Posted on 19 November 2011.
By Regan Plekenpol, Shanghai American School Pudong
Art by Yong Jin Kim Concordia International School of Shanghai
“Mommy, what makes me different from her?” I ask, grasping my mother’s hand tightly as we walk down the streets of Shanghai. We are weaving through a giggling crowd of Chinese elementary school girls on our walk to the grocery store. My eyes scan busy faces as we maneuver through the sea of people (人山人海*, as the Chinese say.) For a brief moment, my eyes meet those of a Hello-Kitty-clad preteen. Blonde and on the tall side for a nine-year-old, I see that these girls are staring right back at me.
“Nothing,” my mother answers frankly.
There is a superficial idea that it is impossible to find commonalities among people who defy the stereotypes we generate. We have evolved—now quick to assume that appearance defines who we are, we spend our whole lives in our comfort zones. Sure, there is “diversity” in our schools or sports teams, but do we ever reach out to truly understand the complexity of another race? We learn to be “accepting, and we are taught to be tolerant.
“Don’t gawk, sweetie. She just looks different from you, let’s go.”
However, there is a world of difference between tolerance and empathy. This gap is one that we are often too afraid to conquer. The capacity for misunderstanding is real, and the possibilities for failure endless. We can get caught up in this trepidation and give up. If we only took the time to interact with each other and try to understand our differences, maybe we could begin to unearth the fundamental ideas that unite us as the human race. As we broaden our mindset, we can try to identify the inner principles that we all share, despite our distinct appearances.
Having lived all over the world and traveled extensively, I’ve learned how to blend in. As a blonde Caucasian living in Shanghai for the past six years, I try hard not to stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t resemble the Chinese, but is there something more that bars me from relating to people who do not look exactly like me, from entering and understanding another culture? The afternoons that I spent talking to the locals while drinking bubble tea or scavenging through pearl markets will never make me Chinese. Speaking the language and building relationships with the people around me will change neither my heritage nor ethnicity, but it can give me insight into the Chinese culture. I can begin to appreciate the similarities and differences that I find and learn more about myself in the process. We can excavate common passions, struggles, and triumphs to create a bond, linking us across oceans and borders.
People, in the most general sense, have more in common than we expect, and I look for these similarities in the most unexpected of places. Living in Scotland, I found home in a farmhouse outside Edinburgh, as the only American family for miles. In Morocco, I toured the land draped in a Hijab to hide my platinum hair. In South Africa, I played with Zulu AIDS victims, giving them the attention they so often go without due to their condition. In each of these places, I found acceptance. I found a deep-rooted appreciation, not only for the way they looked, but also for the way they lived, be it their restrictive superstitions or their religious morals. Overlooking these things—skin color, theological beliefs, and language—we are more similar than we might believe. We all have dreams, we revere family and tradition, and we love. When it all comes down to it, we all have the same basic needs. I knew what it was like to feel different, but I found a common ground that I could stand on and look at the world anew.
With these global experiences so close to my heart, a conference like THIMUN-Singapore, where we are able to experience such a multitude of nationalities, feels like home. I relish the opportunities I get to make friends from every corner of the globe – be it Vietnam, Dubai, or Malaysia. MUN is the perfect occasion to accept other people and to band together with the hopes of making a difference. We can learn to appreciate rudimentary differences and overlook the places where we may not see eye to eye. There should never be an outsider; there should, instead, be collaboration, colorblindness. Always.
My eyes break away from the eccentric schoolgirl and I continue on my way. I feel the warmth of my mother’s fingers, interlocked with mine. I look at the people around me, without judgment, and I see the beauty of unity. I see the world as one people, amalgamated and colorblind. Idealistic? Maybe. Hopeful? Certainly. Impossible? Well, that is up for us to decide.