Thursday, May 7, 2009

Caught in the web of interculturalism

One group that has been the victim of interculturalism is the young children of Ireland’s new communities. A victim, not so much in that negative way, but that these kids absorb all the intercultural tensions in formal and informal settings, and sometimes even become pawns in cultural conflict trade-offs.

Listening to my own children and those from other ‘ethnic communities’, I often encounter a clash of values in what the kids bring from school and what they get exposed to at home. At the home front, they are exposed to a large dose of value systems deeply embedded in the cultural settings their parents were raised. By a good measure, these values would be different to what the kids would learn from their teachers and friends in school.

But thanks to the resilience of young children, they seem to quickly become ‘culture intelligent’ and make their way through the web of culture minefields. Two examples immediately come to mind.

The first is a casual comment I made to my boy last summer when he was in first class. I notice he had started making conversations that implied he had become ‘racially aware’. One day he said something about his teacher recommending sunscreen, I told him he didn’t need one as he was black (or brown as he would say) and black people wouldn’t suffer from the mild summer sun here. He seemed intrigued, but returned from school the following day to say his teacher told him it didn’t really matter he was black; he still needed sunscreen in summer. I left it at that but wondered if I had been wrong to sound that suggestion. On second thoughts, I wondered what the talk about appreciating diversity was all about if one cannot be comfortable to even mention how different we might be without sounding politically incorrect.

The second experience is the sense of keen competition in school and the winning spirit we expose our children to. My friend Tito told me how his son got last position in a swimming competition and gleefully declared that it was taking part that mattered most, not winning. Tito found this ‘laid-back’ mindset rather disturbing and wondered if his son would tell him it was also okay not to aspire to a third level education. He reminded his son that taking part was important, but winning mattered more because winners get the medals and others a handshake if they are lucky. This would be the typical response an African, Latino or an Asian would give their ward in similar circumstances.

There are also other issues around revere of elders, structured household responsibility at a comparatively early age. Again, where Europeans would be more inclined to indulge quick emotions, there is a near zero level tolerance within ethnic communities, in expressing ‘weak emotions’, particularly for the male child.

One begins to wonder if our expectations (from our kids) nurtured by the pressure we endured to excel might be misplaced in this new arena of interculturalism. But then, could we really slow down when there is a belief that we need to try twice as hard to even get a chance? Then again, could it be that a less competitive spirit breeds the social capital necessary to embrace the ethics of ‘common good’, a virtue easily threatened by keen competition and one we are said to have in short supply.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ireland - maybe we haven't lost our sense of community, after all

An interesting poll by Gallup (which I came across in Foreign Policy) has aked people all over the world about their social network and where they go for help. Comfortingly, in these times of recessionary misery, it turns out Ireland does pretty well. Best, in fact.

Q. If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them?

98% of Irish respondents answered yes.

That beats 48% in Pakistan, 54% in Afghanistan, 62% in Cambodia, 62% in Iran, 80% in China and 95% in the US. Not bad going.

So maybe our fabulous quality of life during the Celtic Tiger years was not down to Jimmy Choo and Brown Thomas, but to Auntie Mary down the road?