Huang: What is cultural exchange, really?

Yujia Huang, Columnist

Diversity is often a celebration at elite universities. It has become synonymous with exchanging different cultures, ideas and even world-views. Black, Asian, Latinx and white students alike smile on brochures, effortlessly agreeing with each other.

However, is “cultural exchange” truly as effortless as it seems? What actually happens behind the scenes in such an exchange?

Culture, unlike an apple or a bar of chocolate, is not a commodity.

It is not purchasable and cannot be easily defined in terms of a price tag. We might be able to boil down the actual entity of culture into a single word — which is conveniently also “culture”. However, if we unpack it, culture becomes a massive fabric of human history and human identity that is heavy, sensitive and complex. Culture is so much more than the food we eat and the clothes we wear, which are easily digestible and accessible.

Instead, it exists in multiplicity: It is the identity, values and philosophies that people across time and space have carried and continue to carry. It is the sorrowful and vulnerable memories of those who have come before us. It is the pride and identity of our ancestors.

Culture is a container of endless human lives, carrying emotions, thoughts and sensations that are deeply personal, sensitive and private.

As a result, culture is naturally difficult to convey and exchange.

Our brochures have made cultural exchange seem like an extremely easy task. A black student, an Asian student and a white student standing in the same picture, talking and smiling at each other, reduces this concept to make it simpler than it actually is. Cultural exchange is not always all smiles — it can be extremely difficult and challenging. It requires the incredible ability to tolerate, emphasize, compromise, understand and even forgive.

For example, sharing my Chinese culture with my American friends is so much more than having them try bubble tea and hot pot. There are many things about my culture that are a lot more difficult to share, even embarrassing, sometimes.

For example, Chinese culture gives priority to values such as obedience, collectivity, respect and silence. These are values that are less important in American culture, which means it can be incredibly difficult for me to communicate the importance of these values in an America-centric environment. Moreover, a large part of my culture carries a history that is humiliating because of the West. We were hurt by the British during the Opium War, and following the Opium War, the sovereignty and humanity of my people continued to be violated by Japan and the West. It is easy to invite friends to eat Chinese food with me, but it is never easy to talk about the controversial and personal memories of history.

Even though globalization has now brought me closer to those from other countries, we still must acknowledge the past as well as the legacy it continues to carry in our modern times.

Culture, in its wholeness, is inherently difficult to access.

Still, that does not mean we should not keep going. We can start by sharing our food and customs, just like the way I invite my friends to eat Chinese mooncakes with me during festivals. However, we are only at the very start of our journey when we do this. We need to do more work to better understand each other from different countries and regions of the world. To make this journey increasingly possible, we must start challenging ourselves to be more patient, generous, open-minded and tolerant. We have to listen even when things become uncomfortable. We have to appreciate the complexity of history.

We have to acknowledge that we are all humans, and that we all have a story that deserves to be shared and listened to.

Yujia Huang is a Weinberg Sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.