I was fascinated to see that the New York Times piece about foreign-born affluent, educated parents sending their kids to New York City public school in higher proportions than their American-born counterparts is the most e-mailed (and second-most viewed) article this morning on the Times website. It fascinates me because it's happening, and because others find it interesting, too. Why might this be so? In my observations of multicultural trends of U.S. schools, a couple familiar phrases keep jumping out: like attracts like (even when the "like" means being different -- I'll explain), and you don't know what you don't know.
First, folks coming from various countries (as well as Americans that have spent chunks of their lives abroad or in highly diverse U.S. communities) look for other families with a sense of the world, and do not seek to have their children blend in with others who look and spend just like they do. So, they seek people who are "like" them in that they are all different -- together. They want their children to be surrounded by kids who will eat a variety of foods, won't make a face when you pronounce your "unusual" name that sounds like no one else's, don't all buy their shoes and t-shirts at the same stores (but there's a good chance they all own at least one bookshelf from Ikea), don't spend their summers doing the same things you do, and so on. Having the same belief system is not paramount to them, and discovering those differences -- exploring new parts of the city, reading from a variety of authors, attending a cultural event you know little to nothing about, inviting "different" friends over for a meal -- is part of what you do over the weekend as a family.
And when you've lived in countries where public education is virtually the only option (like in Scandinavia) with a strong social safety net, this is what you know and this is what you look for. When you've experienced the richness of a community comprised of cultural and economic diversity pulling together to learn and support each other, going to one that represents only a high income level or a single skin tone might be more comfortable for some, but it's also boring -- and weaker on learning, discovery and creativity. This isn't about quotas and political correctness. Imagine how a bio-diverse ecosystem loses its vibrancy when all the species are the same. If you've never experienced or yearned for diversity on this level of everyday interactions it might be hard to imagine. You don't know what you don't know.
I've met many American parents who would like to give their kids a more "global" experience, but don't have the opportunity to live or travel abroad, and are either too stretched or unsure where to begin. They also might believe their communities are too homogeneous to have authentic multicultural experiences. With all the information and media out there, there's an upside -- we do have the world at our fingertips. A library card can tap film, music, magazine, and book collections from a state-wide collection of vast resources (beyond the collection at your closest library -- they leverage each other's resources). An internet connection can introduce you to a pen-pal across town or across the globe or a cause that you can do something about. Most North American residents live within two hours of an ethnic grocery store or restaurant, and if driving isn't your thing, order ingredients online or follow a recipe blog with cuisine from a country you'd like to experience. Follow your heart by starting out with what you love, whether it's movies, sports, philosophy, or art and engage in a global community that loves it with you. And don't just make it about stuff -- look for those new members of your own community whose ways differ from yours. Invite them for tea and start to create your own new, vibrant, caring, fascinating community. Simple steps like these can help anyone experience a global community -- even if you're not an affluent European executive. Your kids will thank you later.
Homa Sabet Tavangar is the author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World (Random House/Ballantine Books) and mother of three girls, ages 8, 16, and 18.