to cultural immersion without having to leave your city.
Spend time with people from a variety of cultures
Getting involved with cultural events in your neighborhood can also be a great way to make new friends who have backgrounds and cultures different from your own.
One of my favorite college experiences was volunteering to be a conversation partner with an international student studying at the same college. We’d meet once a week for coffee and conversation. That hour I spent each week taught me to notice my partner’s needs. Because she was learning to speak English more fluently, I learned to slow down my speaking pace, think of a variety of ways to share information, and listen to her ideas. Since my family lived in the same town as the college, I invited one of my conversation partners home, and together we made a meal, featuring a dish from her culture’s cuisine.
Currently, I work with adult English-language learners, and recently we sat down together for a Thanksgiving celebration. What I loved about the celebration was the diversity of food choices. Alongside the pumpkin pies and potatoes, there were Somali sambusas and a spicy chicken and rice dish. Sharing our favorite foods opened us up to larger conversations about holiday celebrations and learning more about one another’s values and traditions.
Sometimes, our hobbies may naturally lead to encounters with people whose experiences and cultures are different than ours. I’m a part of the writing community in my city, and through this community, I’ve been exposed to an assortment of experiences and cultures. I find that by listening to my friends’ work (even my American-born friends!), I learn more about their traditions, values, and experiences, and I’m the better for it.
Perhaps what the world needs most at present is better-informed people who can contribute kindly and constructively to current public discourse. As Adichie aptly states, “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” A key to becoming better informed is becoming engaged in the lives of others. Sharing experiences with other people and other cultures opens us up to receive and delight in the grand variety that is our world.