This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Sri Lanka for two months to do research with the Duke Global Health Institute. Because I was already so close to India, I decided to make a two-week stop in Bangalore to visit some friends on my way back to the United States. Needless to say, a piece of my heart still remains in both countries. If you get the opportunity, I highly recommend traveling to that region. Sri Lankans are some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and authentic Indian food is simply as close to food heaven as one is able to reach.
While I was abroad, I became aware of the distinct racial boundaries present in our society. At points, I perceived traces of the ‘white supremacy’ paradigm remaining in the culture. Too often, I saw obviously white children on daycare advertisements and white women on billboards for beauty salons. On the other hand, I also witnessed us, the Americans, perpetuating that paradigm in the way we interacted around locals.
There’s something about taking a group of Americans and relocating them into another country that makes these barriers more apparent. During the first couple of weeks I was in Sri Lanka, I was so excited each time I met a foreigner because I was desperate for friends. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with befriending other Western people, but it wasn’t until about 3 weeks into the trip that I realized I should make Sri Lankan friends as well… since, you know, I’m in Sri Lanka.
The same thing happened in India when I was attending an event with an American friend. After this event I realized that we instinctively had gravitated towards other expatriates. Language was not the issue because the Indians spoke better English than most Americans—our actions were motivated by other subconscious reasons.
While abroad, we tend to befriend people who resemble our social circles at home. This tendency reflects our inherent desire to be understood, to be surrounded people who have similar characteristics and habits that we do.
During my experiences abroad, I did feel more understood, and honestly more refreshed, being around people of a similar background as me. Unfortunately, a mindset like that emphasizes the differences rather than the similarities between cultures. Highlighting differences creates an atmosphere of distrust and could potentially lead to misunderstanding and conflict between two cultures.
One area that I believe we can improve as a campus is ‘ethnic’ integration. Rather than racial integration, I use ‘ethnic’ integration to emphasize an individual’s cultural background rather than only his/her identity based on appearance. To a degree, social circles at Duke are racially integrated. Interestingly though, I have noticed that individuals in these circles, regardless of race, tend to behave, speak and dress in similar ways.
As this school year begins and we strive for a deeper sense of community on campus, I recommend that beyond breaking down racial walls, we take steps to break down ‘ethnic’ walls as well. I would encourage us, the Duke student body, to intentionally befriend people outside our comfort zones, people who behave differently than we do. I admit this will take energy, but our efforts now have the potential of preventing ethnic conflicts in the future. Let’s search for the common ground we share and acknowledge the similarities over the differences. Let’s continue to be a campus striving towards inclusion of all races and ethnicities.
Thao Nguyen is a Trinity junior. This is her first column of the semester.