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Guest Post: Island Life and the Pursuit of Diversity.

by Jessica Girard

Everybody deserves respect. As families this should be a value high up on our priority list as embracing diversity is not only important for helping children to respect other people, it also helps them to accept themselves and celebrate the variety of people the world has to offer.

Exposing ourselves to diversity not only widens our worldview it helps us better understand our connections to each other, helping us to become more globally aware.

The challenges of diversity

Opportunities to experience different cultures and embrace diversity can be somewhat limited when living within a small town, particularly when that small town is on an island, physically detached from the rest of the world.

This would be my experience of living in Guernsey, a small British island located in the English Channel, only 30 miles away from the coast of France. Now, when I say small, I actually mean tiny. The total area of the island is almost 25 square miles, which means you can drive around the entire island in about an hour!

[Image Credit] Wikipedia

I kind of have a love-hate relationship with the island. I love the beautiful scenery and the fact that the beach and the countryside are only a mere fifteen minute walk from my doorstep. 

I do however, hate the smallness of Guernsey, not only in size but sometimes in thinking. Small towns can have rather insular mindsets as there is often a (physical and mental) disconnection from life elsewhere. It would be fair to say that this can be true for Guernsey. Living here at times can feel like living in a bubble, there is limited choice and a lack of variety and this can be stifling (to me).

You could not describe the island as a culturally rich environment. Guernsey has a very homogenous population. The vast majority being white, middle class, Brits who, if they profess to any faith it would likely be Christianity as you will find over 50 churches on the island but not one mosque, synagogue or temple.

If variety is the spice of life, then Guernsey is lacking in flavor. 

There are expat professionals working on the island, however they tend to be on short-term licence (the Guernsey version of a visa) and stand little chance of gaining permanent residency. We do however, have a small but established Portuguese community on the island and a growing number of Eastern Europeans, mainly from Latvia and Poland which adds to the cultural mix. This growing cultural diversity is not welcomed by all and unfortunately these communities are often stereotyped, surrounded by stigma and alienated from mainstream life.

(Town Centre, Guernsey. Photo Credit: Visit Guernsey)

If not careful, the disconnection that many small towns like Guernsey have with the outside world and even the cultures within it, can lead to insular thinking and an ignorance of other world cultures. This in turn can lead to a lack of understanding and disrespect of diversity.

I have found that within the small town context the point is not only a matter of embracing diversity, but rather the fact that we need to pursue it in the first place. 

Foundations for pursuing diversity

Even in cosmopolitan cities people tend to gravitate towards homogenous communities. Small town dwellers therefore, have to be all the more intentional about pursuing diversity when there is less of it to go round.

Opportunities to immerse ourselves and our children in different cultural experiences may be rare but are worth pursuing, if we want to help our children grow to be compassionate global citizens.

As a family we have created five foundations that will hopefully help our family, and yours, in the pursuit of diversity.

1. Model relationships across cultures/religions/genders/abilities etc

One of the most important ways of promoting a culture of diversity is to show your comfort in relating with people of a different race, faith, culture, gender, age, ability and sexual preference. Children mimic their parents’ behaviour and if they can see you confidently interacting with people and celebrating your differences, they are much more likely to do likewise.

This also means not shying away from talking about differences, even in public. Children are naturally inquisitive and yes, their questions are sometimes poorly timed! Try to see these (awkward) situations as an opportunity for discussing and celebrating differences with your children. Shushing or distracting your child can actually make you appear unwilling to discuss these differences and can lead to your child thinking it is wrong to do so.

2. Be aware of your own ”diversity deficits”

It is important to be aware of what Christopher Metzler, Ph.D describes as, “diversity deficits”. No one is immune to making judgements and/or holding negative feelings about people who are different from ourselves. Whether it be a negative stereotype, judgemental attitude or apprehension of a particular country or people group, children can easily pick up on these. It is therefore even more crucial that we understand where these feelings may stem from so that we can avoid passing the “deficits” on to our children.

3. Breakdown stereotypes

Stereotypes are dangerous things. They label people unnecessarily and lead to people making judgements about entire countries, cultures, races and genders that can often be offensive and misleading.

It is important to work to breakdown these stereotypes, especially for children who are impressionable and still trying to understand the world around them. Removing books and toys that promote stereotypes is a good place to begin. Model positive language and listen to the words your children use and if necessary, discuss how their language could be hurtful.

4. Get out of your comfort zone

When living in a homogenous society it is important to try and get out your comfort zone and intentionally explore diversity.

There are many ways of doing this, most of which can be done in your hometown, here are some of the ways we have gotten out of our comfort zones:

  • Eat ethnic foods (preferably with people from that country) – we’ve eaten nsima (maize), the Malawian staple with Malawians living on island
  • Celebrate cultural events and religious festivals – We have joined our Chinese friends in celebrating Chinese New Year
  • Read multi-cultural books – We’ve gathered a small collection of books to read with our daughter that explore different countries, races, religions, genders and abilities.
  • Befriend and learn from expats in your community – We’ve made friends with some wonderful expats. The bonus being that we get to sample their cultures and challenge our own way of doing things, on a regular basis.

5. Create opportunities for discussion in the everyday

Gear your home up in a way that it naturally creates opportunities for discussions on diversity. Our daughter is only a baby so discussions are a little way off yet, but by bringing a little bit of the world inside our home we are developing a more culturally rich environment that will, in time, generate more questions.

In our home we create opportunities by having piles of travel books, maps and globes readily available to research countries, people groups and religions. We also have lots of hand crafted items on display, including handmade toys for our daughter to play with.

 
 [Photo Credit] Diversity MBA Magazine

 

The important thing to remember is that whether we live in a small town or multi-cultural city, when it comes to pursuing diversity, reading books and eating ethnic food, simply is not enough. Our attitude is what is important. We need to show our children (and communities) that we are intentionally trying to engage with people and promote social inclusion.

 

Have you experienced similar challenges of small town living? 

In what ways have you pursued opportunities for diversity?

Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Bio:

Jessica Girard is currently a full-time mother and spare-time blogger over at The Open Home, where she writes about faith, mission, travel, world culture, simple living and getting back to nature.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in children, expat, FAMILY, TCKs, TRAVEL

 

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Reflections on the expat life, inspired by Buckminster Fuller: “I am not a noun, I seem to be a verb…”

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This is a third post on my ‘random thoughts‘ about bringing our children up into this ‘nomad world’ [first one discussed multilingualism and its approach as parents], especially when it comes to the diverse society they [children] are about to face…. any moment from now… the second post presented a discussion on the misperceptions on being a ‘serial expat‘; a nomad, a ‘rolling stone…. I’m sure there’ll be more posts to come – thank you all for reading, and for the continuous feedback on this [and other!] topics – the suggestions, comments and shared stories from other parents/travelers/expats have made this ‘blogging experience’ much richer. And I’m very grateful for all that.

The discussion on social diversity is not only part of our family’s daily life, but it also tailors the way we are raising our children, and the way we would like them to understand and perceive their surroundings.

Buckminster Fuller

Geodesic Dome, by Buckminster Fuller  (credit: Wikipedia)

For many children, expat life is an enriching, wonderful experience, but for many others, it is an unbelievably difficult time. Much is gained — language, travel, worldview, diversity – but there are very real losses — extended family, longtime friends, a sense of belonging. Some of the losses are unrecognized and unacknowledged until later in life…

As parents of TCKs, my husband and I try to be sensitive to their particular situation. Each child is different, and reacts to the uprootedness differently. Some are more sensitive, and others relish in it.

English: Cropped and flipped photo of young Bu...

Buckminster Fuller (credit: Wikipedia)

One thing we have always tried to be, however, is their anchor. Since their external life is in constant flux, we try to keep our family life constant and stable. We try to have our own habits and traditions, which, as it turns out, are a bit of a blend between the countries we inhabit. Yes, they [our kids] may be exotic to the kids around them, and again, each handles that differently. One thrives on that, another cringes, but it is what it is. We know that they would have a different perspective than we do as their parents…

Perhaps, the best way of handling the identity issue is to adopt the dictum of the late Buckminster Fuller: “I am not a noun, I seem to be a verb…”

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Raising children in the Foreign Service – a brief talk about diversity.

FSJOriginally published as a Letter to Editors [The Foreign Service Journal, March 2013].

Diversity at State: Helping our Children.

The value of diversity promotion in the State Department was well emphasized by EEO Counselor Krishna Das (Letters to the Editor, January issue). As a parent, I see the discussion regarding how we bring up our children within the diverse Foreign Service lifestyle as equal parts interesting, challenging, and crucial. It is, of course, necessary to serve as role models for our children right from the start, particularly in teaching the lesson that everyone, despite appearances or stereotypes, deserves respect.

As noted, State Department children are highly exposed to diverse cultures, and we as parents should demonstrate why this is such an advantage to their own growth as human beings.

Building a culture of diversity starts at home, a literal reality for many State Department families. We speak different languages, come from distinct cultural backgrounds, and practice different religions. And yet in most cases, our children are growing up in a culturally richer environment than we (parents) were brought up. Children in the Foreign Service live the concept of diversity and its social implications – on a daily basis.

Seal of the United States Department of State.

Seal of the United States Department of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That said, it is often necessary for us to question what is our role as parents in this process? How can we assist our children regarding the issue of diversity? It would appear as far as diversity is concerned, we need to be extra involved in their lives: listening to their stories, learning about their ventures and challenges adjusting to new, countries, discussing their questions and social frustrations, establishing a healthy communication channel, building positive identities and respect for differences. Further, we should seek ways to insert these concepts into the routines of our children’s everyday lives and help convince them through our actions that a society without discrimination is possible. It is critical for us parents and caretakers to develop ‘cultural sensitivity’ regarding our surroundings; otherwise, without specific cultural information, we may inadvertently promote practices and approaches that could counter other parents’ efforts.

One great piece of advice I once received was to “encourage your child’s friendships with others across race, ethnicity, class, religious practices, background and ability.”

The more personal experiences children have with other groups, the easier it will be to dismiss stereotypes and misperceptions.

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Want to add to the discussion? Please feel free to share your comments/opinions/suggestions here!

 
 

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Embracing Diversity as an Expat: Raising Children in the Foreign Service.

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I feel like I began this year on a very ‘introspective mode‘, rethinking life, our lifestyle, and the way we plan on leading it forward…

This is a second post on my ‘random thoughts‘ about bringing our children out [first one discussed multilingualism and its approach as parents], especially when it comes to the diverse society they [children] are about to face…. any moment from now…

The discussion on social diversity is not only part of our family’s daily life, but it also tailors the way we are raising our children, and the way we would like them to understand and perceive their surroundings.

Being a foreign-born spouse, who has moved out of Brazil over a decade ago, constantly traveling because of work and family life, I had to learn early that, the need to readjust and reinvent oneself is a critical part of the adaptation process in a foreign country. I’m also a parent, and often find myself trying to answer a few questions, to my own children, as well as, to other parents facing similar challenges: “What can I do to help my children around the issue of diversity?” And, in fact, how ready is our society to embrace diversity? 

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Life as an expat has shown me that we (parents) are the only ‘constant‘ on our children’s lives. Childhood friends come and go, depending on their parent’s jobs. Schools change. Countries, cultures, music, social patterns and expected behaviors last as long as one’s post assignment does.
 
For a child, especially the young ones, parents are their strongest link to the concepts of ‘reality‘ and ‘normalcy‘.
Over time, children will learn who they are and what to do through these experiences – absorbing a sense of their routines, traditions, languages, cultures, and national or racial identities – at their own pace, creating their very particular ‘hybrid culture‘, assuming their own identity, as unique social beings.
 
We are diverse, we speak different languages in our household, we come from distinct cultural and/or religious backgrounds… and our children could not be any different from that narrative. Our children are coming up as divergent individuals, in a much richer way than we (parents) were brought up. We are all very unique, and that notion needs to be reflected not only on the job represented by our officers (and their families) overseas, but also, through our own behavior as social creatures.
 
Diversity brings innovation and creativity. It’s important for us, parents, to add to our home environment, so it is reflective of other (cultural, racial, ethnic, family style) groups. It’s critical to express pride in our own heritage. Building positive identities and the respect for differences, would mean inserting these concepts to the routine of children’s everyday lives.

I don’t have answers for these questions, and maybe, secretly, would hope to find a few over here… from other expat/parents out there... I’m aware that we [parents] are all seeking answers, suggestions, so, I’ll echo my voice with many more… who knows? Comments/messages are very much appreciated, and more than welcome!

That said, what is our role as parents? How could we help our children regarding diversity? One of the suggestions is that we need to be constantly involved in their lives. Listening to their stories, learning about their ventures and challenges adjusting to new/unknown realities. We need to devote a great deal of patience for establishing a healthy communication channel within our household, and between all the levels of our (expatriate) community; opportunities will present themselves at the school, at the work level, at social events where children may take part… . It’s necessary to talk to our children about differences, in a very understanding and respectful way. Let us be resourceful and take advantage of the diversity around us.

One of the advantages this life as expatriates offers to families is the possibility to enroll our children in international schools. It’s already been discussed that students who attend schools with a diverse population (student body, faculty, staff) are capable of developing an understanding of the perspectives of other children’s backgrounds, learning to function in a multicultural, multiethnic environment.All of us are born free of biases, (un)fortunately, we tend to learn them as we grow. Is it a totally negative aspect of our lives? Could we turn our ability to make social judgments into a positive impacting tool? Let the discussion begin! :o

 

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