I have just watched 20 kids return to their home countries after spending a year in Alaska with AFS Intercultural Programs, just as I spent a year in Germany all those years ago. It’s so much fun to see how they’ve changed and grown. At their arrival orientation many expressed dismay at some of the differences between their host country (the USA) and their homelands (15 different countries) and expressed this by saying “they do X wrong”. For example, many of them find the North American habit of keeping dogs as indoor pets strange because many places in the world people don’t do that and they will say “It’s wrong that people here keep dogs inside the house. It’s so gross!”. Now that they are leaving they don’t even think twice about it, some have even expressed regret that they will not be able to have a dog sleep by their bed when they get back to their home country. They have learned that different ways of doing things are not necessarily wrong, it’s just different and every place has different but equally valid ways of accomplishing similar tasks. I find this a critical lesson in an increasingly globalized world and it is, I think, the key to finding solutions to conflicts that arise so frequently because everyone thinks they are in the right and the other side is in the wrong.
I have a clock in my bathroom that symbolizes this for me. It was a gift from a politician from the year I was an exchange student in Germany my 11th grade year in school. This clock is both a reminder of a life changing experience in my life and of the most important lesson I learned while on exchange: that differences can be enriching, can widen the mind, and that the way we are used to doing things is not necessarily the “right” way. Why? Because it runs the other way around. Did you know that clockwise did not always mean turning to the right or east? Before clocks were standardized, the clocks in Bavaria (Germany) went the other way around and the numbers ran the opposite of what we are used to. My clock is just such a clock. Don’t tell the Bavarians that it runs backwards, it just runs a different way. Having this clock reminds me too, that sometimes it is good to look at things from a different direction, to stretch ourselves in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to us, to get off the well beaten path.