Although I have lived in the wonderful state of Georgia and have been a white male for the entirety of my life, very few bounds have existed to hinder my exposure to other cultures and ideals, especially compared to many others of my generation that have been raised within the borders of the United States. None of my grandparents grew up in Georgia or any part of the southeast allowing me to escape the hardwiring of the many generational southern traditions and ways of thinking while also letting me absorb the culture and tradition at my leisure. Through my experiences, I have found that, along with embracing the society I was brought up in, experiencing and understanding the many cultures around the globe was essential to accepting our world as a whole.
The first time that I was truly exposed to different cultures was in middle school where I made many friends that were of different colors, religions, and even languages. A majority of these friends whose cultures I have learned to embraced are from the Indian state of Gujarat and are fluent in the state’s native language, Gujarati. Whether it be at their birthday parties or just homework sessions at their houses, I have learned to respect not only the everyday habits of their culture (Bollywood dance, vegetarian menu, familial duties) but also their religion, Hinduism. I was raised as a Christian and was never directly exposed to religions without the same god as mine before making these friends. My experiences with them have truly made me cherish not only the identity I found with my religion, but also the identity that my friends find within theirs.
From middle school, my exposer to and acceptance of different cultures increased dramatically. Of course high school is an even larger stage for mixes of identities, ethnicities, and cultures. The summer after my sophomore year, I was called to go on a mission trip with my church to Bulgaria, which is located in the ex-communist region of Eastern Europe. The trip was an eye opening experience in many ways. I was first a little shocked by the fact that our mission group was not allowed to say to customs in Bulgaria that we were not actually on a mission trip but were merely visiting some friends. The country is strictly associated with the Orthodox Church and is far from tolerant. Another experience on the trip that shook my naïve ways of thinking was the great discrimination that existed within the society of the country, part of the purpose of our trip. The Roma ethnic group is highly discriminated by the ethnically Bulgarian in the country, leaving the Roma population to live in poverty and in separation from the opportunities of success. While we were there, the missionary family that was housing us told our group that the discrimination the Bulgarians imposed on the Roma was just as bad as or even worse than the situation in the United Stated between whites and blacks before the Civil Rights acts of the 1950s and 60s. The fact that such hatred and separation could still live in the world was completely new to me, and it made me realize how different the areas outside the United States are as well as the continuing injustice throughout the world.
Soon after my trip to Bulgaria, I started dating a girl in my grade named Suin who had lived in Korea for the first thirteen years of her life, moved to the United States from the Philippines after a year in boarding school there, and was still making better grades than me at our college preparatory high school. I was in awe of her past perseverance as well as her everyday ability to be at the top of the class even in her second language. I loved learning about her family and her culture. Suin had grown up very independent, barely ever seeing her mother or father because of their busy work schedules and was adopted by her aunt and uncle in order to come to the U.S. I had to learn how to gain the trust and respect of her father and mother without using my words for they didn’t speak any English, another creative experience. For a while, my favorite after-school snack was a bowl of fresh-steamed rice, a little soy sauce, and seaweed, and I learned to like almost all of the exotic, authentic Korean dishes that her mother let me try. Knowing her and getting to know her life at home and her past made me realize how amazingly fortunate I have been to have grown up in a life where I already have almost everything that I needed to be successful in my future.