Value Diversity

Who decides where one country begins and another ends? I remember crossing the border into America as a young girl, excited to see the big white archway. But I was disappointed when I realized that the clouds in the sky and the trees by the road were exactly the same. To this day my family jokes about “American clouds” when we cross the border.

We’re often most comfortable with people who are most like us, and tease those who are not, for whatever reason. I moved from Richmond to Surrey as a child and that was quite an upheaval. Imagine moving across the world. Some of you reading this likely did just that.

So when I read the following post today, by my friend’s sister, it reminded me about inclusion, diversity, and the universal language of music, which I am privileged to teach.

In solidarity against the xenophobia sweeping the world, I would like to share my experience of coming to Canada some 3 decades ago. A month after turning 10, I had to abandon my home, my school and my friends in Istanbul to restart my life as an immigrant in a place I knew nothing of. Taking along only the necessities, my parents, sister and I got on the plane and said goodbye to the only land we knew from birth.

When we landed in Vancouver, I was confronted with a foreign language I didn’t understand and a whole new school system I was not familiar with. The Armenian and Turkish I spoke no longer served me and I had to crawl with a new language in order to talk. I remember the first days of school like a haze, in the yard, holding my sister’s hand at recess, being called turkeys by our schoolmates. I came home crying, recounting the cruelty of the kids, laughing and making “gobble gobble” sounds at us. It was crazy because a) we had no turkeys in Turkey and I had never seen or eaten one until I got to Canada, b) because turkeys were called Hindi’s (meaning Indian) in Turkish.

My sister and I changed schools and enrolled in one with an ESL program. With all the different nationalities of kids, our classroom was the United Nations. Coming from a monoculture, multiculturalism was, at first, a strange concept to grasp. During the course of the year, everyone had a unique story to tell and I came to appreciate my friends sharing themselves through their foods, music, costumes and dances. My girlfriends were Korean, Indian, Danish and we hung out with the boys from Holland, Taiwan, Poland and Hong Kong. We all got along famously.

At the end of the year, I was happy to be able to finally speak English. But integrating back into the regular school the next year, I became a visible minority because of my pronounced accent among the natives. I was the foreigner and the nerd with the strange habits. Later on, the foreign label would be replaced by artsy. How I longed back then to disintegrate into the wallpaper of the class and blend myself into the norm. I kept my arms folded when not writing down something as a sign of respect to the teacher and never addressed my elders unless I was spoken to; these were things I carried on from my former schooling but realized soon that in order to fit in, there were unspoken rules to adhere to. I learned that in order to make friends, you don’t bring tongue sandwiches to school or blurt out that you love math and grammar. But I also didn’t want to change the way I saw and did things.

Lucky for me that my parents signed me up for choir when I was 11 and my joy for life returned. The language of music we all spoke broke down the barriers and brought us together in song. Harmonizing our voices became the focus and it did not matter whether we were black or white, Chinese or Estonian, Muslim or Hindu, straight or gay, girl or boy. Our voices were expressing the same accord of emotion, singing the same message, breathing the same breath; whether it was a Latin mass or a German Protestant hymn, a Hebrew song, or a Japanese folk song, we were there to make music together and recreate beauty.

My whole life I have lived as a minority, whether as a Christian in a Muslim country, or an Armenian growing up in British Columbia or an ethnic Anglophone working in Quebec. My identity does not limit me and is rich as a result of living alongside all the different cultures. With a career in music, I’ve had the privilege to travel to amazing places, work with people of different nationalities and speak many tongues. I’ve experienced, without prejudice, different customs and languages, realizing that even within a single culture there exist so many exceptions.

I have felt Canadian precisely because I fit the group that, without having to exact a definition or a label, embraces tolerance and respect towards the other. Trouble starts when people isolate one another through those labels, form elite groups and refuse to learn from each other. But we don’t have to be scared of losing our roots while growing wings. Humans are unique in form but made of the same clay. We all quest after the answers to the big questions and manoeuvre through the daily struggles, regardless of religion or the lack there of; all of us experience joy and suffering regardless of the colour of our skin.

While there are those who, motivated by fear, hatred and greed, create real walls and borders between people, the exclusive and invisible barriers we create in our minds inflict the worst scars. All of us earthlings, we are in the same boat for better or for worse and I hope one day, instead of building walls, we’ll manage to bridge our gaps with tolerance and understanding and embrace the one big family we call the human race.

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