|United State of Apathy
I wanted to take my ruler and smack myself in the face, because that would have distracted me from the real pain. Emily, a tall, cute, brunette in my 7th grade Spanish class had just raised her hand and randomly blurted out,
“Mexico is like, in Europe, right?”
I walked over to my large world map hanging on the wall, and, using my ruler for a less traumatizing task, pointed to Europe and then North America. I loudly broadcasted to the class while I motioned Northward:
“Mexico, USA, Canada, Alaska.” My heart hurt a little bit, that an intelligent 12 year old would not have a clue that Mexico was our Southern neighbor.
“Wait.” Diana interjected, “Hold up.” Diana was Hispanic, with long black hair coiled in tight ringlets, but she had a blond soul.
“I thought Alaska was like, down in the ocean.”
I was completely perplexed as to why she would have thought Alaska was an island in the Pacific. I took a deep breath, and calmly, with no judgment, inquired why she thought that.
“It’s always next to Hawaii, you know, in that little box.”
The experience made me wonder- why do American kids know very little about the world outside the borders of the USA? In my time teaching, I’ve noticed that not only do they not have basic cultural awareness, (On a test I’ve asked, “Name a French food that is not French bread, dressing, fries or toast.” Answers usually include burritos or pizza.), but they seem to be completely unconcerned with anything not inside their Yankee bubble.
This is in stark contrast with most children I’ve met in other areas of the globe. When I worked at an Alpine summer camp, the English campers were fascinated with the American school experience.
“Do you really go to prom? Do you really ride a yellow school bus?”
The French exchange students a friend and I worked with one summer in Virginia were completely obsessed with American clothing, and when we took them on a field trip to Washington DC, all they talked about was shopping. We took them to all the famous monuments, but they wanted Abercrombie and Fitch. (We later realized they thought they were going to shop because we told them we were going to The Mall.) Besides American pop culture, the English and French kids just seemed to be more aware, more knowledgeable in general.
Why did these kids know so much about our country, whereas our kids know nothing about theirs? A shift in educational focus could be the problem: instructional hours are now precious and Geography is no longer deemed relevant enough to win much time. Because of this, only 20% of American high school seniors are now considered proficient in world geography. Embarrassingly, half of our youth can’t find New York on a map. But I feel the issue has deeper, cultural roots. The media that bombards our citizens every day in every way is almost 100% Made In America. Have you listened to a song in a foreign language lately? Watched a foreign movie? Our television, film, and radio send us the indirect message that American entertainment is the best. Otherwise, we’d listen to and watch entertainment from outside origins.
I’m not saying the US entertainment industry isn’t enviable, because it is. Our TV shows, movies, and music are exported all over the world. The French kids informed me that French radio is obligated by law to play French artists at least 50% of the time, in an admirable effort to keep their own culture and industry relevant. And Baywatch, (Baywatch?), is the most watched TV series ever, with viewers in 140 countries. In comparison, I don’t think Americans would ever stand for half of the songs on our radio to be in another language. And whereas we appreciate ideas for TV shows from other countries, we never show the original- we always remake the show, American style, for mainstream TV. Countless popular shows started out British- The Office, Deal Or No Deal, Big Brother, Trading Spaces, Three’s Company, Pop (American) Idol, Wife Swap, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire are just a few. Since most teens don’t watch the news, information is gleaned though pop culture- and if all of our media is our own, it’s no surprise kids don’t even think about the outside world.
I feel like this inexposure to outside influence can only contribute to the cultural ignorance that plagues so many American children. My students are not only regrettably unknowledgeable about other countries, they are quite xenophobic. I know part of this is due to their age, but it pains me that they think anything different is automatically weird. Every year I try to help them open their minds to foreign cuisine by having them make a foreign dish and bring it in for a Foods Day celebration. Time after time, I fight against students who want to make “Mexican” 7 layer dip. I always remind them that the point is to try something they’ve never had before, and no, they can’t just bring in Taco Bell. One year I glanced through a student’s glass bowl and discovered macaroni and ground beef.
“Javonte, what is this?”
“Hamburger Helper,” was his reply.
“Javonte, Hamburger Helper is not a foreign food.”
Perplexed, he explained: “But it said Mexican flavor!”
Where’s that ruler…? Each year, my letter to the parents about the project has to get longer and more specific about what is allowable, due to the ridiculous contributions of the year before. I do feel so successful, though, when a student tries a food deemed “scary” based on looks alone, like flan for example, and ends up really liking it. It proves capability of acceptance, when given opportunity. Children need to be exposed to experiences like this, to open their minds and learn about the world, and recognize that different doesn’t equal bad.
This has nothing to do with race, or economic level. I feel that just because a child may never travel abroad in his or her life doesn’t mean he or she should stay ignorant to the world outside. Awareness isn’t reserved for the rich. I met a young boy when we were in Cambodia who illustrates my point perfectly. While Gaz, my husband, and I were wandering around the packed dirt streets of Siem Reap, we were approached by an 8 year old sporting a black haired bowl cut, arms full of postcards and thin bamboo bracelets.
“Hello, what’s your name?” he asked in perfect English.
“Jennifer,” I replied and then asked him the same. He replied that it was Tom and that he was earning money to go to school. He then asked: “Where are you from?”
When I replied, “America,” he launched into a monologue.
“Oh, I know many things about America. Last state: Hawaii, Second to last state: Alaska. Capital of New York: Albany, Capital of Texas: Austin,” he rattled off. I have to admit, I was very impressed.
“You buy a bracelet? 10 for $2.” I told him I didn’t need any, so then he showed me his pack of postcards, and went on to describe each picture of the various nearby temples of Angkor Wat to me.
“Jennifer, you buy something from me?” My heart, frozen and desensitized from months of traveling in Third World counties, melted. I told him I only needed one bracelet, and I gave him 50 cents for it. As he put the bamboo bangle on my wrist I told him,
“Tom, you are a very smart boy. You make sure you stay in school and study hard, okay?”
I will never forget that kid, working so hard to improve his life. My chest still aches when I think about him. I wondered how many facts about other countries he knew, just ready for whomever else he might encounter. I’m not na´ve enough to believe his factual knowledge wasn’t memorized for the purpose of selling more bracelets, but if an 8 year old Cambodian boy can learn the capital of Texas, surely a 13 year old American should be able to remember where Mexico is. The issue is the acknowledgement of importance, and as long as our children believe America is the center of the world, they have little reason to be concerned about the rest of it.