We all like to think of ourselves as different. We like to think that we are special and have the “right” opinions. We like to think that our ideas are unique, new, and profound. This, however, is a terrible misconception. Although we are in many ways products of our societies, which have instilled in us certain ideologies, we are all connected on some primal level. We are interested in the same issues, admire the same art, react in similar ways when confronted with similar circumstances, and most importantly, share a fundamental system of morality. The idea that we form barriers between ourselves and others because they are in some way “different” has always perplexed me. For a long time, I have been interested in this idea of human commonality, how it is that people from opposite ends of the Earth can be so similar to one another. Yes, their cultures may appear superficially different, but when it comes down to what really counts, we are more alike than we realize. The vast majority of people – no matter their gender, ethnicity, or culture – all share essentially the same values. This fact has been proven to me time and time again whenever I travel out of my cultural microcosm and venture into another. It was clearly illustrated this summer when I went to Montreal and spent two weeks with a group of teenagers from all over the world.
I was in a sort of one-way exchange program, where my parents sent me alone to live with a host family for two weeks. The theory was that I go up and enjoy the city, meet other people my age, and learn a little French along the way.
I stayed in a small apartment surrounded by many others housing teenagers from over eight countries. We had all come to Montreal to learn either French or English. In the apartment I lived in, there were two girls from Italy, one from Colombia, and one from Portugal. There were also kids from Spain, Russia, Japan, France, Syria, Egypt, Germany, Switzerland, and Ireland living in the adjacent apartments. What I found most surprising was our ability to communicate with one another despite the inevitable language barriers. Once we had accomplished this, I came to realize just how similar we were to one another. Out of the whole two weeks I spent in the city, there was one moment that I remember above all else that most illustrates my point.
It was a Monday night I believe, and I had returned home from going to a museum with my friends. Since I had been walking all day, I was starving, and so seemed a few other people who entered the apartment after I did. For dinner we had pasta salad, and I sat down with three other teenagers who were temporarily residing in the adjoining apartment. We had all grown very fond of one another, and would commonly refer to each other by nationality. That night there was the Colombian, the Italian, the Swiss, and I, the American, all sitting together eating dinner.
Something about that moment struck me. Here we all were from three different continents speaking four different native languages – Spanish, Italian, Swiss-German, and English – sitting down to share a meal. It makes me smile to think how much we reinforced our respective stereotypes. There was the loud and talkative Colombian. The Italian girl used her hands and arms more than her mouth to communicate. The blonde haired, blue-eyed Swiss-German girl pronounced all of her W’s like V’s. Then there was the American boy who knew absolutely no other language besides his native tongue.
While eating dinner, the Colombian took a tomato from a bowl, cut it in half, put sugar on each open, circular face, and began to eat it like an apple. This strange action repulsed the Italian and Swiss girls, who quickly explained to him the various proper uses of a tomato. Andreas, the Colombian, promptly defended himself, saying that this was the way his mother ate tomatoes. As the dinner progressed, we began discussing more important topics such as the difference between public and private schools in our different countries, what university is like, and the importance of learning a foreign language in school. We all agreed that learning another language, especially English, is very important and should be stressed in the education system. As we were talking about this idea, I felt sort of guilty. All of these teenagers already spoke two languages, and look at me speaking English only.
On the topic of public versus private schools, Andreas the Colombian had the most to say. He first explained that most public schools in Colombia are, for lack of a better word, bad, whereas private ones are much better. He then trailed off the education topic towards a more socio-economic one. He said that many people in his country are being treated unfairly and not given the same chances as the wealthy – which is true in any country really. He explained that although there are metropolises with over five million people in his country, there are still places that require a plane, motorcycle, and hiking through the jungle, mountains, tundra, and prairie to get to. I know there are whole villages in the world with no running water or electricity, but when he said this, it seemed more real.
So there we were, four nationalities, speaking a total of four languages and all learning together, sitting around the dinner table discussing the role of government in education and the widening socio-economic gap in Colombia. We all came from different cultural backgrounds, but we were united around several central ideas that we all felt passionately about – the importance of education and human equality.
Albeit I was not discussing the socio-political issues of Colombia every night, there were multiple occasions that showed me how alike we, as a people, all are. For example, one afternoon a few friends and I went out and walked around the city for a while. Just as the sun was setting, we ascended the steps of St. Joseph’s Oratory, a famous Catholic basilica. When we reached the top, we saw Montreal’s cityscape with the sun setting in a purple-orange sky. I could not help but marvel at the beauty of the Basilica combined with the sunset, and I am sure the others did as well. Although I question much and do not believe all Catholic, and for that matter Christian, dogma, as did many of the people I was with, there was a sense of serenity and holiness that surrounded the place. The whole experience made me feel humble. It was not the type of humbleness one has after being patronized by an overbearing superior, but a more I-am-only-part-of-a-larger-whole type. As we looked in at the church’s nave and apse, we all knew that it was one of those places you speak quietly and walk slowly in without anyone having to tell you.
As we stood looking out over the city, I knew that we came from different societies and different faiths. We all had however, some basic understanding that none of us knew for certain what was the right or wrong thing in which to believe. It may sound strange and terribly sentimental, but I was more certain that there was some underlying, universal truth, some moral code that we all unconsciously follow that unites, some master plan of which we are all a part, than I am when sitting on a pew, drinking purple grape juice out of a tiny plastic cup and eating a small, dry cracker.
We like and want to be different. We want to think our belief system is the one, true, and absolute way of thinking. After all, is it not easier to form an opinion, no matter how strange it may be, and adamantly defend it rather than question it and live in a constant state of uncertainty? People will always have conflicting ideas, but we all, for the most part, desire the same things in life – youth, love, peace, happiness, beauty, certainty, and a sense of purpose. No matter how we shape society or allow it to shape us, we will always be more alike than we think we are.
by Philip Richardson