For my first intercultural experience, I decided to attend a yoga class. Although yoga has become increasingly popular amongst Westerners, it is still an ancient Eastern practice rather than something that can be characterized as part of mainstream American culture. It is a noncompetitive activity that is devoted to preparing the body for meditation rather than improving the body's physical appearance or to improve an athlete's performance. It is much a mental practice as it is a physical one.
During the beginning of class, everyone laid down their mats and assumed an 'easy sitting posture.' The teacher gave a short 'dharma' talk about the focus of the class, which was about setting aside the ego. Then, we said 'om' to indicate that the practice was starting. We performed some chanting in Sanskrit, doing a call-and-response after the teacher's prompting. Then, we begin to practice. First we began with sun salutations, followed by various balancing postures, forward folding and back-bending, and doing inversions (like headstand and shoulder stand).
All the while the teacher stressed that we should 'listen to our bodies' and not push ourselves beyond which we were capable of doing comfortably in a manner very different from a conventional fitness class. At the end of the class, we meditated again, this time a Buddhist meditation in which we would repeat, "may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be at ease" five times, first focusing upon ourselves, then upon someone we liked, then upon someone we did not know, then upon someone we disliked, then upon the whole world. This was to underline the principles of non-differentiation between all living beings.
I enjoyed the yoga class very much. One of the difficulties I have when sitting through any type of religious service is that I find it challenging to sit still for long periods of time. The yoga class combines spiritualty with an intense physical workout. The intention is to unite mind and body. I feel that after taking a yoga class, I understand some of the cultural attitudes expressed in Eastern religions far better than I ever did before.
Intercultural experience 2: Making tamales
A friend of mine is Mexican-American and invited me over to her house on a night when her mother would be making tamales for dinner. Although the family is very much 'assimilated,' this is a tradition that has been passed down for generations. You will never see this family purchasing taco shells from a supermarket or going to Taco Bell!
First, my friend's mother lays out everything from the corn husks, to the cooked meat (which she prepares beforehand because the process is so labor-intensive), and the masa dough which she has prepared earlier. Tamales are very labor-intensive and require a great deal of planning beforehand. No one makes only a few tamales at a time: the family cooks as many as possible and then freezes what they cannot eat, or invites other people over to consume them in one fell swoop. My friend's mother is an artist in the way she opens the husk, smears the dough, and fills the meat. It is like watching a very skilled factory worker, although she does not need to measure and merely eyes everything by sight. There were so many to be made, we tried to lend a hand, but barely made a dent in the pile compared to my friend's mother. She explained the process as she worked, but it was clear that she had been doing this so many times, she was on autopilot.
Certain foods have great symbolic significance within various cultures, and in Mexican-American culture, tamales are one of them. I think this is partially because of the communal nature of the food. Regardless of one's level of experience, because they are made en masse, there is something about the preparation that makes it a multigenerational, collective experience, versus making a standard American meal at home. The experience reminded me of baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother, only tamales are made year 'round, not simply as a type of 'event' cooking. Home cooking for my friend's mother is a way of nurturing the family.
However, there is always a dark side to food traditions. I know that my friend's father struggles with his weight and the high-fat pork used in tamales are not good for him. While striving to connect with the past with traditional foods, it can be difficult to pursue a healthy diet.
Intercultural experience 3: An individual with disabilities
A friend of mine has is confined to a wheelchair and has limited mobility without one. I decided to follow her around for a day to see the extent to which her disability affects her life. One thing I noticed is how much I take being able to engage with people face-to-face for granted. When my friend has to buy something in a store, it can be a nightmare to ask the person behind the counter a question. Very often, when they cannot see her, she is invisible in their eyes. I noticed when she asked a barista at Starbucks to repeat himself several times because the barista did not see her from his vantage-point. When she finally signaled to him, he seemed frustrated and had to ask her to repeat her order because he was so far away from her.
I remembered in the Starbucks that it can be a challenge to find a table that is accessible to a wheelchair. Even though all stores must have bathrooms and tables that can accommodate wheelchairs, very often people thoughtlessly take these spaces, assuming that no one will walk in with a disability. She explained to me that this was one of the frustrating aspects of growing up having to use a wheelchair. She often felt silly and awkward at parties, not because she was afraid of meeting new people but because she was afraid she would not be able to find a place where she could enter the facilities without asking for assistance. Once she remembered having to turn away and go home, because she could find no accessible ramp at the old building where an event was located.
The worst, she said, was the fact that people often assumed that she was less intelligent than she actually was, because she needed additional assistance in school. Kids called her 'dumb' and 'retarded' despite the fact that she did well in her classes. In their eyes, all disabilities were the same, and it meant, in their eyes, that she was 'less of a person' because she obviously needed help with certain aspects of her life.
My friend stressed that using a wheelchair did not mean that she felt she had a 'hard life,' but rather that she had to do a great deal of extra planning: she had to carefully plan her classes in college so she could get there on time; she was denied participation in certain activities that other students loved like sports. Although her disability does not define her, it is something that she can never forget, because her society is structured for the able-boded.
Intercultural experience 4: Being gay
For my fourth intercultural experience, I visited a support group for gay teens. Before attending, I called the facilitator to explain that I wanted to attend the meeting as an observer for a class, and wondered if there were any sessions that were 'open for the public.' After clearing it with the other members of the group, I was allowed to attend the meeting.
Some of the stories I heard in the group were sad and horrifying. Many of the teens had been rejected by their families because of their sexuality. One or two had to live elsewhere while things 'calmed down' at…