international flags

Photo by Steve Bourne.

We have a knack of putting things into boxes. We have shoeboxes and cereal boxes and memory boxes and big land boxes that we call countries. We have even managed to place people in boxes.

Millennia from now, our civilization may well be known for mastering the art of boxing.

Once we have boxed in shoes and cereals and people, we need only look at the label on the box to know what is inside. It makes things easy, separate, simple.

However, placing people in boxes is problematic. Cultural and geographical stereotypes — the labels on the neatly stacked boxes — are often misleading representations of what lies within the cardboard walls.

Categorizing people and placing them in labelled boxes on the basis of their skin colour, culture, religion, language, and nationality ignores the variety that exists within these groups.

Though there is some truth in the shared characteristics within a culture or region, it is also true that there is immense diversity to be found underneath the labels.

As, Mauricio Orellana, president of the Organization for Latin Awareness (HOLA), phrased it: “each individual is unique, even if they come from a certain part of the world.”

Opening the boxes, whether you are pushing at the wall from within or pulling at them from outside, is a challenge that requires both the push and the pull to be effective.

Katherine Davidson, a domestic student from Ottawa and co-director of the TISA Choir, recognized this difficulty: “everybody is going to feel more comfortable with other people from their own country; they don’t feel like they have to act a certain way or explain things, they just get it.” She added that “It takes conscious effort to break that down.”

Jessica Rogers, President of the Trent International Students’ Association (TISA) and International Student Commissioner, argued that “there is no way to step out of being stereotyped if you don’t step out of your own crowd. Until you do that, you won’t see a different light and wont allow others to view you differently.”

Pushing these walls open requires openness to what lies outside of them, and recognition that tearing the label off involves individual initiatives.

Jessica Rogers added that “it is all about breaking traditions and being you. It’s about being yourself and being your culture after,” pointing to the uniqueness of each individual despite their cultural background.

Pulling on the walls involves a disposition to see the box for its content, not the label. Orellana, Rogers, and Davidson all mentioned that their integration with the international student community at Trent required an open mind and a willingness to learn from other cultures and to share their own.

Looking beyond the boxes and allowing their contents to spill and mingle is important in many aspects. Jessica Rogers stated: “if you haven’t mixed and mingled with everyone else and looked at things from different points of view, it will be hard for you to adjust in any field.” Cross-cultural interaction broadens perspectives and enhances our understanding of the world.

Mauricio Orellana commented that by interacting with people from other areas of the world he “learned to interact in a certain way, a respectful way” and that “it [cross cultural interaction] always makes you a better person; you are not trapped in a bubble.”

In addition, Katherine Davidson spoke on how her integration with the international student community and her experiences with TISA Choir have affected her: “I really do feel like I’ve internalized a lot of international values. It also makes me want to explore more; go travel the world and meet new people, eat new foods, go travel and sight-see.”

Opening these boxes— and letting them stay open— is crucial to understanding the complexities and differences that exist in the world, and through those differences understanding that we are also very alike. Jessica Rogers stated “One thing I do know is that we all have certain things in common.”

Taping up boxes and pasting labels on them based on their contents has been our specialty, but it is time we started reopening them. Unless we want our era to be remembered as “the box age”.