The other night I had the privilege of attending a friend's med school graduation party. It was fabulous, his parents put on quite a spread. There were probably 100 people there, including a handful of us who had worked in ORL (Office of Residential Life at UCLA) with him. Most of the guests were Vietnamese, and most of the older adults primarily spoke Vietnamese. I was glad to be assigned to the ORL table with others I knew. It was interesting to me that the only non-asian folks were at the ORL table. I wasn't surprised per say, but it was just a stark difference from the rest of the room. It reminded me of how mono-cultural our lives can be. We grow up in a particular neighborhood with particular people and as a result, much of our lives follows a similar pattern of homogeneity. I know folks who grow up in urban situations often have a different experience of diversity. But I'd venture to say that for most, if the lines aren't racial/cultural, they are economic.
In the past, I've been tempted to argue "but I had ________ friends." And yet, while I had friends from a variety of cultures growing up and even more so in college, I've never been to a wedding or funeral, or even a baptism, bar mitzvah, or quincianera for someone outside of my culture. (And it has been interesting to attend Christian weddings with non-Christian friends and explain the traditions to a Hindu and a Jew...you get to see the beauty of some of the traditions and the odd quirks of others). It was amusing as we sat around the table that night and learned more about what a Vietnamese wedding would be like, we also ended up sharing what would be different at a white wedding, Jewish wedding, or African American wedding--those things that are particular to a culture/religion/region. We talked about dollar dances, wedding registries, family style vs individually served meals, father/daughter dances, jumping the broom, breaking the glass, the electric slide, and more.
In the midst of our story telling, a good friend shared about her experience of going home with me for a ministry approval with my church. My town, at least when I was growing up, was composed of whites, native Americans, and Latinos. There were just a couple of Indian families, and Asian families, and there was one African American family. Yes, just one, and they were new to town, at least by small town standards. My friend is African American, as was my DS, and so at the meeting my mother cautioned her not to be surprised if people thought the two of them were related. She just about rolls on the floor laughing when she tells the story of us going to visit a friend, who ended up not being home, and me walking right in, walking past the barking dog, leaving a note, and then encouraging my friend to go ahead of me as we left. The implications of what that might have looked like to a stranger had absolutely no effect on me. She urged me out the door first and we went on our way.
As we continued sharing, the doe-eyed third year kept asking questions of those of us in the "real world" and she asked me if going to UCLA had been a culture shock. I told her it was more because there were more folks living in the dorms than in my entire town and surrounding area, but that I had participated in a program over the summer (that works with minority students, in which I theoretically did not belong) and how I really had to deal with my racism and later that summer, when someone close to me came out, my homophobia. My good friend commented, "I didn't know all that! Man, you've come a long way!"
Gratefully, yes, I think I have. And I am particularly grateful for my experiences in ORL, where I really was merged with people from all kinds of backgrounds, and was also forced to deal with other prejudices so that I could be a better RA to all of the people on my floor. Sort of like a hospital can be a great equalizer of persons (rich, poor, black, white, male, female, young, and old, you see them all in those gusty gowns, with bad hair, stuck in the limbo of waiting for a diagnosis or a bowel movement to be released) ORL is a great unifier of persons--bringing folks together, forcing us to live together, to deal with conflict, to have fun together, all in the name of higher education.