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Growing Up in a Multi-Cultural Learning Environment

Intrigued by India

My friends from the West are often intrigued by India – in an inspiring as well as resisting way. They find this land exotic, eclectic, even outlandish. I can see why. For, even though I'm an Indian myself, as I'm discovering more and more of my country by traveling far and wide and to the remote corners, a sense of wonder sweeps over me. The very same multi-cultural, multi-faith and multi-caste dimensions that have often caused this vast country to be shaken up internally, are also the reasons why India paints such a stimulating and exquisite picture of cultural diversity and versatility in art forms, music, languages, cuisine, architecture, handicraft, textiles and attire. Infact, the country is what it is because of the multiple cultures and faiths that have thrived and co-existed for centuries. Every single grain of this country is born of and nurtured by its cultural melting pot.

Talk about 'Conversation Starters'

In India, we have no dearth of conversation starters. On the contrary, you can breakthe ice with a rank stranger with a – "O, I like your Saree! Is this the Rajasthani Tie and Dye or the Gujarati" or, "Ah, I love your Kolhapuri chappals", and yet more – "O, your wedding rituals take place early in the morning? Ours are at mignight". Gosh! One can go on exchanging nuggets of cultural wisdom in an unconscious, almost breezy way!

My multi-cultural family

My family is as much a cultural medley! While, I am from Rajasthan(West) and speak Rajasthani and Hindi as my mother tongue; the hubby is from Karnataka; Kannada is his mother tongue! Pari is fluent with Hindi and English and understands Kannada and Rajasthani. I, too, have learnt a smattering of Kannada to feel at home when we visit my in-laws in Sagara (near Bangalore). I love the South Indian delicacies, which has inspired me to learn quite a few lip smacking South Indian recipes from my mother-in law besides the Rajasthani recipes from my mom – both are world-class cooks! And, I do believe that a well-fed hubby makes for a good lover, a caring father and a patient listener! Beyond us, my sis-in-law (my younger brother's wife) is a Punjabi and she brings with her the flavours of quintessential Punjabi Chhole (Chick Peas) and Rajma (black beans).

The Urban Indian Household

Many urban Indian families these days bear a similar multi-cultural, even multi-ethnic look with more and more youth marrying inter-caste and even inter-religion (a big taboo here, otherwise). Globally, the distance remains the same, but the proximity is increasing with the number of immigrant population on the rise and with the internet enabling us to peek into and learn more about each others' ways of life.

What are the Schools doing?

Considering how multi-cultural interaction can enrich, I, as a parent to a 5.5 year old, don't see our schools really doing much to encourage a multi-cultural learning environment. At least, not much here in India. Ha! What an irony. Really! Isn't that shocking and a huge set-back considering India is the flag bearer of a multi-faith society? In Pari's class, there are children from the North East of India, from the Southern states, from East, from families following the Islam and Sikh and Jain religioius faiths. But, besides just declaring a holiday on an Id-ul-Fitr or a Buddha Jayanti or a Guru Nanak Day and besides celebrating some popular festivals like Diwali, Christmas, Holi or Janmaasthami, the schools haven't taken any positive step further. Probably, they don't even realise that given the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic backgrounds their studens come from, there is a need or may be just an opportunity to make the students learn about the faith and culture of their fellow class mates. 

What do those holidays mean anyway?

I don't see any relevance of a holiday on Id-ul-fitr for a child who has not the slightest idea how his Muslim friend celebrates that day. And, it goes for any other holiday – be it Diwali, Holi or Easter. 

A multi-cultural learning environment is beneficial in every aspect that I can think of. 

  1. It is an opportunity to learn about people, culture, countries, festivals – which is a fascinating subject in itself
  2. The subject is such that it lends itself very well to interactive, project-based study rather than just textbook-centric. There can be story-telling through puppetry, dance and drama and folk music; children can exchange recipes and songs; learn to greet in each other's language etc.
  3. A cultural exchange and reinforcement such as this will help in preserving our myriad languages, art-forms, folk culture and traditions
  4. Last but very crucial – it will make our children more sensitive, tolerant and appreciative of culture and languages and faiths other than their own, helping in a more peace-loving society.

The Global Viewpoint

I recently read an article in which a US-based author expressed her views against those liberals who frown upon the concept of a multi-cultural education. She says that, in a country where there are multi-ethnic groups due to a vast immigrant population, segregating the schools on the basis of culture and religion is as bad as propagating a "liberal-only" public school education. It will erode our society of the richness, of culture, languages and traditions. She says – it's a pity to see the children of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrant parents not being able to interact with their grandparents because they cannot speak their language. They have lost touch with their parental culture.

In another article, another U.S.-based author writes with concern that the children of immigrant societies in the U.S. and elsewhere suffer from an identity crisis as they often don't even want to talk about the culture/ethnicity they belong to for fear of not fitting in. Often times, they carry an inherent complex about their native country and may even lie where they come from. This is the result of a lack of multi-cultural learning and sharing environment at schools. 

The partners in crime…

In India, television has done more damage that any other medium. Children's content on the small screen is replete only with animated movies on Hindu Gods and Goddesses like Ganesha and Hanuman and Krishna besides borrowed content like High School Musical that don't really portray a realistic picture. There's a shameless absence of any programme whatsoever pertaining to any other faith. Why? Because, the majority of population is Hindu and the TV producers will gain more eye balls and hence more revenue by such content as compared to, let's say, about the life and times of Jesus or the Prophet or Guru Nanak? What a disgrace. The popular Indian cinema, which has an astonishing reach, hasn't done much either. Apart from the handful of movies that have restored taste and sensibility back to Hindi cinema in the past few years, most continue to showcase the 'Bhangra' and the big fat Indian wedding jamboree as if this is what India is all about!

No, it's not just about 'Scriptures' and 'Granthas'…

Going back to what I was saying about the lack of multi-cultural sharing in Indian schools – when I  say introducing the child/class to the diversity of culture and faith, I do mean it's done in an age-appropriate way. I don't think introducing the scriptures from a Bible or the 'Granthas' from a Hindu epic to a 5-year old is a good idea. There are many age-appropriate ways to familiarize the child with the cultural diversity of her/his class of 20 or 30 or 40 with whom the child spends 6 hours (sometimes even more) with. 

Practical Ways for Multi-cultural Learning Environement

In my experience of introducing cultures of the world to in our home to Pari, these are some of the things that I have found very helpful and fun-filled for a 5-year old.Most are relevant for both parents and schools.

  1. Storytelling – reading from books, enacting the stories. Pari loves being read out to from books such as '101 Buddha stories', The Children's Bible, Ganesha, Sai Baba. 
  2. Visiting a place of worship: Now, some may have reservations about this. So, using one's own discretion is best. In our family, we love visiting church and Dargah and Gurudwara, Synagogue as much as a Hindu temple.

    Recently we visited a 200-year old churh in Mysore; offered a prayer by lighting candles and saw pictures and read out from the many paintings displayed on the walls. 

    We even watched a Christian wedding ceremony being performed in the Church. 

    Last year, we visited the tomb (Dargah) of 'Chisti Baba' (Shaikh Salim Chisti) at Fatehpur Sikri (near Agra) where we offered prayer and wished a mannat (wish). I also shared some stories from the life of Chisti Baba. It was 6 years back that my hubby and I became ardent followers of this Sufi saint who is revered by people from world over.

    When in Coorg recently, we visted a monastery (a Buddhist temple), which was a mesmerizing and blissful experience for us all. 

  3. As part of our artful activities at home, we do crafts to celebrate not just our own festivals – like Holi or Diwali, but also festivals from around the world – like Christmas or Easter or Halloween.
  4. We visit museums and forts and palces and discuss about the related history – of India or other countries. When visiting the 'Rangmahal Art Museum' in Mysore, she couldn't help admiring the paintings from the British era in India; got a glimpse of how life was in medieval France or Egypt. 

    A visit to the Wax museum of Musicians in Mysore, gave us an idea about the musical instruments from different cultures.

Oh, the options and possibilities are boundless.

And they don't have to be heavy-weight information load on the child. They just need to be links and nuggets that help them connect with the world around them and help them admire and appreciate the diversity that they live in. For, it's the diversity that makes the world so interesting as well as challenging. 

Being open to absorbing…

If South Africa wasn't any different from India, I wouldn't have cared to save and shell out big time to make my dream of visiting this country true. A country so rich in art, nature, culture, languages and landscape and ever so fun and colourful due to the people who inhabit the land. And, when there, if I don't prefer mingling with the people, tasting their food, taking interest in their history, or attempting to learn a word or two in their language, I might as well stay put in my home and be content with my curry (sabzi)!

And, if the schools fail to realize their role as propagators of cultural exchange, among other things, the day isn't far away when more parents will prefer to home-school their children. I, for one, have been thinking hard about it..

Some stimulating and interesting reads on traditions, diversity and more from my favourite blogs:


Dear readers, I would LOVE to hear your thoughts and views on this topic – of multi-cultural learning for our children. Please share freely and enrich this article.

Update on July 3, 2011

In the comments, below, my blogger friend Melissa @ The Imagination soup shared a link to her post on a similar subject.
She writes about her shock and agony and how she handled the situation when her little girl comes back home from school singing a song with racist undertones. The words in the song make fun of Chinese eyes. You can read the article here. 
I really admire Melissa's sensitive, compassionate and mature parenting.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • senthil July 2, 2011, 2:05 pm

    I dont get your logic.. are you saying, that people in tamilnadu hate people in assam, because they did not study with assamese people?

    the essence of multi-cultural india is in allowing every culture undisturbed, and free from disturbance.. a culture can exist only within a community.. and hence its essential people study within their co-cultural groups, so that they get a chance to live their cultural life..
    In multi-cultural environments, this is not possible..

    What will be the culture of your student, after studying in multi-cultural environment? It will be vague and void..

    Its enough if people know about each other..

    • Rashmie Jaaju July 2, 2011, 2:21 pm

      Welcome to Mommy Labs!
      You begin by saying what I never said. It’s you who are interpreting absolutely out of context! I never said or suggested “people in tamilnadu hate people in assam, because they did not study with assamese people”.
      All I’m saying is – in a multi-cultural India, the likelihood of a multi-cultural class room setting is very high. Hence, isn’t it a great opportunity for children to learn about each other’s culture by different ways of interaction.
      How much ever YOU may prefer your child to study in his/her co-culture, the world is getting more and more diverse with people leaving their states and countries to seek opportunities in other states and geographies. Even a second tier city like Jaipur or Hyderabad that used to have uniformity in culture are becoming more multi-cultural because people from other states have made these cities their homelands.
      And then, there are cities like Mumbai and Delhi and Bangalore that have always been multi-cultural.
      Besides, I’m not talking just about India, countries like US and UK where immigrant population is so high, one cannot segregate the schools on the basis of culture. There is bound to be a ‘mixed’ class anywhere, anytime. And, I haven’t come across many people who have issues with that. You may have reservation about multi-culture learning and you are entitled to your views. God bless you.
      The culture of my daughter who studies in a class of kids coming from multi cultures will NOT be “vague and void” as you think. I think she will grow up to be a global student who can appreciate, admire other cultures and faith and take the best from all.

  • Melissa Taylor July 3, 2011, 1:57 am

    Wow, this was an amazing, in-depth post which I totally appreciated. Thank you.

    Even when we lived in the city (we’re now in the suburbs) our neighborhoods were not culturally diverse. So, we must be intentional I’ve learned. One year we watched a classmate’s Indian dances at a multi-cultural festival which was a great introduction to her culture. We are fortunate to have friends who are from different countries who we see regularly – Singapore, and Ethiopia. My girls godmother speaks Swedish or Spanish to my kids and she always brings wonderful books and treasures from her travels all over the world, and teaches us about where she’s been. All that helps make my children aware that they are not the center of the universe as most kids generally think just because they are kids.

    I feel I still need to do more and be more intentional about knowing people of other cultures and faiths. I wrote about my struggles with incorporating multi-culturalness in our daily lives here after my daughter came home from school singing a song that made fun of Chinese eyes —

  • Rashmie Jaaju July 3, 2011, 11:09 am

    You are so right – even though we may be living in cities, still we may not necessarily live in a culturally diverse neighbourhood. But, a school really enjoys a unique position in this regard in the sense that the students often come from diverse cultural backgrounds.
    This is the reason, I have emphasized in the article above, what a unique role the schools can play by having the children exchange cultural tid bits.
    I’m not even suggesting that it be an exclusive subject for the schools or they must devote exclusive time to this. Very simply – an exchange of stories, music, dramatics and even simpler – dedicating a few minutes to discuss about a festival/tradition before or after the school has a holiday for a specific festival will go a long way.

    The post that you have shared about that innocent hand clapping racist song and the discussion and comments that followed were so meaningful and thoughtful. I really admire your intentional, conscious parenting and your efforts to raise a compassionate child is praise worthy.
    Infact, that post is so valuable in the context of my article that I will add its link above for people to do any more related reading.

  • Phyllis at All Things Beautiful July 3, 2011, 1:14 pm

    I believe that understanding only comes through knowledge. This is one of my beliefs that I carry to our homeschool.

    • Rashmie Jaaju July 4, 2011, 3:25 am

      Great thought. Thanks for sharing.

  • Aravinda July 4, 2011, 1:00 pm

    Apart from storytelling and travel, there are important ways that the classroom experience, and the textbooks, can reflect the multicultural environment of the country, as well as our aspirations to gender equality.

    NCERT textbooks reflect India’s diversity better than any of the other textbooks I have surveyed in India. The illustrations, children’s names, drawings and activities show girls and boys from different regions, cultures, and urban / rural (and even adivasi) settings.

    In contrast, in many other books you will find glaring stereotypes of gender, colour and very little attention to rural life. Even in books published for rural schools I have seen that, for example, the kitchen looks nothing like a rural kitchen. The skin of all the people is almost white or very light pink or tan, unless, for example a story features a daku or some other suspicious character, typically drawn in darker brown. And the majority of the people given in the examples will be male. When girls and women appear they are often performing household chores, rarely playing ball or even catching a bus. Why?

    Some people will say, “well they did not mean to show one gender, or one caste, or one community more than any other. It was not conscious.” Why does it then come so naturally, without making any conscious effort to show the sun-deprived urban male as the default character, and women / dark skin / rural person only when seeking to depict something about such people?

    To recognize the diversity among and within cultures, the efforts of individuals to overcome bias and stereotypes, to be simple humans by default is something that our multicultural environments give us potential to do. I can see this effort in the NCERT books such as Rhimjim, Aas-Paas, Mathmagic, Looking Around. (example – http://www.books4u.in/books/ncert-textbook-in-hindi-for-class-4-environmental-studies–aas-paas-1913)

  • Jayadeep Purushothaman July 5, 2011, 3:56 am

    May be you shouldn’t stop at just our country, it needs to be extended to the world. And I am not so sure if you want to create the environment explicitly for this. What you really need is to nurture openness and curiosity in our schooling that will enable the children to learn or adapt(if needed) to any kind of culture. But schools tend to put a lot a restrictions and tend to teach one-right-way, kids lose their openness and curiosity. For example, many Indians who are vegetarians find it very offensive when people in other countries eat meat(especially beef). And even many non-vegetarians find it odd to see that Koreans eat dog meat. They are unable to come to terms with the fact that there are people on this planet earth who does things differently from us. While I have not been schooled in a multi-cultural-ethnic one, I have had no problems with any place in the world I have visited. In fact my education in an school that was poor in academics and high in political activity which seems to me like perfect education now. Also our family’s openness to eat anything and everything also helps me adapt to any environment.

    So I wouldn’t worry too much about multi-cultural or ethnic education, my take here is that if the education is able to help children keep their curiosity and openness to new ideas and things, they will always be curious to learn and adapt to various culture and their practices.

  • karen July 6, 2011, 3:20 am

    I did not know any of this about India. Thank you for sharing. I too think diversity is important to experience and teach. If I could I would visit many countries myself! Thanks for linking to WorkShop Wednesday! Hope to see you this week!

  • shalini August 9, 2011, 10:03 am

    As an academician, I personally feel that it is wonderful to be able to provide children with global schools and global thinking. We do not have any idea what new will unfold in two years from now… forget 10 years hence. As many revered educationists and psychologists have always suggested that global education is the key to inner knowledge. The more you know of the world, the more you are at peace with your own self :)

    • Rashmie Jaaju August 11, 2011, 8:51 am

      Dear Shalini,
      Thank you for sharing such meaningful insight about global education. I so agree with what you have said.
      We need more and more teachers and academicians like you. :)

  • Gina from www.willowday.com January 30, 2012, 5:47 pm

    Dear Rashmie, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and for connecting me with your site.
    Yes, the balloon ice is absolutely exquisite; I hope that , instead, you can return to my site just enjoy the photos (and spread the word!) and/or inspiration until we do find something for you! An icy project that can be done in warm climates: “frozen treasure hunts?” I posted it yesterday and it is fun to do in warm climates!
    I now, can’t wait, to look through your fascinating site! It’s so very interesting! I look forward to future visits.
    Best/Gina at http://www.willlowday.com

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