A baby of the baby boomers, I was born at the tail end of an era commonly referred to as Generation X: a generation of lost selves, highly educated yet often unemployed, perpetually searching for an identity; defined by such historical events as the fall of communism, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the rise of grunge music. As national borders have become more fluid, Generation Xers have expanded their quest to “find themselves” across the globe. Volunteering in Africa, backpacking across Central America, visiting ashrams in India and studying abroad in Europe, these Generation Xers have not only developed a taste for travel and a sense of global awareness, they have forged lasting relationships spanning nations, continents and oceans. Now in their late 20’s to early 40’s, they are giving birth to children of their own, a generation undoubtedly influenced by the flow of cultural knowledge and diverse ways of life embedded in their parents’ experience. Coupled with the rise of information technology and increased global connectivity; these kids have a very different understanding of national and ethnic boundaries, cultural diversity and sense of community than that of the preceding generation. This is “Generation Trek”.
SENSITIVITY TO DIVERSITY
While volunteering in a local second grade classroom, I recently noted a distinct difference in the way these students speak about and relate to global affairs. Like, Isabelle*, whose favorite city is a toss up between Barcelona or Shanghai, world geography means much more to these children than the faded map hanging from the whiteboard. At merely seven years old, Isabelle is able to vividly describe her favorite fruit and vegetable market in Thailand and the funny hats people like to wear to keep the sun off their faces. She loves talking about her travels, and rambles on about how people live in China, Gabon, Singapore and Portugal. I asked Isabelle why her family traveled to all of these exotic places, was it for her parents’ work? “No” she answered in a perplexed tone, “Mommy is a teacher, Daddy is a computer engineer and they like to go on trips, it’s fun”. Initially, I thought there must be something very unusual about Isabelle’s upbringing; certainly trips to Southeast Asia at seven cannot be the norm? Yet, the more I spoke with Isabelle’s peers, it became increasingly obvious that these children not only travel to exotic destinations, they possess a surprising sensitivity for diverse practices, customs and lifestyles from around the world. I started to wonder, is this unique to Isabelle’s* class, or is this just the tip of a much wider phenomenon?
Over the past two months I’ve volunteered at well over ten demographically diverse elementary schools, where I have repeatedly witnessed an unprecedented level of cultural awareness across the board. Clearly, not all children have the opportunity to spend their summers’ gallivanting around the globe or scuba diving in Phuket, so how is it that they are so knowledgeable and interested in other cultures? The answer came to me while I was helping a little boy put the finishing touches on a doll he was making for a UN fundraiser. I was surprised when this blond hair, blue eyed child pulled out a black doll dressed in traditional African fabric and explained that this was Joseph from Switzerland. Looking around, I found that many children had chosen dolls of different ethnic backgrounds, dressing them in both traditional and contemporary clothing.
A DIFFERENT VIEW OF BOUNDARIES
A fervent discussion ensued about why they chose the doll they did and where their doll was from. The children were thrilled to tell me stories about their dolls from all around the world, many who had parents from different countries, or were born in such and such country but now live in France or the USA or Switzerland. I kept wondering, how on earth were these seven year old’s dreaming up such exotic stories? I soon realized that they were in essence telling stories from their own experience. Nearly every student I spoke with could name at least one classroom friend whose mom or dad came from another country, and many could name several. There was Jean, whose Mommy is French and Dad is Brazilian, but he grew up in Finland until last year; Samantha whose Mom is from Guatemala, and whose Dad is from Scotland, but logically, they live in France; Fatou whose parents are from Mali and Oscar whose Mom is Japanese and Father is Spanish. The list goes on and on. What’s more, the children demonstrated a profound interest in the cultural habits and preferences of their classmates. I overheard discussions about what they eat at home, where they go on vacation and what language they speak with their parents. Exposed to a sundry of cultural practices in their daily lives, growing up among multi-national families, they seem not to perceive cultural and national borders as boundaries but as fluid sections of the same whole.
PLANTING THE SEED
Last week, a first grader asked me “why are some countries poor and others are not?” “Well”, I replied, “what an excellent question, many researchers have been trying to solve that puzzle for quite some time now”. I started to give her an introduction to “jelly bean development economics” when the little girl interrupted “ok, ok, I get it, but what can we do?” Her classmates wanted to know more too: “how can I volunteer with the UN?”; “how old do you have to be to go to help the kids in Africa?” ; “I want to volunteer too, when can I start?” Never have a few small voices sparked such a sense of hope in my heart. In their eyes, the world is massive, yet we are all connected. I can’t help wondering: will a greater feeling of connectivity translate into an increased sense of global responsibility and tolerance? Perhaps. In any case, it would appear that at least among elementary school children in Paris, the seed has been planted. Now it is the job of preceding generations to make sure it grows.