Cross-cultural empathy here and now

A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune tells about a brilliant idea that promotes¬†understanding between cultures. And not only that, it’s easy and cheap. Rather than sending teenagers abroad to live with a host family and learn about that culture, it sends them across town for a week.

The program is called City Stay. Minneapolis and St. Paul, like all big cities in the U.S., have a substantial population of immigrants. Specifically, Somali, Hmong and Latin American. This program allows Twin Cities high schoolers to spend a week living with a family from another culture, and it only costs $250 per student. And the student doesn’t have to travel far away. As Julie Knopp, the founder of City Stay, says, “The point is to build relationships across the dividing lines of Twin Cities communities. When a student builds a relationship with a host family, that connection has a ripple.”

What an inspired way to increase empathy between people of different cultures. Both the students and the host families learn about each other, as they prepare food and eat together, play games together, and talk together about their lives and experiences. They learn that they are not so different, just because they may eat some different foods or have different family traditions. And they learn about what their life experiences have been like, including being a refugee in some cases. One family matriarch told her teenage guest about being a refugee from Laos in 1980. “I never heard a story like that,” said the student. And the Hmong grandmother responded, “She see people who look like me, and now she understand.”

The article described the experience of two 14-year-olds who stayed with a Hmong family for a week. “In just a couple of days, Rose and Shaffer visited Hmong markets and tried foods they’d never had, such as spicy noodles and dragonfruit. They learned a few Hmong phrases, such as ‘Let’s eat.’ They also attended a Hmong funeral, watched Hmong bullfighting movies and rap videos, and helped their host family’s young daughter with her math homework.”


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