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Posts Tagged ‘tolerance’

Exotic is as exotic does.

I never really understood what that adage actually meant. Is it saying that people are labeled exotic because they have strange habits? Then how about those so-called exotic places? Which of their habits have led to them being tagged alluring?

How many of you, who have immigrated to America, have heard your accent or looks or even opinions called exotic at least once in your lifetime? Do I see heads nodding vigorously? And, if I’m not wrong, most of those times that comment has been meant kindly or even as a compliment.

Was it truly a compliment, though?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes Exotic as:

: very different, strange, or unusual

: of a plant or animal: not living or growing naturally in a particular area: from another part of the world

How does being born with almond-shaped eyes (one of the trite descriptions for Asian-looking eyes) automatically make you strange? Especially in those cases where generations of your family have lived in America, which makes you as native to this country as the next person?

How does that hint of an accent that remains in your speech, even after you have lived in the U.S. for 20+ years, because you speak more than one language make you very different?

Please let me make the distinction here that someone remarking on your accent or ethnicity is not in and of itself a bad thing—this is how we make connections, acknowledge that each of us is an individual and learn about each other. But commenting on the differences in a tone of condescension or with the intention of labeling as “other” is not recommended.

Most of the cultures that the West likes to call exotic have flourished in their parts of the world for thousands of years. They had to have lifestyles and routines that are somewhat more grounded, and in keeping with the times, than unusual to have been around for that long. (For instance, yes, it has been a decade or two since India has grudgingly given up elephants as a mode of transportation in favor of those smaller mechanical contraptions called cars. And, members of The Snake Charmers Association of India, after several rounds of negotiations, have finally agreed to openly charm their snakes only on national holidays. So, World, please feel free to move on to other clichés about India!)

Also, has anyone who’s tagging another person exotic ever stopped to consider that he/she might be exactly as strange to the other person? Probably not.

To summarize, exotic, even if meant kindly, is a label. And as with any label, it’s limiting. It stops the labeled in their tracks because they have been boxed. Because it indicates that the labeler—for lack of a better word—is refusing to look beyond the other person’s clothes, habits or preferences that are dissimilar to the labeler’s own.

If you see someone who’s a bit different from you, why not frankly share an interesting tidbit about yourself first and then invite her to share something about her? Then stand back with an open mind and let the ensuing discussion lead you in the direction it wants to head.

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The latest developments around the world have brought to my mind the words of one of India’s foremost philosophers, Swami Vivekananda.

Picture of Swami Vivekananda taken from the cover art of one of the philosopher's biographies published in India

 

I present to you an excerpt from the landmark speech Vivekananda had given on September 11, 1893 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago.

(Notice the date? Yes! Coincidence? I don’t know…)

I feel the sentiments expressed by the philosopher over a century ago are relevant today more than ever. Without further ado, here goes…

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

… I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.

I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.

I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: “As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

 

P.S: See here for the full speech. Thanks Meera for helping bring Vivekananda’s words to the fore of my consciousness at this point in time.

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A couple of dictionary definitions for Tolerance are:

1 : sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.     

2 : the act of allowing something : toleration.

Isn’t tolerance one of the most needed qualities in all of us, in this day and age? Is tolerance an instinct or is it a learned behavior? If the latter, could it be cultivated in children?

What are some of the best ways to expose children to diversity?

  • Travel: No better way to teach children about how the rest of the world lives.

 

  • Movies: Remember the three protagonists in Finding Nemo? Marlin, the dad, is a little different, with his paranoia for his son’s safety; Nemo is not your run-of-the-mill Clown fish, what with his one small fin and everything; and Dory is way out there, literally, with her short-term memory loss. Still, at the end of the movie, you come away loving these characters — their idiosyncrasies and all.

 

  • Books: The best and cheapest means of getting your point across, if you ask me. (You guessed I’d say that, right? This is a blog all about books, after all! :)) You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home and which child can resist a bed-time story? There are so many books out there, both fiction and non-fiction, that help us nurture empathy in children that is at the crux of the definition for tolerance.

* Won’t a child be less likely to torture a classmate who speaks with a stutter, if the former understood why the latter does that and how that makes him feel?

* Won’t a child be less likely to bully another who dresses peculiarly, according to her, if she knew the reason/custom behind the clothes being different?

* Won’t a child think before she judges another’s family structure if she were taught to be more sympathetic?

* Won’t a child be a little less likely to be sniggered at because of the contents of his lunch box, if his friends knew the name of the food he’s eating and how it is prepared?

Overall, it is my belief that children exposed early to diversity in geography, culture, and belief systems tend to grow up to be more tolerant and understanding of the physical, religious, and cultural differences in the population around them.

What do you all say?

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