A couple of months ago, while I was still living in a dreamlike state in Taipei, I wanted to write a blog post about a curious phenomenon I experienced while living in multicultural North America. I wanted to call this blog post “the North American Paradox.” This blog post was going to be written about the North American tendency to lack cultural understanding and knowledge of world history despite North America being a center for immigration, as various peoples have come to pursue new lives by crossing one of two vast oceans. Of course, as my experiences were mostly centered in Toronto, Canada, it was going to be representative of only one North American city, and one with a large number of immigrants from various countries, so it could have been more of “the Toronto Paradox.”
This still doesn’t change the fact that this phenomena does exist in Toronto. Despite having an immigrant population that amounts to 50% of the total city population, and people from literally all around the globe, I have found Torontonians to be largely clueless about what happens outside Canada, if they followed news from outside Toronto at all. Aside from current world events, I have found only shallow forms of cultural exchange happening in this great global city called Toronto. When we (Torontonians) think about other cultures and people, I think the only thing we know about them is their cuisine, and this being the adapted North Americanized version. Even the friends we make are those that are culturally similar to us. I guess this last part cannot be helped so much, as language and cultural barriers can stifle the creation of tight bonds. But this barrier creates further divisions between groups of people of different cultures. The result is a city where possibilities for cultural exchange seem to be limitless but end up being quite few.
I found it ironic that Torontonians proudly refer to global Toronto as being a melting pot of the world. I do not dispute this, although I see it being a “melting pot” in another sense as well. My friend, whose ancestors moved from somewhere in Germany to Canada four or five or six generations ago, put it very nicely when he said, “after a few generations, you just end up being white.” Being apart from the ancestral home and its cultural density, Torontonians start losing the drastic spices and flavours of their home country and find in its place sanitary but insipid flavours. Different flavours come in but melting pot of Toronto tastes bland, much like its cheese. But of course, I should note that I cannot help but being biased, as I lived most of my life here. I guess foreigners coming to Toronto would find it exciting in some way.
I think the experience that contrasted the most with my Toronto experience was the time I spent as an exchange student in Milan. There I met many Europeans and found them to be incredibly knowledgeable and worldly. They seemed to know all about what was happening in the world – the world at that moment for me being Europe – and much about its past too. Languages were another matter that impressed me, as all Europeans seemed to speak at least three fluently. My German roommate might have given me a particularly one-sided perspective in this matter, as he was interested in history and claimed to have known at one point all the countries in the world and their capital cities as well as a lot of their basic history. He also spoke German, English and Spanish fluently. With this environment and these kinds of people around me, it is no wonder why I thought so favourably about Europeans and disappointed from the contrast at bumbling, monolingual North Americans. (Torontonians)
A year went by and the time came for another plane flight, this time to Asia. Here again I met many Europeans. However, in contrast to the sophisticated and noble Europeans I met while in Europe, this new batch of Europeans seemed to shine less. They were just as clueless as I was about what was happening in this side of the world and this time, I had an advantage on them in language proficiency. Of course, when they discussed the various perspectives of World War II during a party I found it novel and interesting, but Europe was a world away.
The conclusion I got from thinking about this “paradox” was that it is actually not a paradox at all. North Americans learn in school about the history of colonial powers in North America – with a brief sidenote mentioning the Native Americans – because this is what happened on the continent. Europeans learn about Europe, because tension have historically been present there and with two large scale wars destroying the continent and taking too many European lives, it is important to learn about the history of the Europe. With the European Union, and the proximity of different cultures, I guess learning languages has also been pragmatically emphasized in their education system. If my family never moved out of South Korea I would be learning about the history of the Korean peninsula. I asked a Taiwanese friend and he told me the Taiwanese learn about the history of China and Taiwan. I am in Beijing right now and I am guessing that the students here are not learning about the history of Ireland. As for Torontonians lacking deep cultural exchanges, I do not think that I should be pointing any fingers. When I was living in Taiwan, I always found myself hanging out with the exchange students more than my Taiwanese classmates. And when I did hang out with the occasional Taiwanese friend, we would use English most of the time. I think it takes serious conscious effort to reach out to people using an unfamiliar language and most people, including me, lack patience.
I still think that cultural understanding – and by extension, language – is a worthwhile goal and one that I would like to pursue. Learning about different cultures and peoples destroys ignorance and brings humility. It brings to light the truth that human essence is the same. There are times I see ignorance at an extreme level, particularly on online channels where one group of people are put down as being less than human due to misinterpretation of their actions. I believe that proper respect and understanding of one another are missing in these cases. I think that beneath the surface (I’m not sure if this layer is thick or thin) there is a part within that is relatable. Maybe I am being too idealistic. History is another discipline that is worth pursuing. Learning about the stories that have taken place on this planet earth before this moment in time gives us a proper perspective on life. The world does not revolve around us, despite how much we would like to give ourselves the role of the main character in our personal stories. The world just revolves and will keep on revolving way after our death. It will revolve and revolve and then it will stop revolving sometime in a distant and unseeable future. Then there will be imperceptible darkness. But as accidental and fortunate receivers of the blessing of life, it is important to play our role and play it with conscientiousness and humility and without an overinflation of our ego.
Picture above is somewhere in Taroko Gorge in Taiwan