Cultural differences should be approached with caution

Odi Opole, Web Editor

“Do your grandparents live in a hut?”

“Do you, like, speak another language?”

“Do people carry spears around a lot?”

My full name is Odindo Opole.

I am from Kenya, a country the size of Kansas on the east coast of Africa.

My parents speak five languages: Swahili, Luya, Luo, Kikuyu and English.

I just kind of pick out words here and there and eject an occasional “What was that?”

My paternal grandparents live in Nyakach, near Lake Victoria, a traditional home of the Luo people.

When I talk to my grandma, I say “Owimore Aheenya,” in reply to “Owimore,” both of which mean “Good morning.”

Then my dad kind of takes over the interpreting.

For me, my heritage is nothing to be ashamed of.

I love being unique; even the shortened version of my name is pretty awesome.

But that doesn’t mean questions like those won’t stop me from telling you who I am.

It doesn’t mean I won’t hesitate for a second when someone asks what origin my name is, what my parents do or whether I ever go back home to visit.

Hearing someone say “I built a church there,” every time you mention your homeland gets very old. Very fast.

Seriously, there are tons of churches in the world.

I do not assume that you all built the same one — besides, do you really want to start on religion three seconds into the conversation?

Questions like these are examples of cultural ignorance, something I find increasingly common — on both sides of the spectrum.

If you’re American, you might be the one asking about spears, or blindly saying “I built a church there,” without thinking.

Or, if you’re a recent immigrant, you might think American streets are paved with gold, and teens all have parents who are AWOL all the time (thanks, Disney).

We all have some work to do.

It’s okay to be curious. As a matter of fact, it’s great to be curious.

Just exercise caution, especially when we have some of the best teachers at our disposal, our fellow students.

There’s the obvious part: the question.

If you’re asking about a sensitive topic, word your question carefully.

Despite my sarcasm, culturally ignorant questions can be hurtful.

There is a right and wrong way to talk to a person of a different heritage, and I’ve heard the wrong way far too often.

The wrong way to ask about religion in a foreign country is to say, “Do you have Christians there?”

If we don’t, we certainly won’t want to anymore.

A better way to ask is, “So, is Christianity a dominant religion?” That way, you sound curious, you don’t offend anyone and you get your question answered.

It doesn’t have to be deliberate.

Most of the time, it isn’t. But if you’re not careful about how you word a question, you can give the wrong impression.

Now, on to the more subtle part: the answer.

When someone takes the time to share their culture with you, listen.

You don’t have to take notes or remember every single detail — just make sure you understand the point being made, and do your best to remember it next time.

If you’re asking a Jewish student about a Yarmulke, pay attention to what they tell you.

If you’re asking a Muslim student about Ramadan, remember his or her main points: this is how it’s celebrated, and this is why it is done that way.

If you’re asking me about huts in Africa and I start telling you about the city of Nairobi, the new traffic lights going up all over town or the brand-spanking-new highway system, try to retain the main point: Africa is not just huts.

Be curious.

Learn those quirky things, and explain exactly how present and involved American parents really are.

Make sure curiosity and courtesy go hand in hand — it’ll make conversations so much more pleasant.